Durham/DBAP — I grew up in “little” Washington, North Carolina, a town of around 10,000 people in the Coastal Plains. In 1979 we scored cable television and suddenly we had 162 New York Mets games per year on WOR. For a period spanning roughly the 1980s I was an addicted Mets fan, aided by a couple of family trips to see the team play in Shea Stadium. In 1988 my obsession reached fever level. I had quit playing organized baseball earlier that year, the first time in my remembered life without it. I spent a college summer in Manhattan living in a 9th floor room with no air conditioning on Waverly Place near Broadway. More than once that summer the room’s shower put forth no cold water, only hot. My roommate and I had to fill the tub with piping hot water and wait for it to cool down in order to get halfway clean. Then I would put on a suit (the same one everyday, more or less) and take the PATH to Jersey City for a summer job in operations with Bankers Trust Co. Today, as I type this post, I have a "Bankers Trust" stapler sitting on my desk that I partook from the banal office tower at the end of the summer.
By asking around early that summer (this was a decade before for the internet, at least), I quickly found a Mets bar in the East Village called The Sports Page Café (probably St. Marks near 2nd or 3rd if I remember correctly — if anybody reads this that knows, please help me remember the exact address). I went there many/most nights, for the air conditioning and the Mets games, when I wasn’t going to Shea Stadium in person (19 times that summer I scalped the cheapest ticket I could find). My roommate had family roots in Greenwich, CT. Once we went there for a party and I practically jimmied a door and broke into a neighboring home (an exaggeration) in order to watch the Mets when I learned the party house wouldn’t be showing the game that night (they had a sheet over the TV console and were using it as a table). When that season ended I figured that I’d watched around 154 of the Mets’ 162 games. The Mets lost in the playoffs that fall when Mike Scioscia hit a now-legendary bomb off Dwight Gooden. A few years later my Mets obsession waned, as the team lost the identity I adored. My connection to New York City grew only deeper over the years - that’s another story — but it might not be wrong to say my Mets obsession started it all.
Wally Backman was an integral part of the identity of the Mets in the 1980s. He was a second baseman that couldn’t hit left-handed pitching. In fourteen major league seasons he had less than one thousand hits. But he was scrappy, a classic overachiever. His body language oozed toughness. He buried his chin in his chest and scrunched his shoulders with his short arms out front, pounding his first into his glove, resembling a boxer circling the ring. He was a platoon player, sharing second base with Tim Teufel during the Mets’ heyday. Has there ever been a more beloved platoon player in the major leagues in the last thirty years than Backman with the 1980s Mets?
These days Backman is the manager of the Buffalo Bisons. Tonight at the DBAP, I spent a few innings sitting behind the Bisons’ dugout. When Backman wasn’t coaching third base he spent the game perched on the guardrail separating the dugout from the playing surface, fully exposed to the fans, of which there were many in Mets gear. Regularly, you’d hear aged Mets a middle-aged fan yell something like, “We love you Wally.” “Go get ‘em, Wally.” “You’re the best, Wally.”
I couldn’t help but juxtapose Backman with the Durham Bulls’ manager Charlie Montoyo. They took vastly different paths to having the same job, managing AAA tams, and they are roughly the same age. Over the past year I’ve had the luxury of getting to know Montoyo in my work covering the Bulls. He was a second-baseman like Backman. He played ten seasons in the minor leagues. From my research (to be revealed in the near future) I’ve learned that he was a hustler and leader from an early age Puerto Rico, where he grew up and where his parents still live. From reports he sounds a lot like Backman. But the difference is that Montoyo only had five at-bats in the major leagues (2 hits), while Backman played fourteen seasons and won a World Series (1986).
The two men have similar stocky builds, but at age forty-six Montoyo is a physical specimen, running five miles at dawn every day while listening to classic Puerto Rican salsa (El Gran Combo, Hector Lavoe, Senora Poncena), and then retiring to the weight room. Meanwhile, Backman at age fifty-two could pass for a man a decade older - grey hair, rounded face, and beer paunch. I don’t know if this comparison is fair. But it’s what came to mind tonight. Baseball is a very strange game and AAA baseball might be the most unusual of all levels. I say this often in my write-ups, because the Triangle is fortunate to have this stellar AAA product right here on Highway 147. Juxtaposing Backman and Montoyo tonight felt like a unique privilege.
The outcome of the game was decided early as Bulls right-fielder Jeff Salazar hit a solo home run in the first inning, followed by a two-run home run by first baseman Henry Wrigley two batters later for a 3-0 lead. Two innings later left-fielder Brandon Allen hit a three-run bomb for a 6-0 lead. The Bulls eventually led 11-0 before giving up some garbage runs for an 11-5 victory. The Bulls’ starting right-handed pitcher Jim Paduch coasted, spotting his 89-90mph fastball on the corners all night, having some shots by Bisons hit right at Bulls defenders, and hitting 92mph for key strikeouts in the 6th and 7th innings when he needed them.
The Bulls are only eight games out of first place. With sixty-seven games remaining, anything can happen. They’ve led the International League in hitting in the month of June, hitting fifty points higher than they did in April and May. Charlie Montoyo hasn’t won five straight division titles by accident (six straight if you include his year at Montgomery before coming to Durham).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t explain that the Bulls wore pink jerseys tonight in a “Swing for the Cure” fundraiser in association with Susan G. Komen for the Cure efforts in support of breast cancer research.