Last Updated: 11:31 AM, February 15, 2013
Posted: 12:46 AM, February 15, 2013
PORT ST. LUCIE — He had fulfilled his duties by early afternoon Wednesday, running the pitchers’ bunting drills and then throwing batting practice. Nevertheless, Wally Backman’s work shift wasn’t quite finished. It never is, here at Tradition Field, until he passes through the crowd.
“Wally, how about a picture?” a fan asked, and the 1986 Mets second baseman cooperated, posing with a smile. Three more photos and an autograph followed, and then he turned away from his small group of admirers and walked toward the dugout.
“I want to see you in a major league dugout!” a second fan yelled. Backman, never breaking stride, responded with a thumbs-up. In his shades and Mets cap and pullover, he was the picture of cool.
He vows to stay cool in what could be an awkward 2013 Mets universe, as manager Terry Collins faces an uncertain future and a gaggle of Mets fans yearn for the fiery Backman to get the next shot.
“You know, Terry and I have been close since 1990 [with the Pirates],” Backman, the manager of the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate Las Vegas, told The Post. “I know that his contract’s coming up, and he knows it. Everybody knows it. It’s a tough spot for him and, really, for me.
“My focus is, it’s going to be tough enough for me in Vegas. Vegas is a tough place to control 25 players. That’s what I’m really trying to focus on. What happens is going to happen. Nobody knows.”
“When I was around him in Pittsburgh, he was playing, I was [managing in the Pirates’ system],” Collins said of Backman. “He’s just a really honest guy and really cares about the organization. He cares about winning.
“I know one thing: I don’t have to worry about my back. I know he’s got it.”
Backman has moved well beyond his probationary period; this will mark his fourth season managing in the Mets’ organization since COO Jeff Wilpon rescued him from five years of baseball oblivion. The Diamondbacks named him as their manager on Nov. 1, 2004, only to fire him four days later when they learned of previously undisclosed details (two arrests and financial problems) from his past.
His ambitions haven’t changed. “I’m not after Terry’s job,” he said. “But my goal is definitely to manage in the big leagues.”
When general manager Sandy Alderson conducted his first Mets managerial search in the fall of 2010, Backman made the second round of interviews along with Collins, Chip Hale and Bob Melvin. Yet Backman had no chance to win that derby, and Alderson rejected Collins’ subsequent suggestion that Backman be part of the 2011 Mets coaching staff.
Over the past two years, Alderson has warmed up to Backman.
“He’s a good baseball man. He knows the game,” Alderson said. “He’s experienced winning. He’s committed to winning. And at the same time, we’ve had a number of young players come through the system who have developed under his leadership. He’s been great.”
Asked if he thought Backman could be a major league manager, Alderson replied, “Yes.”
Which leads us to the biggest question: Is Backman the leading contender to replace Collins? Out of respect to Collins, this is not a notion Alderson will entertain; Fred Wilpon indicated on Wednesday the Mets are inclined to give Collins this full season, anyway.
There are two other obvious candidates within the organization. Bench coach Bob Geren has major league managing experience with the A’s, whose general manager Billy Beane is an Alderson protégé; he has to be viewed as the favorite if a change is made. Mets third-base coach Tim Teufel has nine years of minor-league managing experience in the Mets organization and of course also has the ’86 Mets mojo as Backman’s second base platoon-mate.
Alderson didn’t factor in Backman’s icon status the last time, and if Collins gets let go this year, the general manager still won’t give Backman a significant edge for his Q rating.
“I understand that, as part of that ’86 team, he and others have been deified by some fans,” Alderson said. “But we have to look at the contributions he’s making today, and some of those contributions are a function of his history with the Mets. That’s also true. Our evaluation is not entirely separate from his history. But by and large, he’s evaluated on his contributions today, not his contributions from some years ago.”
Could Backman and Alderson peacefully coexist in such an important dynamic? Folks within the organization are skeptical. In any case, there’s more time to pass, more data to collect, before this comes to fruition — if it ever does.
Collins and Backman will continue to speak weekly, as they have the prior two seasons, about Backman’s minor league players who can help the Mets. Collins will work to keep his job, Backman to get promoted into the majors, somewhere.
“I’m ready,” Backman said. “I don’t question my ability to manage and win a game. I don’t question that at all. I’ve got to focus on Vegas.”
Even as his many advocates continue to focus on him.