Tuesday, November 09, 2004

THE WOUND AND THE BALL. The most important high-level appointment of the month is Willie Randolph's. He has solid baseball (and New York baseball) cred, and he's smart, at least in interviews, and God knows all Mets fan welcome him and wish him well. But I can't help but think what might have been.

Former Met Wally Backman was in the hunt, at least fleetingly, and I was really hoping he'd get the job. When he went to the Diamondbacks instead, I was very interested to see what he'd do with them. He'd done well managing in the minors, and came into Arizona announcing that he would not rebuild the fallen D'backs, but win with them. This was classic Backman. He was the sort of player one expected to come into first spikes up: tightly-wound and no backing down. He wasn't generally a great batter or base-stealer, but in the Mets' championship year he hit .320 and he made pitchers nervous with his nervy, glaring, stretch-legged leads. I think he smelled victory and went after it like a hungry tiger. He was 5'9" and skinny and with his mustache and bellicose swagger reminded me of Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail.

Recently the Diamondbacks fired Backman after learning of his trailer-park history: domestic violence, drunk driving, bankruptcy. It may seem odd that his financial problems -- not a crime, at least not yet -- are in that mix until you recall how often the words "role model" come up in professional sports. I doubt very much anyone in the Arizona organization cares very much about Backman's character as such, but they seem to have serious concerns, as everyone seems to these days, about the appearance of impropriety. And so he was let go.

Do I care about his character? The question gives me pause. New York loved Billy Martin, by all accounts a seriously messed up guy -- but one who channeled his demons into baseball (when he was not sending them into his fists and drinking elbow) and won ballgames. Let us not forget that these are jocks we're talking about, and that those guys don't usually draw their inspiration from the same source as lyric poets. When most people do acid and smoke pot, they rhapsodize about trees; Bill "Spaceman" Lee mowed down batters and got into fistfights.

I never wondered before the revelations if Backman went home and belted his wife, and of course I don't approve and hope the anger management classes he had to take made him a less combative helpmeet, not to mention a more careful drinker/driver. But whether or not he's achieved a Phil Jackson sort of Zen enlightenment, I assume he'd still have something left over for baseball, and that in a tight game he'd run out and rip into an umpire over some stupid play in hopes of riling his team to victory. It's worked before, hasn't it?

This, I acknowledge, is a failing in my character. I should be wishing Backman a mellow old age, not casting him as Philoctetes. Baseball does that to me. Politics, too. I'm down for whatever it takes to get my team out the cellar.

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