By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
After three years with the Expos -- during which time he made an impression on some of the core players who, after the Expos were relocated to Washington in November 2004, became members of the Nationals -- Acta followed Minaya to the New York Mets, where he remained employed until this week. Through a team spokesman, Minaya and Mets Manager Willie Randolph declined to comment for this story.
Everyone in baseball, it seemed, had Acta pegged as a future manager, but despite being interviewed by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers for their vacancies, the opportunity remained elusive. And then this spring, in what was perhaps the biggest break of his career to that point, the Dominican Republic team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic picked Acta to manage a team of superstars and egos, including David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejada and Alfonso Soriano.
"One of the reasons [Acta was chosen] was because he gets along so great with the players, and everyone has respect for him," said Stan Javier, the general manager of the Dominican team. "The first day of workouts, he let [the players] know this is a team effort. He said: 'The main thing is, we're here to do a job. Everybody is the same.' "
Acta's refusal to cater to superstar egos was most visible in his benching of Soriano, the prolific slugger who at the time was in the midst of a messy position squabble with the Nationals, with Soriano resisting the team's proposed move from second base to left field. Though Acta considered Soriano a second baseman, when Soriano struggled in the opening games, Acta benched him in favor of Placido Polanco, who was not as productive a hitter but played better defense.
Although the Dominican team lost to Cuba in the semifinals, Acta led them to a 5-2 overall record, proving his managing skills on a world stage.
"The World Baseball Classic was crucial for him, because all those guys -- Ortiz and Pujols and the others -- had a lot of good things to say about him," Linares said. "The whole team was happy. It's not easy to keep everybody happy when you have all those stars and you can only play nine guys at a time. But every time you talk to one of those guys, they have only good things to say about Manny."
Acta, in fact, has had very few failures in his career. Even after he was fired as manager of the Leones del Caracas in the Venezuelan winter league in 2001 after his team underperformed, he switched to the Dominican winter league the following year and in 2003 led the Licey Tigers to the league championship, earning manager of the year honors.
"You can never say in baseball how well a team will perform," Javier said. "But I'll tell you one thing: [The Nationals] will play hard for him. They will respect him. And they're going to like him. I can guarantee you that."
Everything in life, with the apparent exception of playing baseball, seemed to come easy to Acta. Unlike most of the teenagers whom Linares encountered as a scout in the Dominican Republic, Acta was highly interested in school, where he wanted to study engineering. But once he decided to sign with the Astros, he applied his intelligence to learning English as quickly and as thoroughly as he could.
Within a few years, Linares said, Acta was conducting impromptu English classes for his Latino teammates. "I couldn't believe it when I found that out," Linares said. "He's just an extremely intelligent person."
Years later, Acta would return to studying, this time for the U.S. citizenship test, and when he passed, he put in a call to Linares, the old scout who says he considers Acta a son. "He was very emotional," Linares said. "I think he was crying. It meant so much for him to become a U.S. citizen."
A few years ago, when Acta was in Montreal, the U.S. customs office in Houston asked him to speak to a group of prospective U.S. citizens, most of them Latino, about the naturalization process. Acta's speech was so moving and articulate, half the room was in tears.
Whether standing at the lectern, or sitting on the dugout bench, Acta has this something, this presence. And beginning this week, it is coming to the nation's capital.
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.