Wally Backman has seen every level of professional baseball, from rookie to independent ball.
A first-round draft pick by the New York Mets in 1977, Backman worked his way through the minor leagues before debuting with the Mets in 1980.
He had a successful 14-year career in which he hit .275 and won one World Series with the infamous 1986 Mets.
Now, Backman is the manager of the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s, working his way back to the majors after he lost his chance with the Arizona Diamondbacks in a controversial period 10 years ago that saw him hired and fired within a week.
Backman recently sat down with The Oklahoman and talked about his career, influences and managing philosophy.
I grew up in Oregon, so baseball was something that you weren’t able to play like you played in California all the time. A lot of the games were limited back then at that time. But it was something we did every day as a kid growing up. We didn’t have the Nintendos and that type of stuff, so our extra activity was always outside playing baseball.
Going through the minors, I was the No. 1 pick at 17 years old so I started my career in the New York-Penn League, and as I went through each stage and level of the minor leagues — some guys say there’s a big difference — but it never really affected me that much.
I remember Joe Torre was my manager in 1980. I went up and was 20 years old. I met the team in Los Angeles and Dodgers Stadium had 55,000 people when I played that first day I got there. Playing in front of guys I had seen as I grown up, I was in a pretty big awe.
I had never been in a major league stadium up until that point, so to walk in there and see Dodger Stadium packed the way it was overwhelming.
I know that the first pitch that was thrown to me was from Burt Hooton and threw it right down the middle, I couldn’t swing at it. After that, it cleared my head a little bit and I got a base hit my first time up.
I think what stands out the most (about the ’86 Mets) is everybody was so competitive. Winning was the utmost. Losing was unacceptable at the time. Of course, we had Davey Johnson and he basically felt the same way, instilled in a lot of the young players that losing was unacceptable. Even though you know you’re going to lose over the course of 162 games, we won 108 games that year.
I was watching (Game 6 of the World Series) on the bench. I was kinda in disbelief. I know that I had been sick, even though I was playing. The thing that ran through my mind was, “We just played the worst series that we’ve played all season long and we’re going to lose this thing.” When the play happens, life is just regenerated. You’re ready to try to go out there and do anything you can to win now.
I lockered next to Keith (Hernandez). He was an older veteran that had so much knowledge, that really was probably the biggest leader on the team between he and Gary Carter. We kept some of the older guys, as hard as Lenny (Dykstra) and I played, everybody played hard and everybody went out there expecting to win.
The one player of the game that I actually got to play against that had an influence about the way that I played the game was probably Pete Rose. Just the way that Pete played the game. He played the game hard, very aggressive. I think that was a similar style that I had.
It’s a little bit different now. I try to instill in the players today to try to take the game personal. As a manager, I’m trying to make sure that I’m trying to put players into position where they can succeed.
The Diamondbacks situation is so far gone now. The way things went down was wrong. That’s why I stayed in the game. I never pursued the contract that was put on the table to me. My love for the game is still there, my desire to win is still there and I just try to put that in my past.
It’s been a long journey, but I try to look at it as knowing that I’m qualified but what is my job at this particular point? That’s trying to send these guys to the big leagues. I take a lot of pride in telling Terry (Collins) in New York who I think is ready when he calls me.
As long as you play nine innings hard, you can look yourself in the mirror. You just can’t go through the motions. Those are little things I try to instill in the guys. You’ve got to finish the game, no matter what the score is. You’ve got to play hard, you can’t let yourself get shown up by the opposing team, it takes no ability to hustle to play the game hard. Every player can do that.
Like I say to the players: You look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day. And if you’ve done everything you can possibly do, do it again tomorrow.