Just like he was as a .320 hitter for the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets, Wally Backman is a scrapper as a manager who expects to win every year. That's a good thing for the Buffalo Bisons, who are expecting the New York Mets to put a winner in town next season or they might be looking elsewhere for a new parent in 2013.
Backman knocked it out of the park with an energetic introductory press conference Thursday as the Mets and Bisons made it official that he is getting promoted from Double-A Binghamton to head the Herd in 2012.
"I'm not the business guy into all that type of stuff but every year I manage a team I expect to win" Backman said. "We've talked about it. I know it's the last year the contract is up. I think the new regime [headed by Mets GM Sandy Alderson] is trying to put a product on the field that at the upper levels that is going to compete all the time."
"It's pretty evident when you spend time with Wally that he's a very, very passionate person," said Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski. "High energy, loves baseball, loves talking baseball. Ultra competitive person."
The Mets certainly want to help Backman win. It's likely their going to stock the Herd with free agents, particularly in the bullpen and middle infield. They announced the re-signing Thursday of DH/1B Valentino Pascucci, Buffalo's MVP in 2011 and Backman revealed the Mets have signed catcher/left fielder Vinny Rottino, who .304 with 10 home runs and 17 stolen bases last year with New Orleans of the Marlins chain
Backman, 52, is entering his 10th managerial season and his third in the Mets organization. Overall, he has a record of 534-488 (.523) with two league championships in his career but his road to Buffalo has been a circuitous one. He was a rising star as a manager and was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004 -- only to be fired four days later when reports surfaced of a DUI, personal bankruptcy and an old assault charge from a friend of his wife.
Out of baseball for two years, he resurfaced with an independent league team in Albany, Ga. in 2007, then moved for two years in Joliet, Ill. The Mets rehired him in 2010 and he won a division title at Class A Brooklyn of the New York-Penn League. Backman's Binghamton team was 65-76 last year, riddled by callups to Buffalo, but finished the season 30-21.
"I am passionate about the game," Backman said. "I expect my players to take the games personal, the wins and the losses, and I expect them to be prepared to win every day."
The Bisons are going to have some stud starting pitching in 2012. Former No. 1 draft pick Matt Harvey pitched in Binghamton last year and so did Jeurys Familia, signed as an undrafted 18-year-old in 2007. They both could be here. Jenrry Mejia, felled by Tommy John surgery, could be back by the middle of the season. Zack Wheeler, acquired in the Carlos Beltran trade, might get here at some point. Same for lefty Darin Gorski, who lit up the Florida State League.
"I want Familia, I want Harvey," Backmann said. "One of the two I'll have to fight for. I think one of the two I'll probably get. I believe they're both ready to come here."
Here's a pair of audio tracks from my post-news conference chat with Backman.
Before heading to the airport tonight to get to Raleigh for tomorrow's Sabres game, I'm taking a detour to the Bisons' clubhouse for a 2 p.m. press conference. It's a big announcement that will make official what we reported the first week of October: Former New York Mets second baseman Wally Backman (right) will be introduced as the Bisons' manager for 2012.
Backman, who led Double-A Binghamton last year, reportedly turned down a chance to serve as a coach under Davey Johnson in Washington so that he could manage in Triple-A. Johnson apparently advised him to do so.
Backman shared the second base platoon with Tim Teufel for Johnson's '86 World Series champion Mets and now takes over the Herd from Teufel, who will be Terry Collins' third-base coach in New York next season.
Backman has had a long road back to get this point. He was the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks for four days in 2004 until he was fired when reports surfaced of a DUI, an old battery charge and financial difficulties. He took two years off, started in independent ball in 2007 in Albany, Ga. and has worked his way back up with the Mets from Class A Brooklyn to Binghamton and Buffalo.
Lots of folks in New York will be watching Backman closely this season. Large segments of the fan base want him to be Collins' heir apparent. By all reports, Backman is a funny, irascible character who should liven things up around Coca-Cola Field.
Don't believe me? Go on YouTube and look up "Playing for Peanuts". It's a documentary that was filmed in '07 when Backman managed the South Georgia Peanuts and some of his rants are hysterical. Too much profanity to link here though. Google and YouTube it. Trust me.
---Mike Harrington (www.twitter.com/bnharrington)
AP Photo: Backman greets fans in 2008 on the final day at Shea Stadium.
Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Torey Lovullo had his interview with the Boston Red Sox Friday in Fenway Park, officially getting into the ring to replace Terry Francona as manager. Lovullo, who served as first-base coach in Toronto last season and managed the Bisons from 2006-2008, has told me several times in the last few years he thinks he's ready for a big-league gig.
Here's the MLB.com story on Lovullo's day, which spells out the candidates: Lovullo, Sandy Alomar Jr., Pete Mackanin, Dale Sveum and Gene Lamont.
Check out this Boston Globe video to hear some of his comments during his post-interview news conference in the ballpark's press box.
Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Torey Lovullo apparently has his hat in a big ring as the former Bisons player and manager will interview Friday for the vacant manager's slot with the Boston Red Sox. Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe tweeted the news about Lovullo late Tuesday afternoon.
Lovullo spent last year as the first-base coach under John Farrell in Toronto and the word is that Farrell, the former pitching coach under Terry Francona, has pushed Boston brass to give Lovullo serious consideration to replace Terry Francona. From this view, Lovullo has a chance to mesh well with young GM like Ben Cherington and the Red Sox know him from his stint as the manager in Pawtucket in 2010.
As a manager, Lovullo had a terrific run in Class A and Double-A with the Indians from 2002-2005, winning two league championships and producing four playoff teams. He posted back-to-back 73-68 seasons with the Bisons in 2006 and 2007 and then had a 66-77 record in 2008 when the Indians had one foot out the door on the way to Columbus. His next two years (57-85 in Columbus and 66-78 in Pawtucket) weren't much better but those teams had few prospects.
Still, Lovullo is highly regarded and has interviewed in the past for the top job with the Indians and Dodgers. He's a great communicator with players, the front office and media and he played for seven big-league teams in addition to having terrific years in the minors (notably with the Bisons in 1995, 1997 and 1998, and Scranton in 1999).
Lovullo was the most valuable player of the 1997 American Association playoffs and batted .326 on Buffalo's 1998 team that won the Governors' Cup and produced the franchise's only back-to-back championships.
As we reported Oct. 5, it's just about a lock now that former Mets second baseman Wally Backman will be the manager of the Bisons in 2012. That looked to be the case when the Mets promoted 2011 Herd manager Tim Teufel to third-base coach, and the easy assumption was that Backman was coming up from Double-A Binghamton. Mets GM Sandy Alderson even said that to be a likely scenario on a conference call that day.
But Backman started talking to the Washington Nationals and old Mets manager Davey Johnson about a coaching position in the big leagues and the easy move suddenly seemed like it might be in jeopardy.
As it turns out, Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record reports that Johnson himself has recommended Backman take the job in Buffalo. I agree. Backman needs to show he can manage older players if he wants to get the Mets' job someday, or any other one.
There's no word yet on when the Mets will make the hiring official. Teams often do all of their minor-league coaching assignments together and that could take until after the Winter Meetings next month in Dallas.
I'm covering the Sabres-Flyers game tonight in a one-day respite from my annual post-World Series vacation (which also means continued withdrawal from my daily fix of St. Louis toasted ravioli). So while I'm back on the job today, I figured I'd chime in on some of the big news of recent days.
Headline: Tony La Russa retires
Reaction: They sure suckered us all. The feeling at the Series was that La Russa was coming back. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak did a group interview prior to Game Five in Texas and was asked about La Russa's potential return. Here was the answer:
"You know, as far as handicapping that, I think I'm not going to go down that path, but obviously having a manager in place and that staff in place, that would be probably something that we need to do right away, because obviously it's a very difficult task if we were to have to replace Tony. So at this point, hopeful that we can wrap that up rather quickly. And right now as far as what's going to happen, every time he and I start to sit down and talk about it, we always realize and we sort of pinch ourselves that here we are in the World Series or having success in the postseason. So we just really haven't stopped to focus on it at this time."
Lies, lies, lies. La Russa revealed during his farewell press conference and again on his fascinating interview with Bob Costas Tuesday night on MLB Network that he and the Cardinals had decided he was done during the summer. They did a fabulous game of possum with all of us. Props to them.
Headline: Yankees re-sign CC and Cashman
Reaction: Brian Cashman reeled in the big fish first and then quickly got his own deal done. There's no way the Yankees would be contending next year without CC Sabathia, who wasn't going anywhere unless his hometown A's or Giants somehow found an extra $100 million in a Dixie cup. A one-year, $25 million extension kept CC from exercising his opt-out clause. Now the Yankees need him to opt out of a few more meals starting in 2012. As for Cashman, he's now signed through 2015. He started as GM in 1998. Remember when George Steinbrenner seemingly had a GM a year? Pretty amazing.
White Sox sign Manto as hitting coach
Reaction: About time somebody gave another shot to Manto, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer and Bisons legend who turned a journeyman like Freddy Sanchez into a batting champion when he was with the Pirates. Manto has been the Sox minor-league coordinator for four years and probably should have had this job a year or two earlier as Greg Walker continued to accomplish nothing in Chicago (see Rios, Alex and Dunn, Adam). Batting practice during those White Sox-Blue Jays games should be hysterical with Manto and Torey Lovullo (Toronto's first base coach) yammering back and forth.
Mike Harrington, a Canisius College graduate who began his career as a News reporter in 1987, has covered the Buffalo Bisons since 1992 and Major League Baseball since 1995. A member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Harrington has reported on more than 30 MLB postseason series — including every game of the World Series in this century — and all three of the Bisons' championship runs in their modern era. He is a connoisseur of the famous Stadium Mustard at Cleveland's Progressive Field.
Amy Moritz, a native of Lockport, has covered the Bisons for The Buffalo News since 2002. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism/mass communication from St. Bonaventure University and a master’s degree in humanities from the University at Buffalo. An endurance athlete, she has completed several triathlons, half marathons and marathons.