The first manager in the 51s’ 32-year franchise history to guide the team to back-to-back 80-win seasons, Wally Backman on Friday was named the 2014 Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year.
“It’s an honor to get chosen by your colleagues,” Backman said. “I’m thankful I got picked by my peers.”
Backman, 54, joins former Las Vegas skipper Brad Mills (2002) as the only two 51s managers to win the award, which is voted on by the manager and a media representative from each of the 16 PCL cities.
The fiery former member of the 1986 Mets world title team has guided New York’s Triple-A affiliate to Pacific Southern Division titles in each of his two seasons in Las Vegas, which is headed to the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1988.
With three games left in the regular season, Backman has led the 51s to the PCL’s best record, at 80-61, after guiding it to an 81-63 mark last season that was the second-best in the league.
A 14-year big league veteran, Backman has won 161 games and counting in less than two years in Las Vegas while sending 33 players to the Mets along the way, including 14 this season.
“There’s no question Triple A is the toughest level to manage at because of the player movement,” he said. “That’s what makes it tough. There are so many different guys going back and forth.
“To win as many games as we have each year with as much movement as we’ve had, I’ve got to give the organization credit for giving us players to replace the ones who’ve gone to the majors.”
Finishing second to Backman in the Manager of the Year voting was Sacramento’s Steve Scarsone, followed by Memphis’ Pop Warner and Reno’s Phil Nevin, who earned Backman’s vote.
Backman said Nevin, whose Aces could be the 51s’ first-round playoff opponent — the first two games are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at Cashman Field — does a great job of matching wits against him.
“I look for a guy that runs his club the way it’s supposed to be run, because you know it’s kind of like a chess match when it’s the National League game,” he said. “He’s trying to put his players in a spot where they can succeed and I’m trying to do the same thing.”
The Oregon native rejoined the Mets’ organization in 2010, when he guided Single-A Brooklyn to a 51-24 record. He also managed Double-A Binghamton in 2011 and Triple-A Buffalo in 2012 before taking the helm in Las Vegas.
Prior to working in the Mets’ farm system, Backman led Double-A Birmingham (White Sox) to the Southern League title in 2002 and guided Single-A Lancaster (Diamondbacks) to an 86-54 record in 2004 en route to earning Sporting News’ Minor League Manager of the Year honors.
Backman was named Arizona Diamondbacks manager on Nov. 1, 2004 but was fired on Nov. 5 amid legal and financial revelations.
He returned to managing in 2007, when he led the South Georgia Peanuts to an independent league title.
Countless players have praised Backman for bringing out the best in them.
“You want to play hard for him because you know that’s how he played and that’s what he appreciates,” former 51s first baseman Eric Campbell said earlier this season at Cashman Field before he was called up by the Mets. “He’s a fiery guy and he has your back. That’s really all you can ask for as a player.”
While Backman declined to speculate if winning the PCL award might help his quest to become a big league manager, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said recently at Cashman Field that he’s a capable candidate.
“He certainly deserves an opportunity, especially with the consistency of his winning at both this level and previously at the Double-A level,” Alderson said. “It’s very possible.”
As for what has prevented Backman from already getting an opportunity, Alderson said it’s hard to say.
“Each organization might be looking for someone slightly different,” he said. “Eventually there may be a match.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.