Part of being a modern baseball fan is learning to be rational. Instead of instinctively praising grit and hustle and a dirty uniform, you look at the numbers behind the cloud of dust. Instead of automatically saluting or bemoaning a move on the field or in the dugout or in the front office, you try to understand it as part of an overall strategy and as a business decision.
I’ve tried this, with varying degrees of success.
But then you come to news that makes you want to throw all that out the window. News, for instance, that Wally Backman’s back in the Mets organization as the new manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones.
At the beginning of this decade, Backman was a much-heralded minor-league skipper for the Chicago White Sox — in fact, he was rumored as a replacement for Jerry Manuel when Manuel was fired in late 2003. (Cue the chatter!) That didn’t happen – instead, Backman moved to the Diamondbacks’ organization, worked his way up again, and was named the big club’s manager in November 2004. He held the job for four days of TV time, never collecting a dime from Arizona because no contract had been signed. Then, as quickly as he’d arrived, he was out.
The issue was his past, which Arizona claimed not have looked into. It turned out that Backman had a DUI in 2000, then pleaded guilty to a harassment charge stemming from a fight at his house with his wife and a friend of hers – a fight in which police reports said alcohol played a prominent role, and in which Backman was left was a broken forearm. That was three years beforehand, but the Diamondbacks still changed their minds. And since that day, there’d been no place for Wally Backman as a manager in professional ball. He took a job managing with the South Georgia Peanuts, a gig that was more reality TV than baseball reality, then another independent-league gig with the Joliet JackHammers, a team that sounds like a rival band from the Blues Brothers.
This sounds horribly unfair – particularly to those of us who remember Backman as pint-sized trouble in 1986, a little pest sprawling in the dirt somewhere after a drag bunt turned tumbling single or a trip home around, above or through some hapless enemy catcher.
But look deeper, and the certainty recedes. This 2005 Karl Taro Greenfeld profile of Backman  delves into what happened the night the police were called, and it’s unsettling. Hearing Backman’s version of the story, you want to believe him. You want to believe that he didn’t realize he was on probation for his DUI, that his admission of alcoholism was nothing more than a legal strategy, that the gash on his wife’s friend face inflicted with a baseball bat was actually a pinprick that barely drew blood. You want to believe his wife that the incident has been overblown, and that her friend is telling the truth when she says it was her fault.
You want to believe it all, because it’s Wally Backman. But you can’t help thinking that if it weren’t an ’86 Met, you’d look at all the dots the Backmans say don’t connect and conclude that of course they do, as they do in so many other grindingly depressing stories.
It feels disloyal to think this. But loyalty isn’t always our friend. It can blind us to the simplest explanation.
I’ve never met Wally Backman. (OK, he did step on my foot in 1985 or 1986, in full uniform and cleats, as he and I were hurriedly departing Al Lang Field by adjacent exits. I was surprised to note he was about my size. Anyway, it doesn’t count.) Having never met him, I’m reluctant to put him on a virtual couch and analyze his psyche.
But it does seem safe to say that many a hell-for-leather athlete has had trouble adapting to a post-athletic life in which there’s nothing much to win and insufficient outlets for a ferocious drive to compete. We envy ballplayers their youth and superhuman abilities and gargantuan salaries, but we sometimes forget there is a part of that bargain that we’d rather avoid.
The arc of our lives is constructed around finding what we’re good at and what our mission in life is, with those of us who are lucky finding an answer before we’re too old to enjoy fulfilling that purpose. Ballplayers are different. They are selected for their purpose absurdly early and often cocooned off from normal lives and normal expectations after that. The lucky ones become rich and famous and never lack for attention – until their superhuman skills fade, the bright lights are shut off, and the crowd surges elsewhere. They are old ballplayers but still young men – young men suddenly left to lead lives without competition, attention or structure. The lucky ones will somehow find a second mission in life. But many won’t be so lucky. They’ll just get lost, living for what’s left of the money they once made and the attention they once commanded. The sadness of Wally Backman’s story so far, if we are to believe his account of unfortunate events, is that he escaped that trap and then was flung back into it.
But there is something else we should consider. The Mets – so often comically gun-shy about the mere possibility of bad PR – ran a thorough background check on Backman and pronounced him fit to manage. There have been, as far as anybody knows, no worrisome incidents since 2001 – a long eight years past by now. That has to count for something too, right? We can’t in good conscience ignore the murky doings of what happened in 2000 and 2001, but we also can’t in fairness ignore the quiet since then.
The Mets’ introduction of Backman as the Cyclones’ skipper was a bit schizoid: Omar Minaya and Jeff Wilpon were nowhere in evidence, with Dave Howard making the ritual pronouncements, which in this case included a clause in Backman’s contract allowing for his dismissal for any off-field troubles. (That wasn’t the saddest thing for me, though – rather, it was Backman explaining that he finally called Jeff Wilpon because “I didn’t really know who else to call.”)
But that wasn’t unexpected. What matters – for now – is that Wally Backman has his chance again. He can work his way back up the ladder, developing players in his image, and dream again of modeling a big-league jersey that says BACKMAN 6, and will be his to keep this time.
I’m excited to see him out at Keyspan Park and cheer for him, and hope one day to speculate about his strategic tendencies and how he’d fit at Citi Field. It’s a redemptive story, and a nice one. But along with that, fairly or not, comes a shadow – and the fervent hope that this story doesn’t become more complicated again.