By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Former Brooklyn Cyclones manager Wally Backman has certainly paid his penance over the past eight years. And now it's time to pay him back.
You may recall that the sparkplug second baseman of the Mets' 1986 World Series championship team climbed the Minor League ranks en route to his first shot as a big league skipper in 2004, when the Arizona Diamondbacks hired him to guide their franchise after he had led their Class A Advanced affiliate in Lancaster, Calif., to an 86-54 record, earning Backman "The Sporting News" Minor League Manager of the Year Award.
All but four days later, Backman stepped down from the job in shame as media reports began circulating that the Mets' former No. 1 pick in the 1977 MLB Draft had not reported some serious legal and financial indiscretions to his new employers.
Bloodied but not beaten, Backman, as has been his penchant, began on the long, slow road to redemption. He re-emerged as the manager of the independent league South Georgia Peanuts, a stint that was documented via an acclaimed TV series dubbed "Playing for Peanuts". After another non MLB-affiliate stint with the Joliet Jackhammers in the Northern League, Backman waited patiently until the Mets came calling again.
Jeff Wilpon, son of Mets owner Fred and the team's COO, brought Backman back into the fold, hiring him to manage our very own Cyclones for the 2010 campaign, marking the Oregon native's return to the Minors after six years of wallowing in virtual obscurity. Backman paid the Mets back immediately, using his hard-driving, aggressive style to help Brooklyn win a team-record 51 games as well as a berth in the New York-Penn League Championship series.
That offseason, as the Mets prepared to replace manager Jerry Manuel following a dismal 2010 campaign, Backman emerged as a candidate for the post, which he to this day cites as his dream job.
But the Wilpons opted instead to go with Terry Collins, who was already in the system as the Mets' Minor League Coordinator.
For the past two seasons, the Mets have shown considerable grit under Collins, at least until the All-Star break, after which they've collapsed due to a lack of talent and the organization's inability to bring in productive talent via trade or free agency.
Entering Thursday afternoon's matinee against the Pirates at Citi Field, Collins' crew had gone a mind-numbing 8-25 at home since the All-Star break, guaranteeing the club's fourth consecutive losing season. That's four years too many for Mets fans who had heightened expectations after coming within a win of reaching the World Series in 2006 before historic late-season meltdowns in '07 and '08.
Just last year, Backman had a chance to take a job as former Met manager Davey Johnson's bench coach in Washington, an opportunity he ultimately turned down. The Nationals, of course, are currently on the verge of clinching the NL East, and many thought Johnson wanted to bring Backman in with the hopes of one day handing the managerial reins over to one of his favorite players.
But after serving at Double-A Binghamton in 2011 and Triple-A Buffalo this past summer, there's no way to go but up for Backman.
The only question is: Is there room at the top for the 53-year-old?
The Mets, who extended Collins' contract through next season exactly one year ago Thursday, certainly have some big decisions to make come next week, when yet another season of disappointent will come to its conclusion.
Current Mets coach Tim Teufel, who platooned with Backman at second base during the Mets' run to the world title 26 years ago, is certainly in line to get his opportunity. Teufel also managed in Brooklyn in 2003, and has since established himself as a key presence in the Citi Field dugout and along the third-base line.
Former Mets hurler Ron Darling, currently the team's color analyst on SNY, believes both of his former teammates have what it takes to lead a Major League franchise.
“Whenever I think of Wally and Tim, I think of a platoon," Darling said last week while promoting Moments that Matter, an initiative to raise brain tumor awareness, which was inspired by the passing of his former battery-mate, Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter.
"I think they’re both excellent candidates and they’re time is coming soon," Darling noted. "But I’m sure they’re both going to be managers in the near future.”
The only question is where?
It's difficult to imagine the Mets' fan base sitting still for another year under Collins after the past two seasons. It's also hard to think that either Teufel or Backman, both of whom are itching for a leading role, could work in unison in the same dugout without creating some discord regarding decision-making.
Two managers in the same dugout is like having two quarterbacks in the same huddle. It usually means you have none.
Backman, to his credit, has played the good solider throughout, thanking the Mets for bringing him back to the organization nearly every chance he gets. But will he get the shot to run the Mets the way he has dreamed about since putting on the orange and blue more than three decades ago?
“I’m not the fiery guy that people try to think that I am,” Backman told the Eagle back when he was being considered for the Mets job two years ago. “I’m a player’s guy. I demand perfection from them when we go out and do the fundamentals.
Once in a while they’ll need a chewing [out] and I’ll give that to them.”
While Backman and Teufel have both taken similar roads en route to a chance at the top job, both may have to travel a little further if the Mets decide to start next year with Collins, or go outside of the organization for a new manager.
It would be a shame to see Backman take his firebrand style somewhere else and achieve success while the Mets continue to wallow toward the bottom of the NL East.
In this election year, with bi-partisanism running rampant, I place my vote for Wally to run the show in Flushing beginning in 2013.
He would certainly be a fan favorite, and is already quite familiar with the next generation of Mets on their way to the Majors -- be it right-hander Matt Harvey or budding outfield prospect Cory Vaughn.
With rampant coaching and managing changes about to take place throughout the big leagues beginning next month, the Mets should go Back to the Future and bring Backman home, especially if they're not going to make a big splash in free agency for the third straight offseason.
He's already proven he can win at any level and, perhaps of most importance to the cash-strapped Mets, he's willing to work for "Peanuts."