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Past Imperfect
KARL TARO GREENFELD
April 11, 2005
After more than two decades in baseball, Wally Backman landed his dream job: manager of a major league club. That's when his life came crashing down
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April 11, 2005

Past Imperfect

After more than two decades in baseball, Wally Backman landed his dream job: manager of a major league club. That's when his life came crashing down

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During his interviews with Kendrick, Garagiola and club president Rich Dozer, Backman had been asked about that past. In fact, Kendrick's final question in Backman's second official interview on Oct. 27 was, "Is there anything we need to know about that might prevent us from offering you this job?"

"No," was Backman's instant response.

Yet as Backman sat there across from Kendrick in a conference room in Bank One Ballpark, he had already violated his probation for a June 1999 drunken driving arrest in Benton County, Wash., and was facing jail time. Under a deferred-prosecution program, the arrest would have been scrubbed from his record if Backman had completed an alcohol diversion program in a timely manner and fulfilled certain other requirements. Instead, he pleaded guilty to the '99 DUI in January 2001, spent a night in jail and was put on five years' probation. In October '01, unbeknownst to Benton County authorities, Backman was arrested again, following a domestic violence incident in Oregon, and subsequently pleaded guilty to harassment, which automatically put him in violation of his probation; ironically, it was the publicity from Backman's hiring by the Diamondbacks that made county authorities aware of his Oregon legal troubles. "As soon as we found out about that arrest, that was enough for me to schedule a hearing," Holly Hollenbeck, Benton County district court judge, said later. "It's not unusual to get 90 days for [a probation violation]." Backman insists he didn't even know he was on probation and thus was not hiding that fact when he was hired.

"He's like a lot of people," says Judge Hollenbeck. "They just don't listen or read.... My personal opinion is that he is a classic alcoholic."

"Want a beer?" Wally Backman asks in his raspy bass. He wears a graying mustache, his hair is cut and blow-dried in the style of early '80s TV detectives, and much of his wardrobe--the tight jeans, the snug T-shirts, the shiny bomber jackets--seems an unconscious homage to that same group.

He's standing in the billiard room of his white one-story house in Prineville, Ore., pop. 7,356. Parked outside is a Keystone camper with an extended bay that Backman takes on fishing trips. There are two Ford pickups out there as well, and a sign on the side of the house that reads Wally and Sandi Backman and All of our Seven, referring to the seven children Wally and Sandi have from previous marriages, this being his second and her third. As he stands beneath a six-point mule deer head and a bearskin mounted on the wall, both trophies from hunting trips, Wally is straining to project patience and calm. He is aware that when the press began reporting his legal troubles following his hiring by the Diamondbacks, he was seen as, he says, "a drunken wife-beater."

His petite wife, wearing a pink sweater and blue jeans, walks into the room and folds her arms. She says Wally wants to explain everything, and the two of them retreat to their den. They sit together on a tan sofa next to a gas fireplace. Before them, spread out over a coffee table, are legal documents they insist prove that Wally is not a bad man, that he has been misunderstood.

Sandi has a small, pinched face that, despite her 55 years, projects a teenager's enthusiasm. She was born and raised in Prineville and met Wally 10 years ago, when he employed her daughter as a nanny for his son, Wally Jr., following his separation from his first wife, Margie. As Wally gives his version of his legal history--the DUI and domestic-violence arrests, his having declared bankruptcy in 2003 because of money then owed to the IRS--Sandi interrupts repeatedly, correcting his geography, chronology and casting of the various episodes. She looks through the documents for corroboration of key points, but soon gives up and slides the messy pile of paper over to a reporter. "Here," she says. "It's all in here."

And there it is, the postbaseball life of Wally Backman, in black-and-white xeroxes that have headings like crook county sheriffs office incident report or county of benton probation hearing, and it is impossible not to wonder how one man could generate so much paperwork.

As soon as Ken Kendrick saw the Nov. 2 New York Times profile of his new manager, he regretted neglecting to order a background check. Major league teams did not have a policy of running such screens, and among Diamondbacks officials there had been a sense of complacency because Backman had already achieved success in their system. After all, this had been more like a promotion than a new hire. (Background checks on managerial candidates, in the aftermath of Backman's hiring, have become common practice in baseball.) The Times profile, which praised Backman as "all intensity, all the time" also included a few paragraphs detailing his DUI, his guilty plea, the bankruptcy filing, and, most troubling, the domestic violence incident of Oct. 7, 2001. On that night, according to the Prineville police incident report, Backman threatened to kill his wife, broke down the door to his house and then used a baseball bat to assault one of the other terrified women inside, Sherrie Rhoden, who was left with a bloody gash on her face. "Wally Sr. came into the kitchen and was going after [Sandi]," wrote officer Raymond Cueller. "Rhoden stood in front of Wally Sr. and told him to leave. While Rhoden had the bat in her hand, Wally Sr. kept telling Rhoden to go ahead and hit him. Wally Sr. told Rhoden she did not have the balls to do it.... As the bat was in the upright position, Wally Sr. pushed the bat back towards Rhoden's face and hit her in the nose area. Wally Sr. began to push her and she swung the bat and hit Wally Sr. on the left arm. Wally Sr. fell to the kitchen floor."

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