Friday, November 19, 2010

A Threat I Don't Want to Carry Out

Jeff, our friend Chad, Charles, Jeff Wilpon, Me, My Father, and our friend Gianni at Citi Field, March 2009.

A few minutes ago, I got off the phone with the Mets ticket office. I had called a few weeks back in order to request an upgrade to the Saturday ticket plan I've had since 2001 (when I was 17). That Saturday plan started out in Loge Reserved, Section 28 at Shea. By 2008, we had moved closer to the infield and were in Section 22. After the 2008 season, after my friends (Jeff and Charles, pictured above) and I had spent nearly all of our disposable income watching the Mets falter down the stretch again, we had to sit on the sidelines like pieces of trash while the Mets decided if we were going to be allowed to purchase a Saturday package (or if they were even going to exist) at Citi Field. Thinking back now, it's absurd that the Mets nearly shut all of the plan holders out. Back then, they still had a bit of leverage...something to sell. Right now, it's time for us to have leverage.

To get back to today's phone wasn't about a potential upgrade for my Saturday package. It was to very politely inform the Mets that if they hired Bob Melvin to be their next Manager, my friends and I would not be renewing our tickets for next year. This isn't a choice I would've ever made on my own. The other two guys who purchase the package with me are the ones who informed me of their choice. I can't afford the tickets by myself, and even if I could, sitting there alone doesn't really appeal to me. We're not looking for adequacy, we're looking for excellence. We expect the front office to have the same mindset.

So, I made the call. It was h0nestly one of the toughest phone calls I've ever made. One of the hardest conversations I've ever had. The guy I spoke to was a ticket representative, not the type of guy who can directly impact Sandy Alderson's decision. What I asked him to do, for the sake of the organization, was to tell everyone in his department about my phone call. To have them tell employees who would filter that information to the people in the organization who care about losing millions of dollars after tons of other fans who are in my situation do the exact thing I'm threatening to do. The Mets employee informed me that he and others in his department have been getting lots of calls similar to mine, that they know how the fans feel.

Let me be clear: I do not want to cancel my tickets. I, alone, would not cancel my tickets if the Mets re-hired Art Howe. I would be furious, but the only thing that could make me cancel my tickets is if my friends pull out. And if the Mets hire Bob Melvin, that's exactly what they're going to do. Bob Melvin, from everything I've heard, is a good man. He's a smart man. He has experience Managing in the Major Leagues, but the best thing his supporters say about him is that he's average. AVERAGE? That's what this team is shooting for? Melvin would be an absolutely abysmal choice for this team at this point in time. He's been fired from his last two Major League managing jobs. People close to him say he doesn't want to deal with the media scrutiny in New York. People close to him also say he's not a fit for the New York market in general. Before the Mets job opened up, Bob Melvin interviewed to be the Major League manager for three other teams. No one hired him.

The Mets, from 2007-2010, have been a team that's lacked discipline, lacked a certain hunger to win. They've made mistakes on the field, and made mistakes off the field. They've had a serious leadership void. After 2009, the fans started to stay away. 2011 will most likely be a transition year, and that's fine. However, the fans need something to grab onto. They need someone in the dugout who offers them hope. Wally Backman does that. And to a lesser extent, Terry Collins and Chip Hale could as well. Bob Melvin? He's the only one of the remaining four candidates who would cause fans to CANCEL their tickets. Choosing him would cause, although a bit unfair, the fans to believe that nothing has really changed. The Mets cleaned out the front office, and fired Jerry. They replaced Omar's group with three brilliant individuals. If those individuals hire Bob Melvin, it will be seen as not just a safe and uninspired choice, but a slap in the face to the fans who support this team monetarily. For those who ask how we can be happy with Alderson being hired, but unhappy with his Managerial choice, this is my response: Even smart people make bad decisions.

During the conversation I had with the employee from the Mets, I was as calm as could be. I apologized several times for the fact that he had to take the brunt of my anger. I informed him that it's not the fairweather fans who the Mets were going to lose, it's the fans who have been there in good times, bad times, and awful times. Like in 1993, when I was 9 years old and the Mets were horrendous. I wanted to go to a game to see Sid Fernandez pitch because I loved the team and the season was about to end. So I begged my father and we went. I told the employee from the Mets that I would never stop being a Mets fan, that I wouldn't care any less. I would simply not be contributing one cent to the team.

These tickets mean a lot to my friends and I. Going to a Mets game isn't just about sitting there and watching the Mets. It's a way to hang onto our childhood. In 1983, I was born into being a Mets fan. Most of my earliest memories are Mets related. Aside from moments with my family and friends, most of my fondest memories are Mets related. My Grandfather is the reason everyone in my family is a Mets fan. He was born in 1913, and became a die hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan. When they moved to Los Angeles, he was devastated. In 1962, the Mets arrived and he was whole again. I learned to love the game of baseball and respect the game by observing him as he watched the Mets, by listening to all of his stories. He passed away in 2008. Like my Grandfather, I will never stop being a Mets fan. I will never stop caring about them. I will never stop hanging on every pitch, waiting for that next incredible moment.

Now is the time for the Mets to go all the way, to take a chance. The fans, who have been there no matter what, need something to grab a hold of. We know it's the players who have the greatest influence on wins and losses, but it's the Manager who is responsible for keeping those players focused, firing them up, standing up for them. Art Howe, Willie Randolph, and Jerry Manuel didn't do that. We don't think Bob Melvin will either. Don't hire the person who you know will do things adequately, hire someone who you think can do something special.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Mets Fans Want Wally Backman

The search for the next Manager of the New York Mets has been lengthy (the last candidate interviewed on Monday). It's been analyzed to the point of dizziness, and everyone seems to have a strong opinion regarding which direction the team should go. The fans have their favorites, and if you've read anything written by Bob Klapisch (pro-Backman) or Ken Davidoff (anti-Backman), it's quite apparent that the writers have their favorites as well.

Along the way, there were rumors that only two men would receive an invitation to sit down with Alderson and Co. for a 2nd round interview. Then, it was mentioned that three guys might get a 2nd round interview, or four,
or five. Finally, it was revealed yesterday that Wally Backman, Terry Collins, Chip Hale, and Bob Melvin would be receiving 2nd interviews. What did all of those conflicting reports mean? Likely, that no one has a clue which way the Mets are leaning. People can cite eight year old quotes from Moneyball in order to push their argument that Alderson wants a puppet, or they can use two week old quotes in order to push their argument that Alderson wants someone who, in his words, could be "a fiery manager. And I think a fiery manager is actually quite desirable. I think that in some cases a manager is not only representing an organization, but the fans in maybe frustrating situations and acts as a proxy for all of us."

A "proxy for all of us." Sounds like someone who cares as much as the fans do, not just inwardly but outwardly. It sounds like someone who would be able to deal with the media and the scrutiny that comes along with managing in New York. It doesn't sound like
someone who quit his last two managerial jobs that were in small markets, and it doesn't sound like someone who may not be a a good fit for the New York market. People like to point out that when the Yankees hired Joe Torre in 1996, he had pretty much only failed as a manager to that point, and he wasn't known as much of a "personality." However, Joe Torre was from New York. And Joe Torre stepped into a situation where his team's payroll was so astronomical that trips to the Playoffs were basically guaranteed. No one really knows what Sandy Alderson wants, except for Sandy Alderson. It is why the rest of us sit around arguing with eachother over who the best fit for the Mets will be. We argue because we care deeply about the future of our favorite team. We argue because we're almost frighteningly passionate about the Mets. Whoever is hired to manage this team needs to not only realize how intense the market and the fans are, but be able to deal with it.

Which takes us to Wally Backman, who has been regarded as both a favorite and a long-shot to manage the Mets in 2011. Backman's past is well known by most. He was arrested for driving under the influence 11 years ago. Tony La Russa and Terry Collins have also been guilty of that transgression, so let's bury that one. His other main offense was being involved in a domestic dispute where HE was the victim. That was the past. No one (not Sandy Alderson, not you, not me), is perfect. And it's been mentioned that the Mets are viewing his candidacy strictly from a baseball point of view. Like most, they don't care about supposed transgressions that happened over a decade ago - stuff that could've happened to nearly anyone.

Why do many Mets fans want Wally Backman to manage the Mets in 2011 and beyond? It's not, despite the ramblings of some, because he was on the 1986 World Champions. If that was the case, fans would be clamoring for Tim Teufel or Lee Mazzilli or Ray Knight. It's not because he's fiery. If fiery - and fiery alone was what Mets fans wanted, they'd be on board with Terry Collins. It's certainly not because of a Youtube video of Backman going off on an umpire. That video is incredibly entertaining, but being able to go off on an umpire who just ran your player for no reason (before running you for no reason) does not make someone equipped to be a potentially great manager in the Major Leagues.

Lots of those who are attempting to discredit Backman and his chances, note how no other Major League teams have come after him hard for their managerial opening. To that I say the following: Who interviewed Ryne Sandberg for big league Manager besides the Cubs? Who came after Don Mattingly besides the Dodgers? The point? Just because someone isn't being sought after by other clubs (who obviously know much less about the man than the club they're employed by), doesn't mean they're not qualified. And it certainly doesn't mean they're toxic.

Mets fans want Wally Backman because of the way his players talk about him. Most players will always back up their manager, but the way Backman is spoken about doesn't fall into the same vein of most of the politically correct praise you hear players heap upon their manager. Mets fans want Wally Backman because they relate to him. They get the sense that he cares as much as they do, that he'll do anything in his power to help the team succeed. Mets fans want Wally Backman because of the way he relates to his players, the relationships he's formed with them, and the way he communicates with them on a daily basis regarding their role and how to improve. Mets fans want Wally Backman because of the style of baseball he's known to teach and push. Yes, he bunted a lot in the minors, but research has shown that players who bunted last year under Backman reached base safely nearly 50 percent of the time (hat tip to Acer from NYFS). Which means he was bunting for hits, not to give up outs. Mets fans want Wally Backman because they feel he can handle the New York market, that he won't shrink at the sight of 50 microphones in his face day after day after day. And damn right, Mets fans want Wally Backman because he's hungry and a bit combustible. Backman won't sit back and watch his team or any individual player get screwed by the umpires, as Art Howe and Willie Ranolph and Jerry Manuel often did. We don't want him to throw things on the field and get ejected, we want him to stand up for the players, for the team, for us. Which he would do. Mets fans want Wally Backman because of everything that was mentioned above. All of those qualities meshed together would (we think) make Backman a near perfect fit for this team.

Wally Backman doesn't have experience managing in the Major Leagues. How many days of major league managing experience did Gil Hodges have before he was hired by the Senators? How many days of major league managing experience did Bobby Valentine have before he was hired by the Rangers. How many days of major league managing experience did Tony La Russa have before he was hired by the White Sox? None, none, and none. Without first chances, no one (let alone major league managers) would be employed. No one would get the opportunity to make an impression, to prove themselves, to do something special.

I've listened to Wally Backman manage (on the radio). I've watched Wally Backman manage (on TV). I've seen Wally Backman manage (in person). I know first hand how he operates on the baseball field. I've seen the type of strategy he utilizes, I've seen how he's constantly pumping his players up and offering advice. I've seen how, before every inning starts, he stands behind home plate analyzing the opposing team's pitcher before he jogs over to 3rd base (where he coached last year on top of his managing responsibility). I know how I feel about Backman. Here's how his players feel about him:

Dan Uggla- He’s one of my all-time favorite managers -- just people in baseball, bottom line. He really cares about the game. He really cares about his players. And he cares about winning. Wally, I know he’s been through some tough times, but he is seriously one of the best guys I’ve ever met in baseball. He helped me out a ton. He’s very passionate with protecting his players.

I’ll tell you what, if you play for Wally Backman, you’re going to be able to run through a brick wall, because we have the same emotions toward him as he has toward us. I mean, I would have run through a brick wall for him. Everybody is playing hard -- I think playing above their ability -- when they play for a guy like that."

Jeremy Reed - 'He’s definitely the best manager that I’ve had throughout the minor leagues. He puts people in situations to succeed. He’s a fiery guy, a hard-working guy and a guy that when you play for him, you want to succeed so much because of the way he goes about his business every day. Every day we had to work tremendously hard to get better before the game. And then after the game, if things kind of didn’t go our way, he was still the same way and still respected the player. He didn’t bash the player. Sometimes you get a cold shoulder from a manager. He was the same every day, and it was fun to go to the park every day. I played every day for him, but he would let me know ahead of time if I wasn’t in there.

You could just have conversations. He’d call me into his office and ask me if there was anything I felt like I needed to do differently, if I needed a day off. Just the communication was very solid. You just don’t get that at a lower level. You get that a little more at the big league level because I think guys kind of know their role a little more. At the minor league level, you don’t really get that, because for the most part they have their guys they have to play. But he found a way to get every guy in there regardless of what their situation was. To be honest -- and I’m not a pitcher -- I think it was the best I’ve ever seen a minor league manager run a bullpen."

No one knows whether or not Wally Backman would succeed in New York with the Mets, just as no one knows whether or not Bob Melvin or Terry Collins or Chip Hale would succeed in the same role. What we do know is that he's had success at every level he's managed. We know what his style is. We know how pretty much every man who's ever played for Wally Backman feels about him. We know how he motivated them. How, unlike Collins, who was apparently unable to "relate to his players as human beings," and unlike Melvin, who most feel isn't suited for the New York market, Backman seems like someone who would thrive in a market like this, for a team like this. Someone who was born to lead. Someone who if given a chance, would have the opportunity to prove it.