Wally has not been a stranger to the press, but much about the man is told in anecdote. To get a closer look at Wally, I spoke with John Fitzgerald, the man behind the much talked about “Playing for Peanuts” series. Before he began his project on the South Georgia Peanuts, John was a production assistant for several motion pictures. He then took on a project in Ireland about the Irish National Baseball team. There he filmed and worked amongst players who were sacrificing for the love of the game. In continuing with this theme, John approached the South Coast Independent League about doing a potential project. They gave him a list of teams that he could potentially cover. Amongst them, John saw a familiar name listed as manager of the Peanuts.
John Fitzgerald grew up a Mets fan in the eighties. In 1983, at six years old, John can remember his father’s typical Met fan jargon “They lost to the Cubs again!”. Nevertheless, the Mets began an upward trend and John can remember people wanting to mimic the Mets’ aggressive brand of baseball. The name on the list of teams and managers was Wally Backman. John took the opportunity to connect these interests. I had the pleasure to talk to John about “Playing for Peanuts”, the Mets, and “Uncle Wally”.
On Wally Backman/”Playing for Peanuts”
-What would be your definition of “Wally Ball”?
Well, everyone has a role. It can sound cliche, and I’m sure many managers say that, but with Wally you see it. It simplifies it for the team: Here’s your role. You do it and you get more playing time. Don’t and your role is diminished. This goes for everyone on the team from the outfielders to the bullpen. He will run and hit and run to take the extra base. He will put pressure on the pitcher and make them nervous if he can. He does not bunt as often as people say though. In Brooklyn, he is bunting more, especially with players like Darrel Ceciliani. This is more of a developmental thing though for the players in the system. With the Peanuts, they were an Independent league team and winning was the only thing that mattered. With Brooklyn, he also wants to make sure players can bunt and do fundamental things. Despite what people may think, Wally is also laid back with the players. Through a 90 game season, he only screamed at players twice. When he does yell, he does it to the whole team. He does not go after individual players. He will blame the team as a whole for lack of effort or production. He will however consistently go after umpires and protect his players. This resonates will players, and they always know Wally will stick up for them.
-Do you think the veteran big leaguers would respond to him?
Wally managed big leaguers. There are players who swear by him like Connor Jackson, Dan Uggla, and Carlos Quentin. He treats everyone with respect and they appreciate that. With the Peanuts, there were a lot of players who played with big leaguers and had success. Wally had many players with the Peanuts who were disgruntled because they wanted to be playing higher up. He never had issues with any of them and they went on to win the championship. His team also did something unheard of with 6 of his players going on to organized ball. Three of those players went to Triple A. He went looking for these guys as well, He did the scouting, calling agents and finding guys who had left baseball. After the season, people were seeking Wally. They wanted to play for him.
-What are some of the common misconceptions about Backman?
That he is confrontational with his own players. He will go after umpires like crazy but not after his own players. I remember one time when he was throwing equipment from the dugout. He was yelling angrily when he threw something, but then he would calmly turn to his catcher and say “hey watch out” and then return to his tirade. He knew what he was doing. There was a method to it. He is a great guy and the local media loved him. He often went the extra mile to make sure I had all I needed and he did this with the people covering the team as well.
-What has his impact been like in Brooklyn?
Well, winning. Typical Wally. I recognize that swagger and aggressive style of play from the Peanuts. I can recognize the roles as well. He is doing with Darrel Ceciliani what he did with Steve Garrabrants who was one of his favorite players there.
-Do you think the 2004 Firing of Wally by the Diamondbacks was unfair?
It was unfair because they knew or should have known the situation already. The stuff that came out about him, the altercation and DUI, were not new things. They were from the past and when they came out it looked like it just happened. This was information that was already available. Wally was already managing in their farm system which most people don’t know and the firing hurt his reputation unfairly. Jeff Pearlman has said “all they had to do was not hire him” if they felt that way.
-What was Wally like personally?
Originally, I was nervous I thought he was going to be crazy and yelling at me everyday. I heard the stories and was wondering how he would be in certain situations. When I told him the plan he was 100% cool with everything. He was one of the easiest people to work with. He made time for interviews with me and the local media. We all respected that he went the extra mile. He is accountable for everything and doesn’t duck questions. He is very honest and open. He’s like your cool uncle in a way. A lot of players would call him Uncle Wally. He loves hunting, he loves baseball, and he loves cursing out umpires.
-How do you think Met fans would respond to Wally?
I think they would love him. He’s never going to censor himself and never going to duck your questions. He has an accountability that New Yorkers respect. He is an aggressive in-game manager and he a similar style to Bobby V. He is laid back but when an umpire screws his player he goes bananas.
-What is your favorite Wally story?
It would have to be “The Ejection”. We had a rain delay one night game which was a mess. The game was delayed then started again but then was called very late. The grounds crew had a problem with the tarp and Wally was pissed. The next day the players were tired and Wally wasn’t happy. I told him before the game I would leave the mic off while I went to pick up one of my camera guys at the airport. It was like 102 degrees and people were already on edge. I came back from the airport in the 6th inning and turned his mic on. Not too long after a player was ejected for asking where a pitch was. Wally came out of the dugout and got himself ejected and at that point he let it all out. After he was ejected he went to take his shirt off, and I asked him not to because of the mic. He had no recollection that he had a mic on and it was the furthest thing from his mind. I almost missed the whole scene.
-What can the fans learn from your series “Playing for Peanuts”
What it would be like to play for Wally Backman or just to watch him manage. You get to see the day to day for minor leagues.
On the Mets
-Do you feel Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya should lose their jobs or are they scapegoats for underperforming players?
I’m not lobbying for anyone to get fired. You never want anyone to get fired or lose their job. I hate to see people lose their job but if the Mets’ management feels like it’s time for a change then they should move forward.
-What should be done with Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez?
I can see why fans want them to be cut but it’s tough for ownership to lose money like that. It’s not our money so it’s easier for us to suggest cutting them.However, sometimes you have to do so.
-Jeff Francouer has been outspoken about his playing time. Do you think he has a legitimate gripe?
He has a gripe, but he needs to start producing. He will have more of a case that way. He was lucky to get the time he has gotten. Platooning isn’t the end of the world and many players do it. It’s not fair to want a trade with his trade value. What could you really get in return?
-Do you think Carlos Beltran should be moved to right for Angel Pagan?
This goes back to Wally and his method of “roles”. Beltran should have to come back and prove himself. He should work his way back into the cleanup spot and centerfield. Especially when Pagan has played like he has. We don’t know if Jerry is making that call though. If I was a pitcher I would feel better with Pagan in center, especially when Beltran has a brace on his leg. Beltran should actually play left if he has mobility issues. When Bay returns he could play right. He has played different outfield spots. Nelson Figueroa commented on this a while back. He said that players in the Mets’ system were promoted for no reason or not the correct reasons.
Which young Mets have impressed you most?
Jon Neise and Ike Davis. I need to see more of Josh Thole and I don’t know if Ruben Tejada can hit. Hitting for Triple-A is different than hitting in the bigs. Fernando Martinez has never really put it together, but look at Carlos Gonzalez for Colorado. He was traded to a few different organizations and has now found it and is very impressive.
Watch clips from “Playing for Peanuts” or buy the DVD