Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, April 26, 2013 | 2 a.m.
These two New York Mets legends could talk for hours about of their memories from those legendary seasons in the 1980s.
Thursday at Cashman Field in downtown Las Vegas, some 2,600 miles from the New York Mets’ Citi Field, longtime friends and former teammates Wally Backman and Howard Johnson greeted each other in the outfield before batting practice.
Backman is the manager of the Las Vegas 51s, the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate. Johnson is the hitting coach for the Tacoma Rainiers, which opened a four-game Pacific Coast League series against the 51s.
While it may have seemed like a special moment for two members of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets, the reunion is nothing out of the ordinary because they remain in frequent contact.
“We stayed close over the years,” Backman said. “I saw him before we went to spring training, and all that stuff. We see each other quite a bit.”
Johnson, also known as “HoJo,” and Backman spent a lot of time together during their stint in Mets uniforms. The two played alongside Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson for manager Davey Johnson in New York.
It was a different era when the Mets were the toast of the town, fueled by a seven-game World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox — a series that included the now infamous Bill Buckner ball-between-the-legs play.
“It was wild,” said Johnson, who also won a World Series title with the Detroit Tigers in 1984. “It was a great time to be a part of the New York Mets, and New York City was crazy for the Mets at that point. It’s a special time. It’ll be harder for the Mets to get what the Yankees now have. Not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a lot different nowadays.”
Johnson admits he's still getting used to the idea of seeing the Mets farm club in Las Vegas.
“It’s a little strange, I have to admit,” said Johnson, who also coached in the Mets organization, serving as the first-base coach at one point. “You don’t think of the Mets being here (in the Pacific Coast League). It’s kind of a West Coast thing, yet you get here and see familiar faces and people wearing Mets gear.”
Backman gave his friend plenty of credit for being a high-level teacher of baseball, especially when it comes to hitting.
It only makes sense, however. Johnson was a two-time winner of the Silver Slugger award (the award given to the top hitter in each league).
“He’s very into the hitting part of it,” Backman said. “He gives his hitters a lot of information. Whatever information he could dig up from those scouting reports, I’m sure those hitters have it.”
Johnson was equally complimentary, calling Backman a “bright baseball mind.” He went on to say that it is only a matter of time before Backman gets a chance to manage in the big leagues.
“One of these days, Wally is going to get a shot. I would love to be one of his coaches,” Johnson said. “It’s important to have people that you know and trust. We go back a long way and share a lot of the same experiences.”
When pressed if he would like to have Johnson on a coaching staff — in the majors or elsewhere — Backman just shrugged and said, “It’s a possibility. He knows what he’s coaching.”
In the meantime, the two will settle for sharing scouting information about other teams in the Pacific Coast League.
“We’ve shared advice on the other teams we’ve played (in the league),” Backman said. “(It helps) especially the teams (Howard has) seen that I haven’t seen.”
But what about the 51s?
“I’m not trying to help him with (games against us),” Backman said with a smile. “This is serious, and we’re trying to win.”