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Past Imperfect

April 11, 2005
April 11, 2005

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April 11, 2005

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Past Imperfect

After more than two decades in baseball, Wally Backman landed his dream job: manager of a major league club. That's when his life came crashing down

So few of us succeed as Wally Backman has succeeded. So few of us are told, Here, take these keys to the kingdom, only to be informed, just a few blinks later, No, wait, those aren't your keys. Wally Backman rose as a player and a manager through effort, pluck, moxie, hustle, whatever you call the fierce competitiveness that we all profess to believe defines American athletics at its best. His sudden, dramatic fall, however, had more to do with past misconduct than current misbehavior and nothing to do with his universally acknowledged skills as a baseball man. His story raises questions about when to forgive the miscreant and when atonement can be determined to have occurred. His saga would, before it was over, force many who knew Backman's history to look at their own past and review the soft and mutable "facts" in another, harsher light. He may not be as villainous as was reported, and he is certainly not as innocent as he professes. The difference between guilt and innocence, for Backman and for so many of us, is a matter of degree.

This is an article from the April 11, 2005 issue Original Layout

Even now, after his precipitous fall, the only thing we can be certain of is that Wally Backman paid the price for his sins. Whatever they were.

On Nov. 1, 2004, Wally Backman, 45, sat at an Arizona Diamondbacks press conference and uttered all the platitudes one expects from a team's new skipper: vows to compete, to get the most out of his players and, of course, to "win ... that's what I've always been about." Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick, G.M. Joe Garagiola Jr. and CEO Jeff Moorad gathered around their new manager and Garagiola gave Backman a D-backs jersey to put on. It seemed like a perfect fit. The gritty former switch-hitting second baseman, who provided top-of-the-order spark for the 1986 world champion New York Mets, had been defined throughout his 14-year major league career by his hard-charging, dirty-uniform style. At 5'9" and 160 pounds, Backman had always been an underdog who made up for his lack of power by "giving you whatever you needed," says fellow '86 Met Gary Carter, "a base hit, a stolen base, a play in the field. Wally just got it done." Backman's best season was that World Series year, when he led the team with a .320 average. "He had a great feel for the game," says Davey Johnson, the Mets' manager from 1984 to '90. "He was a foxhole player, a guy who will keep grinding and grinding until the job is done."

Backman had taken that same approach in his postplaying days as manager, from high school baseball in Crook County, Ore., up through Western League franchises in Bend, Ore., and Washington's Tri-Cities; through Winston-Salem, N.C., and Birmingham in the Chicago White Sox system; to Lancaster, Calif., where he had guided the Diamondbacks' Class A franchise, the JetHawks, to an 86--54 record in 2004 and been named The Sporting News's minor league manager of the year. "To watch him dissect a game and pick apart an opposing manager was incredible," says JetHawks G.M. Brad Seymour. As a player Backman had a knack for annoying opposing pitchers and for taking the extra base; as a manager he quickly developed a scrappy style of baseball in which runs were manufactured through deep-count at bats and aggressive but intelligent baserunning; his players proudly called it Wally Ball.

The D-Backs' new owners, led by Kendrick, saw Wally Ball as their path to salvation--the cheapest way to put a compelling and competitive product onto the diamond at Bank One Ballpark, where attendance had dropped by 21% since 2002. The front office, already acknowledging that Randy Johnson would soon join fellow All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling in fleeing for a bigger market and a contending team, believed Backman would spark a team lacking in gate attractions. Kendrick, like many others in the front office, had been impressed by the fiery former player, describing him as "a very aggressive, combative type of person ... inspirational to younger players." Kendrick believed Backman would maximize the return on a payroll that the team was looking to minimize.

For the gala press conference heralding Backman's hiring, the Diamondbacks flew in two of Wally's four children; his wife of seven years, Sandi; her three kids; and his parents, Sam and Ida, all from Oregon. The family was taken on a tour of the stadium and shown Wally's office, next to the clubhouse. There was his desk, an attendant told them, and here was his personal refrigerator. "We stock it with whatever the manager wants," the guide explained.

"He drinks scotch," joked one of Wally's stepdaughters.

For Sandi and the rest of the clan, there was a sense of pride in her husband's accomplishment. "Wally killed himself for this," says Ida Backman, 72. "We always instilled in our children that you can achieve whatever dream you have if you work hard enough." And then they were all led out of the clubhouse, through the home dugout and onto the field. As they stood on that manicured diamond, one of the kids joked, "This is gonna be Wally World."

"This was it," says Backman now. "I was meant to manage in the big leagues. I did everything I had to do--played in the minors, the majors, managed in the minors. I was made for this job."

The furthest issue from his mind as he reviewed the Diamondbacks' roster the next day was his history of legal and financial problems. "This was about right now," Backman recalls. "Everybody has a past. I mean George W. Bush has a DUI, and he's the President. My past really hadn't come up. Why did it matter?"

During his interviews with Kendrick, Garagiola and club president Rich Dozer, Backman had been asked about that past. In fact, Kendrick's final question in Backman's second official interview on Oct. 27 was, "Is there anything we need to know about that might prevent us from offering you this job?"

"No," was Backman's instant response.

Yet as Backman sat there across from Kendrick in a conference room in Bank One Ballpark, he had already violated his probation for a June 1999 drunken driving arrest in Benton County, Wash., and was facing jail time. Under a deferred-prosecution program, the arrest would have been scrubbed from his record if Backman had completed an alcohol diversion program in a timely manner and fulfilled certain other requirements. Instead, he pleaded guilty to the '99 DUI in January 2001, spent a night in jail and was put on five years' probation. In October '01, unbeknownst to Benton County authorities, Backman was arrested again, following a domestic violence incident in Oregon, and subsequently pleaded guilty to harassment, which automatically put him in violation of his probation; ironically, it was the publicity from Backman's hiring by the Diamondbacks that made county authorities aware of his Oregon legal troubles. "As soon as we found out about that arrest, that was enough for me to schedule a hearing," Holly Hollenbeck, Benton County district court judge, said later. "It's not unusual to get 90 days for [a probation violation]." Backman insists he didn't even know he was on probation and thus was not hiding that fact when he was hired.

"He's like a lot of people," says Judge Hollenbeck. "They just don't listen or read.... My personal opinion is that he is a classic alcoholic."

"Want a beer?" Wally Backman asks in his raspy bass. He wears a graying mustache, his hair is cut and blow-dried in the style of early '80s TV detectives, and much of his wardrobe--the tight jeans, the snug T-shirts, the shiny bomber jackets--seems an unconscious homage to that same group.

He's standing in the billiard room of his white one-story house in Prineville, Ore., pop. 7,356. Parked outside is a Keystone camper with an extended bay that Backman takes on fishing trips. There are two Ford pickups out there as well, and a sign on the side of the house that reads Wally and Sandi Backman and All of our Seven, referring to the seven children Wally and Sandi have from previous marriages, this being his second and her third. As he stands beneath a six-point mule deer head and a bearskin mounted on the wall, both trophies from hunting trips, Wally is straining to project patience and calm. He is aware that when the press began reporting his legal troubles following his hiring by the Diamondbacks, he was seen as, he says, "a drunken wife-beater."

His petite wife, wearing a pink sweater and blue jeans, walks into the room and folds her arms. She says Wally wants to explain everything, and the two of them retreat to their den. They sit together on a tan sofa next to a gas fireplace. Before them, spread out over a coffee table, are legal documents they insist prove that Wally is not a bad man, that he has been misunderstood.

Sandi has a small, pinched face that, despite her 55 years, projects a teenager's enthusiasm. She was born and raised in Prineville and met Wally 10 years ago, when he employed her daughter as a nanny for his son, Wally Jr., following his separation from his first wife, Margie. As Wally gives his version of his legal history--the DUI and domestic-violence arrests, his having declared bankruptcy in 2003 because of money then owed to the IRS--Sandi interrupts repeatedly, correcting his geography, chronology and casting of the various episodes. She looks through the documents for corroboration of key points, but soon gives up and slides the messy pile of paper over to a reporter. "Here," she says. "It's all in here."

And there it is, the postbaseball life of Wally Backman, in black-and-white xeroxes that have headings like crook county sheriffs office incident report or county of benton probation hearing, and it is impossible not to wonder how one man could generate so much paperwork.

As soon as Ken Kendrick saw the Nov. 2 New York Times profile of his new manager, he regretted neglecting to order a background check. Major league teams did not have a policy of running such screens, and among Diamondbacks officials there had been a sense of complacency because Backman had already achieved success in their system. After all, this had been more like a promotion than a new hire. (Background checks on managerial candidates, in the aftermath of Backman's hiring, have become common practice in baseball.) The Times profile, which praised Backman as "all intensity, all the time" also included a few paragraphs detailing his DUI, his guilty plea, the bankruptcy filing, and, most troubling, the domestic violence incident of Oct. 7, 2001. On that night, according to the Prineville police incident report, Backman threatened to kill his wife, broke down the door to his house and then used a baseball bat to assault one of the other terrified women inside, Sherrie Rhoden, who was left with a bloody gash on her face. "Wally Sr. came into the kitchen and was going after [Sandi]," wrote officer Raymond Cueller. "Rhoden stood in front of Wally Sr. and told him to leave. While Rhoden had the bat in her hand, Wally Sr. kept telling Rhoden to go ahead and hit him. Wally Sr. told Rhoden she did not have the balls to do it.... As the bat was in the upright position, Wally Sr. pushed the bat back towards Rhoden's face and hit her in the nose area. Wally Sr. began to push her and she swung the bat and hit Wally Sr. on the left arm. Wally Sr. fell to the kitchen floor."

A supplemental report also says that when officers interviewed Wally, his account was "vague and lacked detail. He was clearly evasive about his actions in this event and was found to be untruthful in his actions."

Wally tells a far different version of what happened that night. He and Sandi had been arguing that day, yes, but it was a routine domestic squabble about an impending hunting trip. Wally says he stormed out of their house, went fishing in the Crooked River and then had dinner at his parents' house. Upon his return home, he found the side door locked. He seldom carried house keys; doors in Prineville are often unlocked. He shouted at the four women inside to open up. They refused. Enraged, he put his shoulder to the door and pushed the dead bolt through the molding. Barring his way into the kitchen was family friend Rhoden, wielding a Louisville Slugger.

"Leave, Wally," Sherrie commanded.

"This is my house!" Wally shouted.

In the ensuing struggle for the bat, it popped back into her face. "It barely touched her," Backman says, "just enough to cause the tiniest pinprick of blood."

He says he then let go of the bat and said, "Go ahead, hit me."

She did. Backman got his left arm up in time to block the blow, which broke his forearm. (He later realized that the bat was one he had swung in the 1986 World Series.) "It was a stupid fight," says Backman, who still has a 10-inch titanium plate in his arm that causes metal detectors to beep. "It was a husband-and-wife thing that got out of hand. We were mad. People overreacted. But I never laid a hand on my wife."

Sandi Backman agrees. She'd invited Rhoden, along with friends Sarah and Karis Sweet, over that afternoon. "We girls had been drinking a few beers and having a bit of a man-bashing session," Sandi says. Wally eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment.

It is difficult to determine exactly what transpired that evening. Certainly, Wally was threatening his wife and the other women in the house. He was, according to the officers on the scene, drunk. Yet should the police report be used as a prism through which to view the whole marriage? Or was this, as Wally insists, an isolated incident in an otherwise healthy relationship? Today the Backmans seem like a happy couple, and Sandi downplays that evening as nothing more than a bad memory. Judge Hollenbeck describes that sort of dismissive appraisal as "very common in domestic violence situations. [The wives] say, 'Oh, he's a good man when he's sober, please don't put him in jail.'"

With the help of a private investigator, the Diamondbacks' ownership--which was facing an onslaught of media criticism--was now piecing together its own version of events. Kendrick spoke with Rhoden, who insisted that she had instigated the fight. "I was totally out of line," Rhoden told SI. "Sandi and I have been friends a long time, and I was overly protective of her. I shouldn't have been involved." Sarah Sweet says, "It was a fight that blew out of proportion. I never thought it was his intent to hurt anybody."

Kendrick put more stock in the police report. The Diamondbacks' private investigator uncovered the whole disturbing rap sheet on Backman: the DUI, the probation and the domestic violence incident as well as the bitter 1995 divorce from Margie, during which she obtained a temporary restraining order after accusing Wally of beating her. This was another piece of apparently damning evidence seized upon in newspaper accounts. Yet a closer look reveals that the restraining order was obtained ex parte, a legal term which means that only the party seeking the order has to be present when the judge grants it. Almost anyone can request such an order, and in the course of divorce litigation, many people do. Margie Backman did not show up at the hearing during which Wally contested the order, resulting in its immediate cancellation. (Margie Backman did not respond to SI's repeated requests for comment.)

Still, from the team's point of view, what had emerged was a troubling pattern of drunkenness and domestic violence. When Kendrick confronted him about the 2001 incident, Backman stuck to his story: It was just a husband-wife argument that got a little out of hand. "His explanation was totally inconsistent with the police reports," says Kendrick. "There was a mountain of problems off the field.... He is not of a stature to manage a major league baseball team.

"Not that you can't accept somebody as part of your organization who has made a mistake," says Kendrick. "But there is a pattern--his unwillingness to recognize that he may have a problem with alcohol and his unwillingness to even be truthful with us, to own up to any of these events.... Even if he had been honest, I think we would have made the same decision. [Otherwise] we would have been left with a manager who, about two months after we put him on our payroll, would have been serving jail time."

The team now felt it had no choice but to back away from its troubled manager. The Diamondbacks fired Backman on Nov. 5. He had been their manager for five days.

Wally Backman is hunched over a fly vise, tying deer hair around a nymph lure. His glasses perched low on his nose, he moves his hands up and over the fake yellow bug with surprising grace and delicacy. After he clips off strands of golden fur with nail scissors, he picks up a cigarette and takes a drag. As major leaguers toil in spring training, trying to relocate their fastballs and batting swings, Backman spent February and March in the hills outside Prineville, stalking a completely different kind of game.

His paneled den has a giant-screen TV in one corner and a signed '86 Mets poster on the wall; on the coffee table is a cribbage board shaped like the state of Oregon. "I was young and dumb," Backman says of his not-too-distant past. "I made mistakes and did things that I'm not proud of. But when will this end? When can I get on with my life?" He points out that through the hundreds of pages of petitions, summonses and filings, one central fact emerges: His last brush with the law was in October 2001, a full three years before he was hired and fired by the Diamondbacks.

Should a man still be held accountable for an incident that, though troubling, seems isolated? Not if the incident is truly isolated. But if Backman's 2001 domestic violence charge is part of a pattern of behavior he has not yet broken, then perhaps Arizona was right in firing him. Or is Backman guilty of nothing more than having had one very bad night after drinking too much? Drinking, Backman points out, has hardly been a disqualification for being a big league manager--or player. "I'm not an alcoholic," he says. "I have a glass of wine with dinner once in a while or I'll have a beer."

Why, then, did he admit to being an alcoholic in a statement to the court in 1999? "That was to get into [the] diversion program instead of pleading guilty," he says. (Only those who admit to having an alcohol problem qualify for Washington's deferred prosecution program for DUIs.)

"They've made me out to be this bad person," Backman says, shaking his head. "I'm no saint. I've got a past. But now [they say] I'm a drunken wife-beater. How can I get a job now? You look at your accomplishments, and then it gets taken away just like that. Now, if I have a drink, one drink, I'm an alcoholic. That's ridiculous. And then to go back to jail for this old stuff.... "

In January he served seven days in Benton County jail, two days longer than his major league managerial career.

Wally Backman slides a Louisville Slugger into the cab of his silver Ford F-250, next to his son. Wally Jr., 19, is an infield prospect in the Texas Rangers organization, now preparing for his second season in the Arizona Rookie League. Father and son work out every day in the off-season.

Wally Jr. is 6'3" and broader than his father, bigger in the hips and shoulders. "He's built like a Cal Ripken--type shortstop," Wally Sr. says. "He has softer hands than me, more power." There is still a light dusting of adolescent acne on Wally Jr.'s face. He has a wide smile and an easygoing manner and conspicuously lacks his father's intensity. Even if he doesn't make it in baseball, you sense that he will somehow find a way to happiness. Wally Sr., on the other hand, seems lost without baseball. These sessions are as much therapy for Wally Sr. as they are instruction for Wally Jr.

The two ride over to the Crook County High indoor batting cage, where Wally Sr. takes up position behind an L-shaped pitcher's screen and throws batting practice to his lefthanded-hitting son. He calls out each toss, "changeup" or "fastball," as Wally Jr. takes his cuts.

"O.K.," Wally Sr. says after a swing, "Hold it."

He walks around his son, who is frozen in his follow-through. Wally Sr. pushes down his son's back leg and then presses down on his front foot. "You gotta use your lower half. Your hands start everything," he says softly, "but your power comes from your lower half."

And then Wally Sr. walks back behind the pitching screen, to all that's left of Wally World. ■

"This was it," says Backman. "I was MEANT TO MANAGE in the big leagues. I did what I had to--played in the minors, the majors, managed in the minors. I was made for this job."
There it is, the postbaseball life of Wally Backman, in black and white xeroxes that have headings like CROOK COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE INCIDENT REPORT.
"I was young and dumb," Backman says of his past. "I made mistakes and did things that I'm not proud of. But when will this end? When can I GET ON WITH MY LIFE?"
Backman seems LOST WITHOUT BASEBALL. The off-season training sessions with his son are as much therapy for Wally Sr. as they are instruction for Wally Jr.
COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Rich FrishmanROUGH AND READY Arizona was eager to capitalize on the scrappy style that earned Backman a title ring with the '86 Mets.COLOR PHOTOTONY TRIOLOCOLOR PHOTOROY DABNER/APHE'S OUR MAN Before hiring Backman in November, Garagiola (right) and the team's new owners never did a background check.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Rich FrishmanHOME TEAM They seem happy now, but a 2001 argument between Sandi and Wally was the flashpoint of his legal troubles.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Rich FrishmanSOLITUDE While major leaguers reported to Florida and Arizona, Backman spent his time stalking a different kind of game.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Rich FrishmanA TEAM OF TWO Backman's baseball know-how now is focused on his son, an infield prospect in the Rangers organization.