Turning a team into a contender is nothing new for Wally Backman.
Over his 40 years in professional baseball, which includes a 1986 World Series championship with the New York Mets, Backman has led three different teams to league championships - the Tri-City Posse of the Independent Western Baseball League in 1999, the Birmingham Barons (White Sox Double-A affiliate) in 2002 and the South Georgia Peanuts of the Independent South Coast League in 2007.
Now Backman is looking to do the same in his first season with the Bees, who are coming off an Atlantic League-worst 58-81 record.
Backman has already made an impression on the players in the clubhouse, who all agree he is the kind of manager they can get behind.
“I think players know a lot about me. They can ask any player what type of guy I am. I’m a player’s manager,” Backman said. “I expect guys to come out and give me 100 percent every day. When that doesn’t happen, that’s when I have an issue. And I’ve always been that guy. I’ve always been on the players’ side. I’ll take every player into my office and tell them what I expect.”
Despite last year’s record, Backman believes an overhauled roster with just a handful of familiar faces will be good for the squad to improve dramatically.
One player he highlighted was catcher James Skelton. The 32-year-old is coming off a 2017 season where he had a .255 average, but his 101 walks put him at a .408 on-base percentage. Backman plans to have him hit near the bottom of the lineup, so he will be on base when the order turns over.
The offense as a whole needs to do a better job of getting the bat on the ball and not striking out, something Backman has stressed. Last year, New Britain had four players with at least 100 strikeouts, while Jovan Rosa finished with 99.
“That can’t happen. It kills too many rallies,” Backman said. “I like to be able to put runners in motion. And when you have guys that swing and miss too much, then you’re just playing base-to-base. That’s not my style. I don’t think it’s really anybody’s style.”
On the mound, Backman’s rotation and bullpen feature plenty of former big leaguers.
One starter to watch is Jonathan Pettibone. He had a below-average 2017, with a 5.35 ERA in 23 starts, battling the aftermath of shoulder surgery he had two years ago, but is ready to have a bounce-back season.
“When he came, it was his first time coming back from surgery,” Backman said. “He was really good early. He might have been a touch out of shape and I think it might have affected him in the long run toward the end of the year. But he’s in great shape right now. I think the kid’s on a mission.”
Backman highlighted the experience, especially in the bullpen.
“We’re going to win because of our bullpen. I really feel strong about our bullpen,” Backman said. “I think that’s the key to our success.”
Outside of the play on the field, Backman hopes the Bees become more connected to the New Britain community. He plans on having the players go into local schools, reading books to kids, and holding camps at the field to become more involved in the city.
“I know they put the team in Hartford, but the thing about New Britain is that it’s had baseball for so long,” Backman said. “In this league, these are the people’s players. Some of the players will move on, but the core will probably stay here. So it’s almost like ‘these are your guys.’”
For Backman, his expectations are simple: Win games. He knows the team he has will be far better than the last place finish a year ago.
“The team we put out there is going to win. And we believe it’s going to bring more fans out as well,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel [assistant GM Paul Herrmann] and I could work together to put the product that we have on the field. We have a very good team. ”