By John Torenli
Former Brooklyn Cyclones manager Wally Backman is a true believer.
Not only in the prospect-filled Buffalo Bisons team he hopes to guide to the International League title this summer, but also the direction the parent-club Mets are heading despite all the gloom-and-doom prognostications for the financially challenged franchise.
“I think they’re doing it the right way. They’re trying to rebuild the organization from within,” Backman noted as his team prepared for Thursday night’s season opener in Pawtucket.
While many Mets fans would have preferred Backman on the bench at CitiField yesterday afternoon for Opening Day against the NL East rival Braves, the 52-year-old Oregon native and former Bay Ridge resident may be in perfect position for the managerial slot should it become available next year. He spent last season at Double-A Binghamton building up many of the same players he’ll have this summer.
Mets manager Terry Collins, who beat Backman out for the job following a series of interviews the winter before last, will enter his second straight season of limited expectations after losing Jose Reyes in free agency and outfielder Carlos Beltran and closer Francisco Rodriguez prior to last year’s trade deadline.
Though Collins did an excellent job of keeping things respectable in 2011 — the Mets finished 77-85 — he probably isn’t the long-term solution in the Flushing dugout.
Backman, who has been entrusted with honing the skills of the organization’s top up-and-coming players since taking Brooklyn to the NY-Penn Championship Series in his return to the dugout in 2010, might just be kneeling on deck for his turn at bat in 2013.
A member of the storied 1986 World Series champion Mets, and a winner as both player and manager at virtually every level of organized baseball, Backman has made no secret of his long-term desire to manage the organization that drafted him in the first round in 1977.
But for now, he’s remaining focused on the task at hand, making sure prospects like Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia, Josh Satin and Zach Lutz – the last three of whom played for the Cyclones — pitch and hit their way to becoming productive members of the Mets in the not-so-distant future.
“If you work hard enough, you can make your dream come true,” Backman reminds his players. “Our goal is to get these players to the big leagues and just fine-tune them. In the process, I expect to win at Buffalo. I won seven championships at every level in the Minor and Major leagues and I expect to win at Buffalo.”
Backman has already put his diamond psychology to work, handing Harvey, the Mets’ second-ranked prospect and the organization’s first-round pick out of North Carolina in last year’s draft, the ball for Thursday’s opener.
Harvey, who had hoped to earn a spot with the Mets during Spring Training, instead was sent down after yielding seven runs, including three homers, in his first big-league inning during an exhibition start against the Nationals two weeks ago.
“I really like the way that Harvey is throwing the ball,” Backman said. “He’s a power-arm guy. I know he was a little nervous during Spring Training. It was a humbling experience. He threw the ball very well up to that point. He’s the real deal. He’s going to be something special.”
Harvey appreciated his new manager’s faith in him.
“It’s always fun playing for Wally,” he said. “Obviously, he’s going to get us all going.”
Backman, who will wear the No. 8 instead of his customary No. 6 this season in memory of former teammate Gary Carter, is enthused by the talent on his roster and the leadership some of his players have shown during the weeks leading up to this season.
“As a manager, it shouldn’t be your job to manage a clubhouse,” he noted. “You should have veteran guys to manage young players. You need leaders like that in the clubhouse, guys like Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez were great leaders in the clubhouse.”
So as diehard Mets fans brace for what many predict will be another fruitless season, Backman continues to provide hope for a better future in Flushing, one that he may just get to oversee personally someday.
Perhaps, even someday soon.