One of the most fiery members of the 1986 New York Mets title team, Wally Backman still has the same passion for the game as the 51s’ manager.
“I think I’m intense,” he said. “I want to win just as much as I did when I played.”
Backman’s competitive fires were stoked by his late father, Sam, a former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand, and his older brother, Mike, who played baseball at Oregon State.
“There were expectations when I was young to do the things that I did in baseball,” Backman, 54, said before the 51s’ season-opening 9-2 win over the Fresno Grizzlies on Thursday night before a crowd of 6,002 at Cashman Field.
“My dad and my older brother pushed me a lot,” he said. “The family’s always been very competitive in anything we do, whether it’s fishing or hunting.
“We’ve had some battles. There’s no doubt. I like the competitiveness.”
A Hillsboro, Ore., native, Backman learned a painful baseball lesson as a teenager, when during a semipro game he was hit by a pitch by a team coached by his brother.
“One of the guys drilled me right in the middle of the back. He threw like 94 (mph). I was 15,” he said. “(My brother) walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, little brother, you need to get up and run down the first-base line.’ And I did. But it was a good experience.”
As a manager, Backman — who guided Las Vegas to its first playoff berth in 11 years last season — has been able to instill his hard-nosed approach in his players.
“That’s why we went so far last year,” third baseman Zach Lutz said. “All the guys, we busted it all year to make him proud of us.”
Backman might have mellowed a bit since he became a YouTube hit in 2007, when he threw a bevy of bats and balls on the field after getting ejected from an independent league game with South Georgia. But he still protects his players, and that goes a long way with them.
Just ask Atlanta Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, who played under Backman in 2004, when he guided Single-A Lancaster (Calif.) to an 86-54 record en route to Minor League Manager of the Year honors.
“Well, obviously he’s very passionate with protecting his players,” Uggla told ESPN.com in 2010. “I’ll tell you what, if you play for Wally Backman, you’re going to be able to run through a brick wall, because we have the same emotions toward him as he has toward us. I mean, I would have run through a brick wall for him.
“Everybody is playing hard — I think playing above their ability — when they play for a guy like that.”
Former Lancaster outfielder Steve Garrabrants did Uggla one better, saying of Backman, “The man would take a bullet for one of his players. I mean that, a bullet.”
Backman probably would take a bullet to become a big league manager.
He was named the Arizona Diamondbacks’ manager on Nov. 1, 2004, but was fired four days later, amid legal and financial revelations.
While Backman no longer wishes to discuss the matter, he did in 2007, when he resumed his career in South Georgia.
“When they told me they were taking away the job, it was like a death in the family … the death of a dream,” he told ESPN.com.
After three years in independent ball, Backman was hired by the Mets in 2010, when he guided Single-A Brooklyn to a 51-24 record and a division title.
He managed Double-A Binghamton in 2011 and moved up to Triple-A Buffalo in 2012 — after reportedly turning down an offer to become a third-base coach for the Nationals under then-Washington skipper Davey Johnson, his former New York manager.
Still a Mets fan favorite, Backman said he discussed coaching positions with a couple of big league clubs this offseason before opting to return to Las Vegas.
“My best fit was coming back with the Mets,” he said. “I’ve said it before. The people I would coach for have to be certain individuals. I just wouldn’t take a job just to coach.
“I enjoy managing the game and running the game, because I know how to do it and I know how to get the most out of my players.”
While Backman dearly wants to return to the majors as a manager, he said he’s focused on getting his 51s players there first.
“It’s not about me. It’s about these guys getting better and getting to the big leagues,” he said. “The players know I care about them, and they also know I know how hard the game of baseball is at the major league level.”
Backman declined to speculate on why he hasn’t been given a chance to manage in the majors, but he believes he’ll eventually get his shot.
“I think so,” he said.
The fiery label still fits Backman, but Las Vegas hitting coach George Greer said cerebral also is an apt description.
“He’s very competitive, but he’s also into the game like you wouldn’t believe, and he runs the bullpen extremely well for a manager,” he said. “He’s right on top of things. He always seems that he’s at least two innings ahead, if not more, so he’s really thinking the game all the time.
“He’s a great baseball mind. He should be a manager somewhere in the big leagues.”
■ NOTES — 51s starter Rafael Montero (1-0) scattered four hits and had five strikeouts in six scoreless innings. … Lutz hit a grand slam in the seventh, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis went 4-for-4 with a solo shot. … Bobby Abreu lined a pinch-hit single and scored in the seventh.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.