Ambition Steps to the Plate

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When a previously little-known major league coach becomes a manager, you never know whether he's suited to his elevation in rank -- whether he is fundamentally comfortable with it and feels he belongs in the job -- until he is actually in it. By then, of course, it can be too late.

For team executives, that's part of the terror of a first-time hire. The transformation can be quick and extreme. The meltdown may start in the first news conference. Cal Ripken Sr., utterly silent in public as a coach, believed it was his responsibility to "communicate" once he became the Orioles' manager. And he never stopped talking until he was fired. Anecdotes, platitudes, pep talks -- the words gushed endlessly. Then, he instantly became baseball's Silent Cal again.

So, the Nats, no matter what they say, had to be holding their breath when Manny Acta took the podium yesterday for his introduction to Washington as the youngest manager in baseball. On either side of Acta, 37, stood President Stan Kasten, a famous figure as architect of the Braves' dynasty, and General Manager Jim Bowden, one of the game's more colorful speakers. They might as well have held signs that said: If this guy starts to bomb, we'll bail him out.

"Time to Acta-vate, baby," Bowden said, turning over the microphone to Acta. For almost half an hour, Acta spoke off the cuff, then answered questions. Nobody asked Kasten or Bowden anything. They might as well have been furniture.

"As soon as I was 20 years old in the minor leagues, they told me to my face that I couldn't play," said Acta, explaining why he decided to become a coach before age 21. What was his choice? Already in his fifth minor league season, Acta came from a hard life in the Dominican Republic where "the house I grew up in still has a dirt road in front and a sugar cane field behind."

Immediately, Acta went "to scouting school" so he could "evaluate myself. The grade wasn't very good. I'm 6 foot 2 and I hit six home runs in six seasons. What does that tell you?"

After that reality check, Acta and his wife, Cindy, went everywhere, to all the places the bush league life takes you if you are following the same no-skills, lotta-brains career path as men like Tony La Russa, Sparky Anderson, Dick Howser and Earl Weaver. Once you realize that you love the game far more than it loves you, the only way to the big leagues is the long, hard way. Embrace every tough job, volunteer for the worst trips and act like no family hardship is even worth a mention. As Acta was waiting to hear his fate with the Nats -- "It was making me a little bit desperate, waiting, waiting" -- he was in Japan on the coaching staff of an all-star team after working deep into the postseason as third base coach for the New York Mets.

So feel free to say that Acta is an overnight success. Just don't say it to him. He knows where he's been the last 21 seasons, climbing a greased rope. All of these so-called unknown big league managers, the ones who are chronologically younger than some of their veteran players, have one thing in common: Their energy is high but their eyes are old.

"I learned early that you can relate to your players, but there's a line I don't cross and they can't cross," said Acta, who has managed eight seasons in the minors, five more in winter ball -- far more than 1,000 games -- and spent 800 games as a big league coach. "I'm not afraid to crack the whip down. I go to bed with Cindy so whoever is mad at me, it doesn't bother me at night."

Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, sitting next to Cindy Acta, put his hand over his mouth, laughing. He's old-school at 22. But several other Nats, the ones who led the universe in absent-minded, bonehead fundamentals last year, may be in for a surprise. Acta is upbeat and popular with players, but he also has an almost military bearing.

"In the Dominican, everybody smiles. We make the best of what we've got. We don't have too many choices. So you might as well be happy," he said. "We'll even make fun of what we don't have."

However, baseball is his field of honor. "I really do live for this," he said. So playing the game wrong isn't funny. "I have one set of rules," said Acta, who coached third base for three years for crusty Frank Robinson in Montreal and considers him a hero. "Nothing comes before the team. When one guy breaks the rules, you lose 24 others."

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