Thursday, April 3, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Walking from the Las Vegas 51s dugout at Cashman Field to the clubhouse Tuesday before his team’s practice, manager Wally Backman ran into a few familiar faces along the way.
Backman, a former New York Mets infielder, is popular with his players, getting the most out of them last year in finishing the second half of the season 18 games over .500 to make the postseason for just the fourth time in more than 30 years of Las Vegas baseball.
Most players had just arrived in Las Vegas for Thursday’s start of the Triple-A season, reuniting with some who last season helped the 51s finish with the second-best record in the 16-team Pacific Coast League at 81-63.
“How’s it going, Soup?” Backman asked outfielder Eric Campbell, who batted .316 last year and is one of the team’s top returners.
With eight returners from last season who at one point were promoted to the Mets, the 51s again are expected to field another winning team.
They are loaded with players such as infielder Zach Lutz and outfielder Matt den Dekker, who could have broken spring training with the Mets and likely will be promoted at some point in the season. They also have highly regarded prospects such as Thursday’s starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, a 21-year-old considered the Mets’ most-prized prospect.
But, talk with those in the Mets organization, and they’ll argue Backman deserves much of the credit for the success. Like his players, Backman should give the 51s an edge this season.
“Many years ago, I was told by a manager that players take on the personality of their manager,” Mets manager Terry Collins said last month. “If the players that leave Las Vegas take on Wally’s personality, we’ll be better in New York.”
Backman, who played for the Mets from 1980-88 and was part of the 1986 World Series championship team, remains humble when asked about his role in the 51s’ success. It was a team effort, he says.
“The players deserve a lot of that credit,” Backman said. “They believed they can win. They played the game the right way. We talked about how important winning is because that is part of development.”
Like most people in the minor leagues, Backman’s goal is to continue impressing to catch the eye of someone in the big leagues. He’s working for a chance to be a major-league manager.
Backman already had that job, albeit briefly.
In the fall of 2004, he was hired as the Arizona Diamondbacks' skipper after being the minor league manager of the year and leading Arizona’s High A affiliate to an 86-54 record.
However, he was fired just four days later after news reports detailed multiple legal and financial troubles.
It would be back to the drawing board, a journey leading Backman to Las Vegas.
He’s won at virtually every stop, including leading the Mets’ team in Brooklyn to a league-best 51-24 record and the New York-Penn League title in 2009. In 2011, Backman had two interviews to become the Mets' manager, but the job went to Collins.
Instead, Backman spent the 2011 season in Double-A with the Mets and has been with the Triple-A team since 2012.
“A lot of time, it is who you know and who you don’t know,” Backman said about getting a major-league managing job. “You have to wait and see. Right now, I’m the manager in Las Vegas. I’m going to try to bring a championship to Las Vegas with these guys.”
Those guys, as was the case last year, have proved they respond to Backman's leadership.
“He is pretty laid-back as a manager. He played the game hard. You are going to be on his side,” Lutz said.
Backman also appears to be highly thought of by Mets officials. Another winning season certainly won’t hurt.
“Wally Backman is one of the best baseball guys you can be around,” Collins said. “He knows how to win; he knows all about it. That has been his whole life.”