By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006
When most new managers arrive at their first spring training, there is little that can occur before the introductions. They must meet the new players, slap a few backs, lay down the rules, set the expectations. The feeling-out process is far more important than, say, pitchers' fielding practice or the monotony of bunting drills.
But when Manny Acta walks into Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., in February to open his first spring training as the manager of the Washington Nationals, introductions could be secondary, because the feeling-out began years ago.
"We know exactly what kind of guy he is," closer Chad Cordero said, "and what kind of manager he'll be."
Sources indicated Saturday that the Nationals would announce the hiring of Acta, the 37-year-old third base coach of the New York Mets, at a news conference early this week, almost certainly tomorrow. The Nationals have not confirmed the move. Team president Stan Kasten, who maintained secrecy as a priority throughout the hiring process, said via e-mail yesterday that he had no plans to comment on the new manager until a formal announcement is made. Acta and General Manager Jim Bowden did not return messages yesterday.
Still, the buzz was spreading among the Nationals themselves that Frank Robinson's replacement would be a man that could be Robinson's complete opposite -- just more than half his age, with none of the credentials that come from a Hall of Fame career. He will have familiarity, for Acta served as a coach on the Montreal Expos, the Nationals' predecessors, from 2002 to '04, his first job on a major league staff. A slew of prominent Nationals -- including catcher Brian Schneider, second baseman Jose Vidro, first baseman Nick Johnson and pitchers John Patterson, Luis Ayala and Cordero -- know Acta from those days.
"I think he's young, he's motivated," said Schneider, who just returned from playing on a team of major leaguers that toured Japan, a team on which Acta served as the third base coach. "He's never managed a big league squad, and he's going to want to do a good job to prove himself. He knows a lot of us, and I think he can relate well with a lot of guys."
Acta has a reputation as an outgoing, personable man who could get along with all kinds of players, Nationals players said in interviews.
"He's a real friendly guy," Patterson said. "I think you could probably call him a players' manager. The age group of players on this team is the age group he's used to dealing with. I think he'll put a lot of discipline on us, and he'll command respect, which is something that we need."
That Acta could command the respect afforded a figure such as Robinson, one of the most revered figures in the game's history, is remarkable given his age and status as a minor league infielder who never made the majors.
Some players, though, quietly became uncomfortable with Robinson's old-school style. He rarely spent time in the clubhouse and regularly skipped batting practice, instead remaining in his office. Two players, speaking on the condition of anonymity over the last month, said that they would welcome a more outgoing, upbeat personality at the helm. That's what they'll get with Acta, said Houston General Manager Tim Purpura, who ran the Astros' farm system when Acta managed Class A ball there.
"He's very outgoing, talkative, but also inquisitive," Purpura said. "I think you'll find someone who is confident in his abilities, but always wants to learn more about the game. Players tend to respect that."
Acta's familiarity only helps him with some of the Nationals. Other major parts of the 2007 roster -- such as right fielder Austin Kearns, shortstop Felipe Lopez and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- will have to get to know their new skipper. He is set to be the youngest manager in the majors. (Cleveland's Eric Wedge is 38.) The players who know Acta, though, seem unconcerned by that.
"I don't think it'll matter for us at all," Cordero said. "I really don't think it matters what age anybody is. If the guy can manage, he can manage."
That, though, would seem to be an open-ended question, certainly at the major league level. Patterson, however, played for Acta in the 2004-05 offseason on the storied Licey Tigers in the Dominican Republic winter league. In an environment Patterson described as "relaxed but very competitive," Patterson got a feel for a man he knew only as the Expos' third base coach.
"I really enjoyed playing for him, just the way he would run a game and things like that," Patterson said. "I felt really comfortable with it. I remember thinking, 'Man, some day I'd like to play for him in the big leagues.' "
In Montreal, Acta served as an interpreter for former Expos star Vladimir Guerrero, and he had a good reputation among the Latin players, a reputation enhanced when he managed the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic last spring. Yet he speaks impeccable English, and those who know him said he will deal with all members of the clubhouse with aplomb.
"I don't think Manny speaks English," Patterson said. "I don't think Manny speaks Spanish. I think he speaks baseball."