Back Home, a Hero's Welcome for Nats' Acta
Saturday, December 16, 2006
CONSUELO, Dominican Republic, Dec. 15 -- Before they started chanting his name, before he stuck his entire torso through the open sun roof of a sport-utility vehicle and learned precisely what it feels like to be received as a hero, Manny Acta grabbed onto a pole in a private, sparsely populated bus reserved for dignitaries at the airport in Santo Domingo, the capital of his home nation.
"I don't like this," he said quietly.
Certainly, he wasn't speaking of being back home. Certainly, he didn't mean the party to follow. Yet his eyes, his voice, his manner were all apprehensive.
"This is the first time that I'm back," he said, "and I'm treated different."
Times in this worn out mill town will be different from Friday forward for Acta. He is no longer just one of the countless kids trying to hit his way off the island and into the big leagues, no longer an obscure minor league coach working in places his amigos have never heard of, be they Burlington, Iowa, or Asheville, N.C. He is the manager of the Washington Nationals, the only Dominican manager in the major leagues. Different? Only in the sense that fireworks and speeches and a crowd of a few thousand screaming townspeople makes it different.
"It means so much for us," said Alejandro Williams, the senator from the province of San Pedro de Macoris, who brought a proclamation from the Dominican congress to read before the folks in Acta's home town on Friday night. The people had been there much of the afternoon, Williams said, for Acta's flight from Miami had been delayed more than three hours.
"But you can tell what it means," Williams said, surveying the crowd. "It shows that people here might not only play in the major leagues, but manage there, too. He is an example now."
Before his flight left from Miami, Acta said he wasn't quite sure what to expect. Would there be cheering? Sure, most definitely. But he didn't know if he could handle much more. He fought with whether or not to come, he said, but his friends convinced him he had to. He owed it to his people, they said.
"You have to understand," he said. "We are a nation of 9 million people. Baseball is what we have."
The people of Consuelo have baseball, and the people of Consuelo have Acta, and now they cannot be separated. That much was obvious when the bus at the airport arrived in a holding cell, and he was greeted by the Dominican minister of sport, who threw his arms around him. That much was obvious when he burst through customs with a small entourage leading the way, past throngs of people waiting behind barriers for friends and relatives, and the Dominican people began clapping. It was obvious when he arrived at a group of children -- some of them wearing shirts bearing the words "Liga Manny Acta," the youth league he sponsors -- and they chanted long and loud and hard, sing-songy voices.
"Oh! Oh! Manny Acta! Manny Acta! Oh! Oh! Manny Acta! Manny Acta!" And he embraced them, first one by one, then as a group.
He didn't carry his own luggage. SUVs awaited him outside. Television cameras followed him, stopped him, wanted a word. His father, Manuel, wore a short-sleeve plaid button-down that was clearly understated for the occasion, his mother Blanca a black pantsuit. Both beamed at their son, 37 years old, dressed in a sharp, dark, pin-striped suit and tie, not to mention the flag of their country draped over both his broad shoulders, wrapped around his size 48 chest.