So few of us succeed as Wally Backman has succeeded. So few of us are told, Here, take these keys to the kingdom, only to be informed, just a few blinks later, No, wait, those aren't your keys. Wally Backman rose as a player and a manager through effort, pluck, moxie, hustle, whatever you call the fierce competitiveness that we all profess to believe defines American athletics at its best. His sudden, dramatic fall, however, had more to do with past misconduct than current misbehavior and nothing to do with his universally acknowledged skills as a baseball man. His story raises questions about when to forgive the miscreant and when atonement can be determined to have occurred. His saga would, before it was over, force many who knew Backman's history to look at their own past and review the soft and mutable "facts" in another, harsher light. He may not be as villainous as was reported, and he is certainly not as innocent as he professes. The difference between guilt and innocence, for Backman and for so many of us, is a matter of degree.
Even now, after his precipitous fall, the only thing we can be certain of is that Wally Backman paid the price for his sins. Whatever they were.
On Nov. 1, 2004, Wally Backman, 45, sat at an Arizona Diamondbacks press conference and uttered all the platitudes one expects from a team's new skipper: vows to compete, to get the most out of his players and, of course, to "win ... that's what I've always been about." Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick, G.M. Joe Garagiola Jr. and CEO Jeff Moorad gathered around their new manager and Garagiola gave Backman a D-backs jersey to put on. It seemed like a perfect fit. The gritty former switch-hitting second baseman, who provided top-of-the-order spark for the 1986 world champion New York Mets, had been defined throughout his 14-year major league career by his hard-charging, dirty-uniform style. At 5'9" and 160 pounds, Backman had always been an underdog who made up for his lack of power by "giving you whatever you needed," says fellow '86 Met Gary Carter, "a base hit, a stolen base, a play in the field. Wally just got it done." Backman's best season was that World Series year, when he led the team with a .320 average. "He had a great feel for the game," says Davey Johnson, the Mets' manager from 1984 to '90. "He was a foxhole player, a guy who will keep grinding and grinding until the job is done."
Backman had taken that same approach in his postplaying days as manager, from high school baseball in Crook County, Ore., up through Western League franchises in Bend, Ore., and Washington's Tri-Cities; through Winston-Salem, N.C., and Birmingham in the Chicago White Sox system; to Lancaster, Calif., where he had guided the Diamondbacks' Class A franchise, the JetHawks, to an 86--54 record in 2004 and been named The Sporting News's minor league manager of the year. "To watch him dissect a game and pick apart an opposing manager was incredible," says JetHawks G.M. Brad Seymour. As a player Backman had a knack for annoying opposing pitchers and for taking the extra base; as a manager he quickly developed a scrappy style of baseball in which runs were manufactured through deep-count at bats and aggressive but intelligent baserunning; his players proudly called it Wally Ball.
The D-Backs' new owners, led by Kendrick, saw Wally Ball as their path to salvation--the cheapest way to put a compelling and competitive product onto the diamond at Bank One Ballpark, where attendance had dropped by 21% since 2002. The front office, already acknowledging that Randy Johnson would soon join fellow All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling in fleeing for a bigger market and a contending team, believed Backman would spark a team lacking in gate attractions. Kendrick, like many others in the front office, had been impressed by the fiery former player, describing him as "a very aggressive, combative type of person ... inspirational to younger players." Kendrick believed Backman would maximize the return on a payroll that the team was looking to minimize.
For the gala press conference heralding Backman's hiring, the Diamondbacks flew in two of Wally's four children; his wife of seven years, Sandi; her three kids; and his parents, Sam and Ida, all from Oregon. The family was taken on a tour of the stadium and shown Wally's office, next to the clubhouse. There was his desk, an attendant told them, and here was his personal refrigerator. "We stock it with whatever the manager wants," the guide explained.
"He drinks scotch," joked one of Wally's stepdaughters.
For Sandi and the rest of the clan, there was a sense of pride in her husband's accomplishment. "Wally killed himself for this," says Ida Backman, 72. "We always instilled in our children that you can achieve whatever dream you have if you work hard enough." And then they were all led out of the clubhouse, through the home dugout and onto the field. As they stood on that manicured diamond, one of the kids joked, "This is gonna be Wally World."
"This was it," says Backman now. "I was meant to manage in the big leagues. I did everything I had to do--played in the minors, the majors, managed in the minors. I was made for this job."
The furthest issue from his mind as he reviewed the Diamondbacks' roster the next day was his history of legal and financial problems. "This was about right now," Backman recalls. "Everybody has a past. I mean George W. Bush has a DUI, and he's the President. My past really hadn't come up. Why did it matter?"