by Michael Jawitz, AKA: Grubby Glove
Wally Backman. It was the summer of 1986 and the New York Mets were flying high, enjoying a lusty .750 winning percentage and living large. Everyone was happy. Life was good, and the team was coming to my town. Might I try for a brief conversation with a ball player, or perhaps an autograph or two? I decided to do so. So on Sunday, August 25, 1986, one of my baseball cronies and I ventured downtown to San Francisco’s Union Square and stepped into the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel, there to wait for some of our New York Mets heroes. Slowly they appeared to join the orange and blue scrum of eager fans, each and every one jockeying for position in an attempt to engage his or her favorite. It was getaway day, and the players were stopping in the lobby to pay the charges for their incidentals at the front desk. They were all signing.
My friend approached Ray Knight, the third baseman who had been interviewed on the Giants post-game radio after Friday night’s game. The veteran player, destined to become the Most Valuable Player of that fall’s World Series, couldn’t have been more gracious as he engaged my pal in conversation. I was happy for my friend and although I listened to the conversation, my attention was primarily focused on the lobby elevators, waiting for my favorite Mets player to exit from one of them. During the wait, I got autographs from Rick Aguilera, Doc Gooden, Lenny Dykstra and Darryl Strawberry.
Finally, my favorite Mets player, Wally Backman, appeared. He’s featured here on his 1986 Topps card. He seemed very much at ease amidst the throng of humanity. I waited for an appropriate time to approach him and found him to be very accommodating. I told him he was my favorite player, because he gave 100% on every play. Here before me was a hustler, a gritty ballplayer who stole bases and didn’t mind elbowing the opposing team’s player on his way up from the slide. Wally Backman wanted it more. You could see his intensity in his play. I told him he was my favorite type of ball player, and that I appreciated his efforts on behalf of the team and its fans. He thanked me and then signed a card for me. I thanked him, took my treasure, and went on my way.
That was the season that Wally hit a solid .320 that year in 124 games for the Metropolitans. Perhaps as important were his 14 sacrifice hits, which demonstrated his ability to move runners into scoring position. His skills as a drag-bunter and base-stealer were in evidence all season long. That fall, he hit .333 and had an On Base Percentage (OBP) of .429 in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. This performance was sizzling, and greatly helped the Mets bring home their second World Series Championship Trophy to the Big Shea.
Not too long ago I had a chance to correspond with some other Mets fans about Wally Backman. One of them, John Ogg, who hails from Queens, New York, had this to say: “I was a fan of a lot of those `86 Mets. Wally kept to himself for the most part, but if you got in his face he'd be ready to brawl. I used to live down in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they trained before Port St. Lucie, and ran into him a lot. He was nice with the fans. He and Lenny Dykstra were like the sparkplugs that got their engine going. Wally played baseball like it should be played.”
Laura Ann, another Mets supporter, remembers him with tremendous clarity. “I had the chance to meet Wally at an autograph signing,” she said. “He not only breathes baseball...he is baseball. I also got to see him play at Shea Stadium in 1987. I hope one day he will be Manager of the New York Mets. This team needs some toughness!”
Terry Blackwell is another believer who noted Backman’s “quiet toughness” and added that “he's got my vote to manage the Mets any day!”
I think of all the people I heard from, Jose A. Otero was the one who got closest to the essence of the second baseman’s “never say die attitude” when he said that Wally Backman “always played every game like it was his last.”
For the past several years, Backman has been managing in the Mets minor league system, gradually working his way up to Triple AAA, where he will manage the Buffalo Bisons for the 2012 season. Wally Backman’s stock seems to be rising. He is well respected within the Mets organization, and he seems destined to manage the big club one day.
I can’t wait, and I am not alone.