Deer-hunting season opened in Oregon about a week ago, so Wally Backman stocked his RV with food and ammo and headed for Pueblo Mountain. It's serene up there – about 6,000 feet above sea level, only eight miles to the Nevada border and a world away from the National League playoffs.
"Did the Diamondbacks win Game 2?" Backman asked Friday night. The TV in his RV has no cable, and he only knew that Arizona had beaten the Chicago Cubs in the NL division series' first game because a friend told him. Yes, he was informed, the Diamondbacks had won the second as well, leaving them a Saturday victory at Wrigley Field from the NL Championship Series.
"OK," Backman said, and he sounded neither excited nor disappointed. More plaintive, which about fits a man who thinks he should be on his way to the NLCS instead of eyeing a buck that exceeds his 12-point best.
Had all of his past misdeeds not been exhumed – the DUI, the domestic-violence rap, the bankruptcy – Wally Backman would, in all likelihood, still be managing the Arizona Diamondbacks. He would yell one minute and strategize the next, kick and scream to motivate, his devil and angel working in concert, his face turning the special hue that Crayola might name Wally Red. With a cache of young talent and Backman's track record of winning with such, he would have the Diamondbacks in the same spot as now – home-field advantage in the NL and the inside track to a World Series appearance.
Instead, Backman got fired four days after the Diamondbacks hired him in November 2004, the New York Times report on his legal issues sealing his fate, and replaced him with Bob Melvin, reserved and gentlemanly – the antithesis of how the public perceives Backman.
From a mountaintop, literally, Backman wants to shout down such detractors. It's that stigma, he believes, that has kept him from getting another job with a major-league organization. The DUI was seven years ago. He claims the domestic-violence incident stemmed from his wife's friend breaking his arm with a baseball bat, and that he never struck anyone, though the indictment indicates otherwise. Backman said he was guilty only of using coarse language, shown in his guilty plea of misdemeanor harassment.
"When you get hired and fired in four days, you've got to look out there for some hope," Backman said. "I made some mistakes. But I've admitted to my mistakes. I've tried to turn the page and go forward. Some of the things that happened are almost 10 years ago.
"All I need is an opportunity. If I can get face to face and talk with people, they're going to understand what happened, the circumstances. That's what I'm hoping for."
Now 48, Backman returned to baseball last season with the South Georgia Peanuts of the South Coast League, a six-team independent start-up. He missed the first game of the season because he had committed to an out-of-state autograph session, which was probably a good thing because the skydiver floating in with the game ball crashed into the outfield fence and the lights illuminating the stadium and died.
The antics didn't end there. In one game, Backman, angry with a call, got ejected and deposited 22 bats on the field. When a coach who was out sick for the game heard a radio announcer call Backman's display unprofessional, Backman went to the press box after the game and confronted the announcer. Another ejection earned him an eight-game suspension. And then there was the episode where Backman quit – or did he get fired? – and returned three days later, all forgiven.
"He's one of the more fascinating characters I've ever seen – television, movies, wherever," said John Fitzgerald, a director who followed Backman for the entire season filming a reality show, "Playing for Peanuts." "After being with him for a year, I'd compare him to a Lou Piniella type of guy. He'll kick dirt on home plate. He'll go out and get ejected. It's not just about motivating the team. If he thinks it's a bad call, he'll argue it. It's not about show. People get the wrong idea about it.
"He played on the Mets when they were brash and arrogant and actually won things. He's part of this lore in New York sports, and yet he's a down-to-earth guy, incredibly funny and has this wit about him. We had microphones on him the whole time. It was like he was doing stand-up and managing circles around the other team."
Naturally, the Peanuts won the league championship, and Backman snagged manager of the year honors. His players believed in him, even if he refused to soften his demeanor. Most threatened to leave during Backman's three-day vacation. This was a group of cast-offs, has-beens, never-would-bes, or at least that's how the baseball world regarded them, yet a handful of Backman's players latched on with organizations.
Deep down, Backman wished he could do the same. If only they would listen to his players – to Diamondbacks first baseman Conor Jackson, who has said he learned as much from Backman as anybody, and to Carlos Quentin, the Diamondbacks outfielder, with whom Backman went 86-54 at Class-A Lancaster in 2004.
"That's what I try to tell everybody," Backman said. "You ask the players that played for me. You ask the people I worked with – even if it's minor leagues. I had a great rapport with all those guys. The only time I got thrown under the bus is in Arizona."
So often it goes back to Arizona, and how couldn't it? Backman's goal, his dream, snatched like prey in a snake's jaws. Backman's reputation, his standing throughout the game, tarnished as well.
Backman's agent is sending his résumé out these days. Mostly affiliated teams, a few independent leagues up north. He sees Tony La Russa keeping his job after an alleged DUI and managers throwing hissy-fit temper tantrums.
Why can they skate?
For once, Backman went silent. He needed to tend to the grill with his son. Too much thinking about baseball stresses him anyway. This was a hunting trip. On Sunday, when the Backman clan returns home, he could worry about baseball.
"I think I'm going to watch the NLCS," Wally Backman said, and the whole time he'll be thinking about what could have been, what he could have been, what the Arizona Diamondbacks could have been under him. And about how these nights could have been so much better spent.
On their bench.
- Wally Backman