University of Michigan Wolverines @ New York Mets
2013 Spring Training: The New York Mets hosted an exhibition game with the University of Michigan Wolverines at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida; part of a trend to open the Grapefruit League with an invitation for collegiate teams to compete at the professional level for a day. Some of the things you see in college play remained the same. Players on the Wolverines bench still ran down the foul line for warm-up routines between innings. The game ended with the traditional handshakes with the opposing team. It’s an ideal time for this match-up; Spring Training camps are well underway and Spring Break is travel time for college teams to fine tune their rosters.
New York Mets have been training at Tradition Field since 1988. It’s also home to the Port St. Lucie Mets (Advance-A Affiliate) of the Florida State League. This game also marked a historic event in baseball. The umpiring crew of four included two women; both in the shadows of Bernice Gera (a graduate of Florida Baseball School and first female minor league umpire in 1972). Fred Wilpon, the New York Mets owner at the time, is a U of M Alumni who was on their baseball team. A torn rotator cuff ended that in his junior year of 1956. The baseball and softball complex on campus has been named in his honor. For the Wolverines, it’s an awesome working spring break trip to the sunshine state. They will not all make it to MLB. But this experience is a memory they will keep for a lifetime.
Still, over 80 Wolverines have historically made it to MLB; Four Wolverines were just signed last year in the 2020 MLB Draft. Hall of Famer Derek Jeter was offered a scholarship to play there and even took classes. But, instead of playing for the program at U of M, he understandably opted for the $800,000 bonus out of high school offered by the New York Yankees who drafted him. The rest is history. Most notable on the list of U of I alumni in MLB is Jim Abbott who, despite being born without a right hand, played for the Michigan Wolverines and went on to become a U.S.A. Gold Medal Olympian in the 1988 summer games, eventually going to play for 10 different MLB teams. One important day in his career is a no-hitter he threw in 1993 for the New York Yankees.
In the line-up for the New York Mets was Justin Turner. This was his last season with the team. The next year he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers where he is now a 2020 World Champion and the longest tenured player on the roster. Journeyman Marlon Byrd signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets after he completed a 50-game suspension for using banned substances with the Boston Red Sox. Ironically, Boston was where he sustained a devastating injury while with the Chicago Cubs. Red Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves hit him with a pitch near his left eye. Say what you want about Marlon Byrd. He managed to extend his longevity, after a potentially career ending injury, to a 14-year career at the highest level. And, speaking of injuries, Ruben Tejada was also in the Mets line-up. He later suffered a broken leg in the 2015 NLDS caused by an overzealous slide by Los Angeles Dodger Chase Utley at second base. MLB updated its rules after this incident. It’s now considered interference and an automatic out if its determined that a runner tried to make contact with the second baseman.
Wally Backman of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets was on hand as part of the New York Mets Coaching staff. He served as an ideal baseball ambassador for this event. In 2004, he was promoted from within the Arizona Diamondbacks organization to manage the Major league squad. After a series of legal problems became public, he was fired a few days later. He continued to pursue a coaching career after that. Part of that journey was documented in the TV series “Playing for Peanuts.” It highlights his comeback story as the manager of the South Georgia Peanuts of the Independent South Coast League. The locker room entertainment value is through the roof. After this spring training tour, he went on to manage the Las Vegas 51s a Mets AAA-Affiliate of the Pacific Coast League; leading them to an 81-63 record and winning the Pacific South Division title. He won PCL Manager of the year in 2014. Despite the setbacks and eventual fallout with New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson, Wally Backman has sustained a coaching career that speaks for itself. He’s been regarded as a player’s manager. Today he is skipper for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.