Back Home, a Hero's Welcome for Nats' Acta

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"Too much," he said a couple hours later.

When the caravan arrived in Consuelo -- just outside the baseball-rich city of San Pedro de Macoris, which spawned Sammy Sosa and Juan Samuel and, as the townspeople can recite, a seemingly endless list of others -- Acta's bald pate shot through the sun roof. He waved like a presidential candidate. Yet when the crowd -- already pawing at the vehicle, lunging for Acta's hand, grabbing onto the bumpers and the side panels and whatever they could get hold of -- began chanting his name, he held both is hands, palms facing outward, at his waist, as if to say, "Whoa. Too much. Too much."

"I don't like all that hoopla and all that stuff," he said.

Yet try to stop them. Speakers boomed from the back of a truck, and the SUV, moving not more than a mile an hour, eased its way through the sea of townspeople.

"Manny told me on the way over here, 'Now, I know what you felt like when you won the MVP award,'" said Jose Rijo, a Dominican who was the MVP of the 1990 World Series as a stalwart right-hander for the Cincinnati Reds and now serves in the Nationals' front office.

"He told me this is like his MVP award. He's never seen anything like it."

Rijo, though, must have. Dominican history is rich in sugar cane and rich in baseball. This guy hasn't managed a big league game, let alone won one.

"I saw Sammy come home after he broke the record," Rijo said, speaking of Sosa's magical summer of 1998, when he and Mark McGwire passed Roger Maris's home run mark. "But that's the only other one like this. That one, and today. That's it."

Acta was eventually ushered onto a stage. A gargantuan billboard pushing the Presidente beer that would flow into the night offered a backdrop. He sat through countless readings, a framed honor from this group or that, a statement from the mayor, a welcome from his sister that brought tears to his eyes, a proclamation from the Dominican congress delivered by Williams, the senator.

And at 9:45 p.m., Manny Acta stood before the people of his home town, television lights shining off his head, sweaty by now. He leaned into the podium, his 6-foot-2 frame dwarfing it. "Gracias," he said, and he began a speech in Spanish.

He said afterward that he spoke about how each and every child in Consuelo could be like him, could go to the United States and find a job in baseball, about how he knows them through their parents. The kids and the adults listened, laughed occasionally.

And when one of the well-wishers found his way onto the stage after Acta's speech, Acta immediately pointed to his hat, with the halo logo of the Los Angeles Angels.

"Los Angeles?!" Acta asked. "No, no. Nationales! Nationales!"

The fireworks thundered overhead, and Acta smiled.

"I have stayed humble," he said. "I'm still the same guy."

Just everything else has changed.

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