BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Wally Backman stopped midsentence to reach for another cigarette.
“Hey, it’s only my third,” he said with a sheepish grin, failing to mention he had started 20 minutes ago. These weren’t those lightweight smokes, either: Backman prefers full-strength Marlboros when talking baseball. He is a human time machine back to the 1980s.
Backman, the former Mets infielder and minor-league manager, is currently managing the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League, which serves an experimental lab for Major League Baseball. It’s a strange, new world for Backman: the bases have been enlarged to prevent runners from stepping on fielders’ feet, mound visits from the dugout are prohibited and shifts will be outlawed — two defenders must be positioned on either side of second base. And sometime this summer the most radical change will introduce motion sensors to call balls and strikes.
The irony of an old-school warrior having a role in revolutionizing the game — or ruining it, depending on your viewpoint — is not lost on Backman. A 5-foot-9-inch cylinder of a man, he hardly looks the part of a modernist. Even with a 60th birthday around the corner, Backman still looks as if he could hold his own in an arm wrestling tournament.
“It’s like John McGraw dropped into the middle of our clubhouse,” said the Ducks pitching coach, Ed Lynch, referring to the legendary New York Giants manager whose genius — and temper — earned him 2,763 victories from 1899 through 1932, the second-most in major-league history.
Backman, of course, will never catch McGraw or possibly anyone else. At this point he would be happy just to manage a single major league game. But the industry has changed, and not just in its effort to speed up the action. The manager’s job description has changed: Communication skills have superseded strategic know-how. And as the Yankees’ hiring of Aaron Boone has proved, prior coaching experience is no longer a requirement.
Backman played for the Mets from 1980 through 1988, including the 1986 team that won the World Series.CreditRay Stubblebine/Associated Press
Despite the unfamiliar landscape, Backman hasn’t stopped trying. In fact, he believes he will be more qualified than ever after mastering the Atlantic League’s futuristic rules, which also include relievers having to face a minimum of three batters and a time limit of 1 minute 45 seconds between innings.
“I haven’t given up,” Backman said recently at the Ducks’ ballpark in Bethpage. “If I did, I wouldn’t be managing here or anywhere else. I’d just go home. There’s no question the game has changed — the rules, the way you talk to players. But I’m willing to accept those changes. I’m here for a reason.”
Those who have followed Backman’s history already know what has held him back. He lost a job with the Arizona Diamondbacks four days after being hired in 2004 when it was reported that he had been arrested over a domestic abuse episode with his wife and for drunken driving in 2001. He also filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
It was the Mets who at least partially opened the door for Backman’s return, entrusting him with multiple clubs in their farm system between 2010 and 2016. He led minor-league teams to three championships and won the Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year Award in 2014. Among the present-day Mets mentored by Backman are Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Michael Conforto.
In the dugout, Backman was known for his temper and intensity. His engine often overheated, especially during those profane, in-your-face arguments with umpires. But a failed relationship with then-General Manager Sandy Alderson ultimately killed Backman’s hopes of someday managing the Mets.
Backman says he still does not understand what caused the schism — “I never disrespected Sandy, we never had a problem” — but their cultural differences could not have been more stark. Backman was a chain smoker who cursed freely and never bothered with a filter during interviews. He was also an inner-circle member of the 1980s Mets teams that were notorious for their after-hours partying.
Alderson, now a special adviser with the Oakland A’s, was the portrait of a button-down executive, a Dartmouth- and Harvard-educated lawyer who served with the Marines in Vietnam. Alderson did not respond to an attempt to reach him for this article.
Backman left the Mets after the 2016 season, convinced Alderson was blocking his path to Flushing. Still, Backman persisted, spending a year in the Mexican League before landing with the New Britain Bees in the eight-team Atlantic League in 2018. Over the winter, Backman signed a three-year deal with the Ducks and now has a chance to shine with the area’s most popular independent team.
“This is our 20th season and we’ve led the league in attendance 14 times,” said Michael Pfaff, the team’s president and general manager. “We are the cream of the crop.”
Pfaff describes the Atlantic League as the home of “the 200 best players in the country who are not in the big leagues.” Rich Hill, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, briefly pitched for the Ducks in 2015 before getting signed by the Boston Red Sox, and Long Island’s current roster includes 19 former major leaguers — all looking for one more chance.
That includes their manager. Pfaff is assured that Backman is a changed man, and said he would gladly recommend him to any major league club asking for a referral.
“If you’re looking for someone who loves baseball and is passionate about the organization and winning, then you don’t need to look much further,” Pfaff said. “Wally is your guy.”
That support stretches into the clubhouse as well.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a guy who didn’t love playing for Wally,” said Ducks outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who played for Backman in the Mets’ Class AAA affiliate before spending four years with the major league club from 2012 through 2015.
“One thing you learn about Wally is that if you’re one of his guys, you’re his No. 1 priority. He wants you to succeed,” Nieuwenhuis added. “That goes a long way in a clubhouse where you spend every day over six months.”
That is Backman’s ultimate selling point to M.L.B.’s 30 general managers: he wins wherever he goes. And old school or not, he is still connecting with modern-day ballplayers. The fact that he is still well-connected to a network of scouts doesn’t hurt Backman’s standing among the Ducks.
Just two weeks ago the Mariners offered a Class AAA contract to the left-hander Jon Niese, one of the Ducks’ starting pitchers and himself a former Met. Cellphone pressed tightly to his ear, Backman spent most of the morning helping arrange the deal, finally congratulating Niese for crossing back over to the promised land.
“Now go get ’em, Jon,” Backman said as a smiling Niese headed to the clubhouse to pack his belongings.
“That’s what I’m here for. That’s what I love to do,” Backman added, nodding in Niese’s direction. “Jon can still throw. All he needed was a shot.”
The same could apply to Backman, the throwback currently auditioning for the new-age game. Asked if he’s ready to follow Niese to the Show, Backman’s eyebrows arched toward the sky, as if to say: Are you kidding?