A Skipper's First-Day Jitters
Friday, February 16, 2007
ST. CLOUD, Fla., Feb. 15 -- The only sound on Shoreline Drive just before 5:30 a.m. Thursday came from the sprinkler next door, spit-spit-spitting its way across an impeccably manicured lawn, breaking the silence with dawn still an hour away. And then, a garage door cranked open, light spilled onto the brick driveway and Manny Acta -- beginning "one of the biggest days of my career," he said -- burst through, wheeling a week's worth of trash to the curb. Major league managers, it seems, still have chores, even on their first day in uniform leading a club.
An hour-long drive lay ahead. His first speech to his Washington Nationals was 3 1/2 hours off. A fitful sleep interrupted by nightmares -- the electricity in his house went off, his alarm failed and, God forbid, he was late -- had just passed. And yet, there was routine. Hug his daughter Leslie before she scampers off to middle school. Kiss his wife Cindy goodbye on the morning after Valentine's Day. Put on a jersey as a major league manager for the first time. And . . . oh yeah, take out the trash.
"I've been preparing for this day for 20 years," Acta said after he hopped in his white GMC Envoy. "Spring training, there's not that much pressure. But I'm going to tell you: Whoever tells you he's not nervous in sports on the days that you need to perform, you're not human. Don't let anybody lie to you. You've always got jitters."
But over the course of a drive through the dark from his home in this suburb south of Orlando to the Nationals' spring training complex in Viera -- not to mention as he assembled the Nationals' pitchers and catchers and monitored more than two hours of workouts -- any nerves were kept squarely in the back pocket of his designer jeans. A CD of salsa music played on continuous loop. His thoughts flowed freely, openly, east on U.S. 192, north on Interstate 95, finally onto Stadium Parkway and into the clubhouse. He burst into the conference room behind his office and yelled: "Oh, my goodness! Look at my coaching staff, ready to go!" It was 6:30 in the morning. His bowl of Raisin Bran, topped with chocolate milk, was still more than 20 minutes off.
"This has to be crisp, and it has to be fun," Acta said as the Envoy trucked down 192, carefully adhering to the speed limit lest there be traps along the way. "Everywhere I've been, for years, those are the types of camps you get the most out of. It can become very monotonous very quick, especially the first week you're going to be doing the same thing over and over with just pitchers and catchers.
"You want to keep the work stations short. You don't want to allow walking from station to station. You've got to jog. You've got to be crisp in everything you do."
As he spoke, his voice rose over the salsa. Acta swears that, at any other point, a passenger could hop in his car and hear the country of Toby Keith or the up-tempo beat of Dominican merengue or an oldies collection featuring Ben E. King, whose songs helped a teenage Acta learn English some two decades ago. "I love music so much," he said, and he will allow it in his clubhouse this year, part of his philosophy to treat his players as he would have wanted to be treated had he ever made it to the majors, had his playing career not stalled out at Class A, after which he began his career as a coach and started on this path. A drive nearly two decades in the making.
"The first day is when you gain credibility," said Tim Tolman, the new third base coach who managed for years in the minors and whom Acta calls a mentor. "If you're not organized, if you don't have any enthusiasm, players feel that. We had a definite tone we wanted to set for the first day to get ready so that we can prepare to win games, and Manny leads the way in setting that. I don't think he'd be nervous as much as excited."
As Acta moved down 192 -- the commute he will make until exhibition games start in March, when he will stay closer to the park -- he said the excitement grew this week because the people who helped put him in this spot began calling him, leaving messages, wishing him well. The winter was such a blur -- he was hired in November, traveled home to the Dominican Republic in December, spoke to community groups, hired a coaching staff, blocked off time for his family, planned spring training and read to kids in libraries -- that it has taken other people to remind him of the step he is taking, a first-time major league manager at age 38.
"He's ready, and he won't be overwhelmed," said Frank Robinson, one of the well-wishers. "But until you do it, until you're in that position, you don't really have a good feel. He'll be making adjustments all year. But now's an important time, because he still has to earn the respect of his players."
That process began at 9 a.m., when the clubhouse doors closed and Acta spoke. "I don't write speeches," he said, but he admitted to mentally preparing for this one for years. Yes, he told the players, the Nationals will provide opportunities.
"But anybody that's in there who's not excited about where we're going," he said earlier, as he prepared, "they should just leave. There's something missing."
The players got it.
"This isn't just a place to be happy," closer Chad Cordero said. "He wants to win, and he wants players here who want to win."
There were elements of what Robinson would say, too, Acta said. Acta and Robinson had two long conversations leading up to spring training. Mets General Manager Omar Minaya, who hired Acta from the Expos in 2005, called earlier in the week, telling him to stay positive no matter what. Wednesday night, Tony Bernazard -- another Mets front-office member whom Acta got to know when Bernazard worked for the players' association in 2002 -- left a message, offering the best of luck.
But as close as Acta is to those men, Robinson might be the most pertinent to his current situation. The Hall of Famer managed this team the last five seasons. He wasn't asked back after 2006, and has since gone through a bitter divorce from the organization. Yet Acta is clear: "I owe where I am to Frank Robinson."
"I was an unknown guy, basically," Acta said. "I was highly touted in the minor leagues and stuff, but I still had never been in a major league ballpark. But Frank had the courage to carry me on his staff. And then every year after that, he could have fired me. But he kept me. I'm so, so thankful for that."
So as the day of the first workout approached, the two men -- the Nationals' first manager and his successor -- talked about personalities on the team, the chances they have to win, the pieces they have in place and the plan for the future.
"We talked for a long time," Acta said. "He knows how I am, and he really thinks that we're going to be fine because of our good, young core of guys right here. He didn't bring up any names, but he kind of told me he thinks we're going to be better off right now because you don't have any rebellious types of personalities."
It is those kinds of personalities that, in the middle of the summer, can keep a manager up at night. But in the wee hours of Thursday morning, it was those nightmares that stirred Acta. When he managed in the minor leagues, he used to dream that he had prepared in every way possible for a game -- but forgot to make out the lineup card, and there were only two minutes to go before the first pitch.
"You sweat those things," Acta said, the car pulling closer to the ballpark. "Believe me, I sweated last night. And that's good."
At 1:45 Thursday, he woke up, worried his alarm had malfunctioned. At 4:45, he stirred again. At that point, it was time to stay up, to pull on his clothes, to tell his family goodbye, to take out the trash and to begin life as a major league manager.