Wally Backman is officially five feet nine inches tall. Roughly five-foot-six of him is composed of jangling nerves. He taps his feet nonstop; he spins the plastic cap of a Sharpie; he gulps from a large cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. It’s early on a Coney Island Sunday morning, and Backman is here to sign autographs and help sell tickets, but he appears ready to run through a wall. His barely contained energy isn’t alarming so much as endearing. Backman is the new manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones; the season doesn’t start until June 18, and he wants so bad to be out on that baseball field that you’re ready to round up everyone in sight on Surf Avenue, lace up a pair of spikes, and charge into battle behind him.
“I like guys playing hard,” he says, his blue-green eyes flickering. “I like runners taking people out at second base—and I was a second-baseman. I don’t care if it’s your brother on the other team, you’re not trying to hurt anybody, but you’re out there to win—at all costs.”
Backman knows plenty about playing hard and even more about costs. Passion, more than physical gifts, propelled him to the big leagues. Backman was never one of the cool Mets—while Keith Hernandez was hanging out at Elaine’s after games, Backman was sleeping in a trailer park in New Jersey. He hit a career-high .320 for the 1986 champs, but his true value was his grit.
The mid-eighties Mets are also remembered for producing a tabloid bonanza of tawdry escapades involving drugs, guns, and women. Backman saved the weirdness for after his playing career. He was bitten on the forehead by a poisonous spider in 1998 and nearly died. In 2004, after winning awards as a minor-league manager, Backman was hired to lead the Arizona Diamondbacks—then fired four days later after a flurry of embarrassing stories detailed his arrests for DUI and domestic violence plus a descent into bankruptcy. His 2007 comeback, as manager of the independent-league South Georgia Peanuts, included an episode where Backman was ejected from a game and threw 22 bats onto the field—then climbed into the press box to confront the opposing team’s radio announcer. “I’ve learned a couple of bad days in a person’s life can end somebody’s career,” he says, grimacing and exhaling Marlboro smoke. “People say I need to dial it down—a lot of people say that. Go ask Aaron Rowand, Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin, Dan Uggla”—all excellent big leaguers whom Backman tutored in the minors. “Go ask those players and they’ll tell you who I am. I learned a lot of things off the field, but on the field, I’m the same person that I was when I got the Diamondback job. I’m gonna get thrown out of a lot more games. But it’s to protect my players.”
What makes you want to protect Backman is that he’s much more than simply a hothead. From his snaggle of crooked front teeth to his stream of chatter about proper bunting technique, it’s abundantly clear he cares only about playing the game the right way. With the Cyclones, Backman will be educating a roster of teenagers and raw talents. But the stakes are plenty high for him too: He’s 50 years old and perilously close to his last chance in baseball, while on WFAN, Mets fans are braying for him to replace Jerry Manuel at Citi Field. “Hey, people are gonna say a lot of things,” Backman says with a shrug. He takes another long pull on his cigarette. “I’m here now for people to evaluate me again. It feels like I’ve come home.”