During his 14-year career, Wally Backman played for an elite collection of managers, including Davey Johnson, Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Joe Torre and Tom Kelly — a group that has combined for more than 8,200 victories and counting, 13 pennants and nine World Series titles.
“I think I took a little piece of all of them,” Backman said.
The first-year 51s manager counts Johnson, Leyland and Piniella as his biggest managerial influences and said the trio shared a common trait of honest, open communication with their players.
“As a player, you know how valuable that was, and as a manager I know how valuable it is because I’ve played for guys who didn’t give you the time of day,” Backman said. “Players will tell you they enjoy playing for me, because I’m honest with them. Those are the type of managers you want to play for.”
Backman, 53, was especially impressed with how Leyland handled his players in the one season he played for him on the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates.
“The way he communicated with his players, he had 25 guys going hard for him all the time,” he said. “The one thing with Jimmy, he knew it was going to take 25 guys to win the championship. Davey and Lou were the same way. They knew that everybody had a part, and players knew their part. They knew their role.
“That makes it easy for you to get ready for a role. Even if you don’t like the role.”
A .275 career hitter who retired in 1993, Backman marveled at how Leyland made reserve R.J. Reynolds feel like an integral part of a loaded Pirates outfield that featured Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla.
“Jimmy somehow got this guy almost 400 at-bats, and that was with guys not being hurt,” he said. “The hardest thing for a manager isn’t really managing your eight guys that are out there on the field, it’s managing your bullpen and your extra players and trying to put them in the best position to succeed.”
Backman said he also learned a lot — especially how to handle a bullpen — during his final season, in 1993, playing for Piniella in Seattle.
“To me, one of the most important things for a manager is knowing how to run your bullpen, knowing how to put your pitchers in a position to succeed and really letting them know what their roles are,” he said. “I think I’m a very good communicator, and I believe wholeheartedly that nobody runs the bullpen any better than I do.”
Backman played nine seasons for the Mets (1980 to 1988) — the final five under Johnson, who made him his leadoff hitter and starting second baseman. Together, they won the 1986 World Series.
“He gave me my first opportunity, so I have tons of respect for Davey,” Backman said. “Davey was really a no-nonsense guy. He expected to win every day that we were out there.”
Backman said Johnson, the Washington Nationals manager, is the perfect fit for a team featuring phenoms Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
“Davey’s 70 years old now, but he’s the same manager he was when I had him in the ’80s,” he said. “He’s a player’s manager. Players love playing for him, he’s a very good communicator, and he’s got his players’ backs.”
Backman also considers himself a player’s manager, and so does 51s first baseman Josh Satin, who played for Backman the past two seasons at Triple-A Buffalo and Double-A Binghamton.
“I love playing for him. He wants what’s best for the players,” he said. “He’ll fight for you, he’ll do whatever he can to help you in your career, and that’s always been appreciated by me.
“Sometimes people see those rants on YouTube or whatnot, but that’s all to protect his players and maybe pump his team up a little bit. It’s always to get our backs.
“That’s why I’ve enjoyed my time with him, and I think he’s a major league manager, and he’ll have that opportunity hopefully pretty soon.”
Backman, who has compiled a 607-571 record in 11 minor-league seasons, was named Arizona Diamondbacks manager Nov. 1, 2004, but was fired four days later following revelations he’d been arrested twice — for harassment and drunken driving — and filed for bankruptcy.
“That’s old dead water under the bridge,” he said. “That wasn’t a good time for me, the way they handled it, but I don’t even worry about it anymore. I’m just looking in the future.”
Backman has been trying to get back to the big leagues ever since and is eager to manage in the majors.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “My job right now is to try to get these guys to the big leagues and in the process try to win a championship in Las Vegas. When the year’s over, then you evaluate what’s going on.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354.