CLEVELAND — Late one recent night, well after he had tweeted a picture of his traditional victory cigar to his nearly 8,000 followers, but before sending out his morning “song of the day” picks — one each in English and Spanish — Manny Acta scrolled through the stream of replies and messages he gets on a daily basis on his Twitter account to find this ominous-sounding one:
“Move Santana down or you will not last long in Cleveland. We have no problem with firing coaches every 2 years. Any sport.”
Well, then. Seeing as how Acta is the manager of the best team in baseball at this very moment — the surprising 19-8 Cleveland Indians, owners of a six-game winning streak entering Tuesday night’s game at Oakland — and seeing as how 25-year-old catcher Carlos Santana, the unconventional cleanup hitter for an Indians lineup lacking a conventional option, was starting to come out of an early-season slump, Acta felt fairly secure in both his job status and his lineup.
He ignored the rude tweeter with his lineup demands. But to the nice lady, another of his Twitter followers, who wanted him to sign a hat for her father, he wrote back, suggesting she bring it to Progressive Field during batting practice. To the gentleman from the Dominican Republic who wondered, in Spanish, why left fielder Michael Brantley had gotten a day off, Acta replied, also in Spanish, that he needed to get reserve Austin Kearns in the lineup.
And to the young man who wondered if he could smoke a cigar with him, because he wanted to meet a celebrity, Acta replied, “I’m a normal guy. I just have a cool dream job.”
So went another day in the extraordinary online life of Manny Acta. This was a particularly good day. The Indians won yet again. The songs of the day — “Good Thing” by Fine Young Cannibals and “Cal y Arena” by Carlos David — received minimal ridicule (which is not always the case). And his choice of cigars, a Cohiba Toro, won him widespread praise from the aficionados on Twitter who await his pick each night.
“This is the future,” Acta, 42, said over lunch one recent afternoon, in regards to his Twitter connection with fans. “This is where it’s heading. Especially the young people — that’s how you connect with them these days. Even though I was reluctant at first, I can say I enjoy it a little bit. I try to keep it fun, keep it away from the game as much as I can. I try to give our fans some info. And they appreciate that. They feel more connected to us, and that’s important.”
It’s especially important in Cleveland, where the Indians have been hemorrhaging both star players (Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Victor Martinez are among those traded away in the past three years) and fans (last year’s total attendance of 1.39 million was the lowest in the 17-year history of Progressive Field) in recent years — and where Acta is the public face of the organization’s new, fan-friendly, social-media-intensive approach.
“We’re trying to connect to our fan base,” said Indians President Mark Shapiro, who also tweets regularly. “And Manny’s sincerity and authenticity, and his positive outlook come through when you read his tweets. It’s part of the strategy. It’s not going to change everything. But that’s what we have to do to compete. It’s not going to be one big thing. We have to do a thousand little things, executed well across a broad spectrum, and if we can do that we have a chance to turn up the meter.”
Four years removed from their last playoff appearance and 14 years since their last trip to the World Series, the Indians have put together a team — constructed in large part from the pieces acquired in the veterans-for-prospects trades of the past few years — that ought to have this city in a frenzy and the stadium packed with fans. Despite an opening day payroll ($49.2 million) that ranked 26th in baseball, the Indians, after sweeping a six-game homestand that Acta described as “superfantastic,” led the American League Central division by a whopping 41 / 2 games entering Monday.
But it isn’t that simple anymore — not in Cleveland, not in this economy. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city lost 17 percent of its population over the previous decade. During that same time, the Indians’ attendance declined by nearly 60 percent, going from first overall in the majors in 2000 to dead-last in 2010. This year, despite the Indians’ scorching start, they again rank last with an average of 14,275 fans per home game — although a brutal stretch of rainy, sub-50-degree weather has certainly contributed to that.
“Our [television] ratings are higher than they’ve been at any point, since, really, our last era of success — and better than in ’07 when we won 96 games,” Shapiro said. “So people are watching and noticing. And I think that’s going to translate over a full season, if we can sustain a level of competitiveness. People are excited.”
But even Shapiro acknowledges the city’s altered demographics make a return to the 1990s glory days — when the Indians, on the strength of five straight division titles, regularly drew 3.4 million fans and once sold out 455 consecutive home dates, at the time a major league record — an impossibility.
“It’s not just that we’re losing population,” Shapiro said. “We’ve lost three Fortune 500 companies, and one other Fortune 1000 company, with no backfill. Those are the executives who bought luxury suites, those are the mid-level executives who bought season tickets, and those are the front-line employees who came to the game on a walk-up basis. And they’re all gone. They’re gone.”
“We just have to look at our business differently. We have to judge it by different standards. But it’s still a passionate sports town. We still have great fans. They want to win so bad. You’ll see it in the attendance figures. You’re not going to see it by the standards you’re used to. But you’ll be able to see it from the way we’re looking at it.”
In the Indians’ new world — where lower attendance, lower revenues and lower payrolls make sustained success on the field unlikely — 2 million fans would represent a great year, and 2.5 million the outer limits of their market. But the Indians are determined to get to those numbers — one fan at a time, one tweet at a time.
In Acta — whom the Indians hired in October 2009, three months after he was fired in midseason by the Washington Nationals — the team has a manager who fits the city’s blue-collar image: a self-made man who spent 10 years managing and coaching in the minor leagues, and five more as a major league coach before the Nationals gave him his big break.
“In the time I’ve been here,” he said, “I think people have come to realize that I’m like them. That I am blue-collar. That I didn’t have a name in the game, and that I worked my way up here. They also see that we’re trying to put together a team here that relates to this town, which is a blue-collar town. We’re going to be relentless, pesky, scrappy.”
That’s also a good way to describe Acta’s Twitter persona, since the launching of his account in January. He replies to almost every message he receives — typically between 40 and 50 per day. His song-of-the-day selections, at least the English ones, tend toward cheesy, ’80s pop (Monday’s pick was Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”).
And at least for now, with the Indians in first place, the gracious and thankful Twitter-fans far outnumber the rude and obnoxious ones, and the victory cigars — each one lovingly (if a bit blurrily) photographed by Acta himself — have become a near-nightly tradition.