Presence Bestowed Upon Nats
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The kid had something, just not what the Houston Astros wanted out of a 22-year-old infield prospect. He didn't run, hit or field particularly well, and he kept getting injured, but he was a smart kid, and he got by on . . . something. So when the Astros sent their top Latin American talent evaluator to have a serious talk about the future with young Manny Acta in 1991, the scout came not with a plane ticket home, but with an intriguing offer.
We need a young, bilingual coach for our Class A team in Asheville, N.C., this season, Acta was told. It's not that we don't value you as a player -- we just want you to try being a player-coach.
But Acta knew what was being said. His dream of being a big league ballplayer essentially ended that day when Julio Linares, the scout who had signed Acta from the Dominican Republic five years earlier, came to talk to him about a new career path.
"It took me awhile to convince him to do it," Linares recalled yesterday. "But he was a smart guy, and he took [the job]. I told him, 'You have a good future in baseball, but maybe not as a player.' "
So began Manny Acta's second career in baseball, one that has progressed much better than the first. The old scout was right about Acta, and so were the Astros.
This week, perhaps as soon as today, the Washington Nationals are expected to introduce Acta as their new manager in a news conference at RFK Stadium. And as Washington will soon see, that something everyone saw in the precocious 22-year-old now has a definition in the embodiment of the 37-year-old man: presence. Manny Acta has presence.
"I always felt he had a presence about him that commanded respect," said Gerry Hunsicker, the Astros' general manager from 1995 to 2004. "It doesn't surprise me at all that he is getting this opportunity at such a young age. He's just a special person."
In a span of six weeks, the Nationals went from having the oldest manager in the game, the recently dismissed Frank Robinson, to having the youngest. Acta turns 38 in January, making him 11 1/2 months younger than Cleveland's Eric Wedge. But Acta is accustomed to being entrusted with responsibilities that belie his age.
By the time Acta was 23, after only one year as a player-coach at Asheville, he had dropped the "player" half of his job title, and by 24 he had his first managing gig, with the Astros' short-season Class A team in Auburn, N.Y. By age 25, in his second season at Auburn, he took the team to the league championship series.
"The thing about Manny is he's very confident, and even in his twenties, he had a presence about him," said Tim Purpura, who oversaw the Astros' player-development department before taking over for Hunsicker as general manager in 2004. "He had that commanding look about him. He was sure of himself, and he was a very well-organized manager."
By the time Acta was in his late 20s, everyone could see that he was destined to manage in the big leagues. But it would not be with the Astros. In 2002, after Major League Baseball took over the operation of the Montreal Expos, new Expos general manager Omar Minaya came to Acta with an offer to be their third base coach. When the Astros could not match the offer of a big league position, Acta left.
"Montreal had the foresight to take him fairly early in his career, and the opportunity wasn't there for him with us," Hunsicker said. "Like players, we all need opportunity in this game. If you don't give them the opportunity, somebody else will. That's what happened with Manny."