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Herd skipper more than a YouTube hit

I'm sorry, but you have to start with the videos.

There's no getting around it. Google the words "Wally Backman" and they're right there at the top.

There he is, ripping his players for not working hard enough after a game. Then there's the Mona Lisa of manager meltdowns, where Backman throws all the bats and balls on the field after getting ejected in independent league ball -- then announces he needs a beer and a nail clipper.

Backman leaned back in his manager's chair when the subject came up Wednesday. He must be tired of hearing about the second rant, which is closing in on a million hits on YouTube. But even he had to smile. It's hilarious.

"I know it is," Backman said before the Bisons hosted Syracuse at Coca-Cola Field. "But I haven't done anything Lou Piniella never did, and he was a pretty good manager. I played for him. Maybe that's part of the problem.

"I've played for some great managers," he said. "Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson, Piniella, Joe Torre. I've played for some of the best in the game. I've tried to take bits and pieces from all of them."

He's put together a well-rounded composite of a baseball manager, a smart guy who knows the game, works very hard at his job and stands up for his players -- while demanding a lot from them. That's a lot different from the caricature on those videos. Backman has been known for his passion and fighting spirit since he played for those great Mets teams of the mid- to late-80s.

But the danger for a manager is that a reputation for combustible behavior can come to define you, obscuring the solid baseball man underneath.

"My explosions that people have seen on YouTube, they try to create a monster," Backman said. "I'm not that guy at all."

Backman, 52, is the son of a former Pirates farmhand who taught him to respect the game above all else. He was a scrappy second baseman and sparkplug on some Mets team, including the '86 squad that won 108 games and rallied to beat the Red Sox in the World Series.

He wasn't the most gifted player, but Backman was a key part of the Mets' competitive soul in those days. They were a tight group that played hard, partied hard (too hard, in some cases) and were always ready for a fight.

It says a lot about Backman that, despite some personal setbacks, he is regarded as a rising star in the Mets' organization, a beloved former Met who is destined to one day manage the big club.

Backman would love to manage in the Majors. He came close in 2004. Arizona actually hired him as manager in November, but fired him four days later after discovering that he'd had a DUI, a domestic battery charge and financial troubles several years earlier.

He later called it "the death of a dream." He went home to Oregon and spent two years out of the game. In '07, he returned to manage the independent South Georgia Peanuts. The players made about $800 a month. Backman was miked for a documentary on the league when the notorious meltdowns were recorded.

Backman spent two years managing Joliet, another independent team. He was hired to manage the Mets' Class A team in Brooklyn in 2010, then jumped to Double-A Binghamton and finally to Buffalo.

After a slow start, the Bisons finished April with 14 wins, the second-most in the season's first month in the modern era. It looks like the best Bisons team in several years, a nice blend of pitching and hitting, veterans and kids.

The Bisons have another vital quality, which Backman mentioned 30 seconds into our talk. Chemistry.

"The chemistry is good," he said. "It's my job and the coaches' job to create some sort of chemistry. We didn't have to do a whole lot, because the chemistry was already there."

Backman mentioned Vinny Rottino, a 32-year-old veteran outfielder who plays the game "the way you want all nine of your guys to play." Perhaps he sees himself in Rottino, who said players respect a manager who has their own interests at heart.

"You could tell within two seconds of meeting the guy," Rottino said. "He's just a genuine guy. I think he's a really smart manager. To me, how you get that winning feel starts with the manager."

It's the sort of feeling he had with those Mets teams a quarter-century ago. They're recalled as a bunch of supremely talented wild men, but they had a combative, unyielding spirit to go with it.

Backman says this Bisons team is as close as he's seen to the Mets teams of the 80s. That's high praise, indeed.

"They have a good time together," he said. "They have high expectations of themselves. I'm sure everyone in that locker room wants to go to the big leagues."

Backman could have been there this season. Johnson, his old skipper with the Mets, talked to him about coaching in Washington. They had a long talk and both agreed it would be better for him to manage in Triple-A. It would give him a chance to manage older players, and perhaps to prove once and for all that there's a lot more to him than that wild man on YouTube.

But later on in the summer, if an umpire blows a call and Backman feels it's time to stand up and fight for his guys well, would one really epic meltdown be too much to ask?

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com