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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."

When he managed the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic, Acta's most dramatic mid-tournament decision was to bench Alfonso Soriano, then a second baseman, in favor of the better glove of the Tigers' Placido Polanco. "Fonzie accepted it. He understood," Acta said. "The first phone call I got [after being named manager] was from Alfonso Soriano to congratulate me. We'd love to have him. It's going to be a financial thing, obviously. . . . We grew up just two sugar cane factories [apart]. . . . We are good friends but I don't think we are good enough friends to get him back here on my presence alone."

There are two questions in Washington to which every fan wants an answer, but nobody really has one: Can Jason Campbell play quarterback and is Acta, who's undeniably one of the game's half-dozen hot young managerial prospects, the real thing?

"I know the answer to the second question," Kasten volunteered.

At least the list of unknown factors is not nearly as long in Acta's case. "Our industry is different," said Bowden, contrasting baseball with the NFL and NBA, where aspiring pro coaches sometimes become famous in college. "You know the next guys who are going to be managers, but they don't get the notoriety. Those 14 teams Acta has managed no one knows about. But that's a lot of experience."

If the Nationals had gotten their druthers for a new manager, they might have wished for unemployed Joe Girardi, the potential NL manager of the year with the Florida Marlins. He has name recognition and might sell some tickets. Acta is about as utterly invisible to the general public as a rookie manager can be.

But time may prove that Acta is already well known and respected where it matters most -- in the Nationals' clubhouse. In Montreal, Acta was third base coach -- essentially third in command -- for 10 current Nationals, including half the team's core players: Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider, Jose Vidro, John Patterson, Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala. Acta already has talked to Zimmerman about how the '05 Nats didn't have Soriano yet won games with defense, timely hitting and a bullpen that, with the return of Ayala, could be strong again.

"I hadn't thought of that," Zimmerman said. Mercifully, Acta neglected to mention starting pitching. But that's part of the trick of managing. Accentuate the positive, motivate, stress fundamentals. Let the smoke and mirrors begin. And hope that, by the time his two-year contract expires, enough pitching will arrive to make it all seem like magic.

"I hope Washington will be my home for the next 10 to 20 years," Acta said, "until I move up to take Stan Kasten's job."

The youngest manager in the show was smiling. But in the private place where he scouts himself, he probably wasn't kidding.

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