PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Many of the Mets' minor leaguers showered, dressed and left the clubhouse in record time Tuesday, eager to take advantage of their last free afternoon before their games begin. But not Wally Backman. The new Brooklyn Cyclones manager was still in his full uniform, complete with his blue Mets pullover, a good two hours after the workout ended.
And he didn't seem in a rush to take the uniform off.
Can you blame him? The last major-league uniform he put on was an Arizona Diamondbacks jersey at the 2004 news conference introducing him as manager. It was an emotional moment that marked the culmination of his years as a successful minor- league manager. Five days later the Diamondbacks took that job - not to mention the uniform - away from him, citing his past that included a DUI and a domestic violence arrest.
Ever since, it's been a frustrating five-year fight looking for his next job. "I've always been a baseball guy," Backman said, sitting on a bench outside the Mets' minor-league complex with four baseball fields within sight. "This is my life."
Finally, he's back. It took a personal call to Mets CEO Jeff Wilpon last October, a call Backman made while making the 150-mile drive from his home to the Portland, Ore., airport. His agent had just been through his annual round of cold calls to major-league teams looking to find Backman work, and once again nothing came of it. Backman believed his only chance was to make the call himself.
Backman has been here a little more than two weeks, running players through drills, hitting grounders, and watching batting practice. He's so pumped to be employed again in baseball, the optimism just oozes from his mouth, evident with each word. "Those five years are like a fog to me now," he said. "This is a fresh start."
Just the other day, he said, he bumped into Fred Wilpon and the Mets owner asked him how he felt "to put that uniform on." Backman smiled as he recalled the conversation. The Cyclones' Class-A season doesn't start until June, but it wouldn't be surprising if the former Mets second baseman already is counting down the days.
Backman doesn't know which of these players will be on his team yet, but he is convinced they will be a winning club. "What I've done on the field speaks for itself," Backman said. "I've still got that cocky attitude. I'm not going to change that, not at all.
"When I'm on the field with my players, I demand perfection from them. They're going to know it before they start."
He still plans to manage in the big leagues, a goal he reiterated yesterday. Although his name is often mentioned as a possible successor to Jerry Manuel, Backman has no designs on the job and is more concerned with the minor-league role he was hired for.
After being turned away so many times, he's happy to be in the position he's in. "They've given me an opportunity here," Backman said, "and I'm going to make the most of it."