Home Field, Disadvantaged

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

CONSUELO, Dominican Republic

Over there, past the socks drying on the stoop beyond that cow that's lying down, imagine a baseball field. Then beyond that, another one, and beyond that still two more. In Manny Acta's mind, in Manny Acta's home town, 200 kids should fill those fields, playing one game, racing home for lunch, returning rapidamente to start the second half of the doubleheader, just as he did growing up. As Acta says, baseball is religion here, and there is no better time for worship than a sunny Saturday afternoon in December.

But on this particular Saturday, with the sky almost completely free of clouds, the fields sat almost completely free of kids. Acta walked across them, found an old pitcher's mound hiding in the shin-high grass, and toed the rubber. He had been a junk-balling right-hander in his day, the kid everyone wanted on his team. Standing there two decades later, images raced back, pictures of what should be and what actually is, and here came the tears. He wiped his eyes, composed himself and walked on.

Manuel Elías Acta Peña used those fields to develop the skills that allowed him to leave this island nation, to survive briefly as a player in the minor leagues, to gain dual citizenship in the United States and eventually to become the manager of the Washington Nationals. He couldn't count the number of innings he played here, couldn't remember all the pitches he threw, the swings he took. He wants kids to follow him, to give themselves a chance. Here it was, Saturday, and no one was preparing to.

"What are they doing now?" Acta asked. "I don't know. I don't know."

He looked over the shaggy lawn, strewn with cowpies, toward a playground where he once spent his Sundays watching the Ferris wheel and trying to pick up girls. Except the Ferris wheel is gone. Not a single girl fended off a worn-out pickup line. There is no slide, no jungle gym. "It makes me furious," Acta said.

As he walked, Acta waved his arms, pointed emphatically at the ground, raised his voice. Trips down memory lane are supposed to be romantic, filled with bits of heartwarming nostalgia. This, though, was a stream-of-consciousness rant that surfaces any time Acta talks about Consuelo, the southern town of 25,000 that sits roughly 50 miles east of Santo Domingo, the capital. Acta associates Consuelo with sweet memories of childhood and baseball, sweet memories he fears won't be there for the kids growing up now. Too many drugs. Too much crime. Not enough baseball.

"Aren't things supposed to get better?" he asked.

For Acta himself, it's inarguable they have gotten better over the last six weeks, since the day he was formally introduced as the Nationals' manager. When he returned here for the first time since taking the new job -- coming back to the cement home in which he grew up, to the fawning townspeople who stop him on every corner and shout as they whiz by on mopeds -- his standing in the community was, in lots of ways, better as well. He has become something of an icon, for there are no other Dominican managers in the majors, and if baseball is religion, there must be a prophet.

But Acta, 37, lives now in central Florida, a better place. Has for 20 years. And in Consuelo, things are not better. They are worse.

"It's sad," Acta said. "It makes me so, so sad."

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