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."Factory, Town Intertwined
The Ingenio Consuelo plant used to run 24 hours a day, processing the sugar cane that became the pure white powder that made the city named after it tick. Manuel Elías Acta Medina, Manny's father, worked as an accountant at the plant, overseeing the payroll, providing for his wife and five children. If there ever was a problem with another family's kid, his father almost certainly worked at the plant, too, and it could be straightened out at work. Everyone knew everyone else, "like a big family, watching out for each other," said the Actas' middle child, Jose.
Back then, Consuelo had only two or three cars, but the 18-wheelers used to thunder past the Actas' house down the dirt road known as Puerto Rico, rumbling toward the plant not much more than a quarter-mile away. Blanca Acta would brace for those trucks, brace for the dust to fly, coating her house unless she had thought to send Jose or Manny or one of the three girls outside so they could hose down the street, keeping the dirt at bay.
Now, the trucks are gone. The factory is shut down, covered in weeds, housing rusted railroad cars in its yard. The Dominican sugar cane industry has been the subject of rampant controversy for years. Migrant workers were imported from Haiti, the country that occupies the western half of the island of Hispaniola, to do much of the harvesting. The migrants, though, were often little more than slaves, subjected to abhorrent living conditions, to physical abuses. The Dominican government divested from the sugar factories. Some sputtered.
As Manuel Acta recalls, the Consuelo plant all but closed in 1994. "The town changed," he said through an interpreter. Manny, his oldest child, says -- and he knows this is hard to believe -- that he never knew of drugs when he grew up, that the town was defined by sports and music, music and sports. Now with the drugs comes the violence, and from the violence there is crime that has residents on edge, that makes walks home, walks of which Acta once paid no mind, unsafe. The windows of his house are covered with bars.
"We never needed these," Acta said, tugging on them. "It was just a nice little town where people are very happy, and all they care about was sports and dancing. There was loud music on every corner. People made the best of what they had."
That was the Consuelo propped up by the sugar cane factory. When the plant was churning away, each worker sent a fraction of his paycheck -- maybe 10 or 20 cents -- to support the youth sports programs in town. Sure, they used a mammoth blade pulled by a horse to cut the grass on the fields. But it was cut, and the kids could play. It is on these fields that Julio Franco and Alfredo Griffin and even Sammy Sosa -- before he moved to nearby San Pedro de Macoris -- took up endless pickup games, free-form events in which, Acta said, the only premise was: I've got a team, you've got a team, so let's play.
Now, the sugar cane factory sits still, and the fields, on a gorgeous Saturday, are no different.A Decision on Baseball
The doors to the Acta house remain open, allowing for the folks gathered on what amounts to a front porch to pass in and out as easily as the breeze, perhaps grabbing a cube of melon as they walk by. The small rooms are clean, neatly swept tile floors uncovered by rugs, pictures of the Acta family scattered about, a plaque marking the oldest son's achievement in the Dominican winter league: Manny Acta, Manager de Año.
A pair of paintings depicting fishermen are dated '98, the same year Hurricane Georges ripped through Consuelo and left the Actas' home in shambles. Manny and Jose Acta pooled their limited resources after that storm to rebuild their parents' place, this time replacing wood walls with hurricane-resistant cement, painted light blue. The place is smaller now, because Manny and Jose, now an accountant for Barnes & Noble in New Jersey, couldn't afford to build it back to its original size.
"We did what we could with the money we had at the time," Manny said.
Walk through the door now, and even with Acta's cellphone plugged into one outlet and his BlackBerry on a nearby table, it is home. This is, essentially, the same place Manny used to lie down, staring blankly, explaining to his "Mami" that he was dreaming of playing in the majors. It is, essentially, the same room in which Manuel Acta would rock in his favorite chair, waiting for his kids to get home from school. Manuel knew precisely when report cards were issued.
"That," Jose Acta said, "was an event in my house."
God forbid someone came home with a C or worse. With "Papi" around, there would be consequences, and for Manny, they were unacceptable: poor grades, no baseball. Blanca was normally the disciplinarian, but Manuel, who grew up in an agricultural family of 12 children and was lucky enough to get an accounting job without a college degree, believed in education.
"You have to go to school," he said. "You get a better chance."
So Manny, the oldest, started his education down the road in San Pedro de Macoris, the small coastal city that is the anchor for the province of the same name, the province best known for sending its baseball players to the United States. Manny's younger siblings all went to school in Consuelo -- where nuns from the United States and Canada opened a school that has become the pride of town -- but Manny finished in San Pedro, taking rudimentary English classes and playing baseball, developing into a pitcher and playing basketball as well. At 6 feet 2 and a frightfully skinny 150 pounds, Acta dominated on the courts -- until he had a little chat with his father.
"How many Dominicans are in the NBA?" Manny recalls his father asking. The answer was plain: zero. "You think you're tall? You're 6-2. You're a dwarf. Now, how many Dominicans play baseball?" They could have taken all afternoon to count and still forgotten a few.
End of conversation. End of basketball.
That chat remains important because it lodged in Manny's head a salient fact: If he really wanted to play baseball, his father would support him. College came first, but college pushed Acta to baseball, because he got into a dispute with the administrators at his university in San Pedro de Macoris. He thought he had made arrangements to attend one class when they thought he should be in another, and they flunked him, and he stormed out. As he walked away, he had his mind on his father's words: Why don't you take a year off from school and concentrate on baseball?
"I thought he could make it," Manuel Acta said. Manny was 17.Plan Goes Into Motion
In those days, when Manny Acta returned home to Consuelo after a year as a shortstop in the Houston Astros' system, it was nothing of an event beyond the Acta home on Puerto Rico Street. He would come back with a gelled-up hairdo that was the style of the late 1980s, wearing a little mustache. It took a couple of years before he filled out his frame, but his mind was full of stories, and he would relate them to his brother Jose and his other friends and family.
In Consuelo, it was rare to meet someone who wasn't Dominican. Yet here was Acta, who had been exposed to such luxuries as eating cereal for breakfast, talking of meeting Mexicans and Americans and Cubans and Venezuelans, playing alongside them, rooming with them.
"We never worried about him," Jose Acta said. "We always believed he would do well. We always believed he would make it."
Life, though, was very much split for Manny Acta in those days, split between the Dominican and the United States. Just as he signed with the Astros as a 17-year-old, Acta said, "I made a mistake." The mistake resulted in his first child, a daughter, Jennifer, born to a woman back home.
Jennifer's mother left to work on the island of St. Maarten. She and Acta did not marry. He wasn't equipped to bring the child to the United States while he was in the minor leagues. So Blanca Acta took the child in and raised Jennifer, with Manny maintaining contact through the season and seeing his daughter when he came home in the winter.
"It's sad to say," Acta said, "but because of baseball, she never really had the opportunity to grow up with me."
This past summer, Jennifer, 20, joined Manny in New York, where he served as the Mets' third base coach, and she now has settled there.
But back then, Acta was growing up himself, growing into a new country and a new life. It wasn't long before he met and married an American. Cindy Acta is the mother of Manny's 11-year-old daughter, Leslie, the keeper of their home in St. Cloud, Fla., the woman who was at his side during those difficult times when he was told by Astros officials, in no uncertain terms, that he should probably give up his dream of being a major league shortstop and think about becoming a coach. He hadn't advanced past Class A. He called his father back in Consuelo with the news.
"That was a very, very sad day for us," Jose Acta said. "It was a big blow. Here I am, I'm thinking my brother is the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, and here they're telling me he couldn't make it to Triple A? My whole baseball world came crashing down. Really, what was he going to do? Make it as a manager?"
But Manny and Cindy Acta came up with what, in the Acta house, is still known as "the plan." He didn't have a recognizable name. He never played in the majors. He wasn't known outside the Astros' organization. He figured he would need to spend 20 years in the minor leagues, "and then, hopefully, someone would notice me."
Leslie was born in 1995, when Acta managed Class A ball in Auburn, N.Y. The plan trudged through stop after stop -- Burlington, Iowa; Asheville, N.C.; Kissimmee, Fla. Each winter, he would return home to Consuelo, bringing Cindy and visiting Jennifer. And even as the plan accelerated -- he received his first major league coaching job in 2002 with the Nationals' predecessors, the Montreal Expos -- the Consuelo to which he returned slipped further and further from the Consuelo he once knew.
"I could tell every year that things were deteriorating," he said, sitting on the front porch with the bowl of melon on a table before him. "In a span of, jeez, I don't know how many years, it kept getting worse and worse. The glue to the community used to be sports. Now? I don't know what."
Just then, a man in a scraggly ball cap and T-shirt ambled from the dirt road to the house. There was no pretense in the exchange. The man wanted money. Acta handed him a few pesos. "Gracias," and the man walked away. The townsfolk must understand, he said, that he doesn't earn the millions the players do. His two-year contract, sources said, pays him slightly less than $500,000 annually.
"I want to help as much as I can," Acta said, "but I can't give everybody 100 bucks."Taking It to the Kids
Ramon Tolentino reached toward a three-drawer file cabinet in the garage in his back yard, where turkeys and chickens wander about freely. This was Manny Acta's second home growing up, where he would hang out with his friend Tolentino in between trips to the ball fields. Now, it is where the two run "Liga Manny Acta," the youth league they took over two years ago with the idea to help a Consuelo gone bad.
"The idea now is to get them not only to be baseball players," Tolentino said, using Acta as an interpreter, "but lawyers, doctors, good citizens."
In the cabinet's files, each participant is registered with a picture, a birth certificate, even a report card. To play in Liga Manny Acta, you have to stay in school. They are trying to bring order to a disorderly system.
The night before, when Consuelo welcomed back Acta for the first time with a full-on parade and party, Acta used his time at the microphone to speak to the kids.
Even on the happiest of occasions, he let it out, his despair over what his town had become, his worries that their parents weren't pointing them in the right direction, wishes that he could use his new position of prominence to help. It was a serious, stern, hopeful message, a plea to the town that raised him to return to what it once was.
"He touched my heart," said former major leaguer Jose Rijo, who sat on the stage behind Acta. "He gave me chills."
As the sun fell low that Saturday evening, Manny Acta hopped up the stairs to a bridge that spanned the old grounds of the Ingenio Consuelo. No sugar was being made, each day like the one before it. It was quiet enough for Acta to tell the story of how he used to head out in the evening over this bridge, leave a baseball bat at the little house from which a shift foreman watched, then grab the bat on his way home at 1 or 2 in the morning, lest he encounter any trouble.
Descending the stairs on the other side of the plant, Acta stumbles onto, of all things, a pickup baseball game, kids and adults manning a makeshift, dirt-and-scrub field. He was only a few steps from his house by now, and after he passed, he turned back to survey the scene.
"Consuelo," in Spanish, translates to solace, to joy, to comfort. And with Manny Acta at the helm of the Nationals, with an important role in a place an ocean away, maybe there is hope for his home town, after all.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.