'Preach and Teach'
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Manny Acta is a man who, in recent weeks, kept a copy of "Tuesdays with Morrie" on his office desk. He leafs through the Successories catalog, which features posters and books filled with motivational sayings under pictures of soaring eagles or majestic mountaintops. He scribbles, on the grease board outside the Washington Nationals' clubhouse at RFK Stadium, slogans such as: "Everyone wants to win. Special people prepare to win."
Acta is 38, the youngest manager in the major leagues. He has stood on the top step of the dugout, responsible for the on-field future of a rebuilding franchise, for all of 88 games. Yet even as the Nationals have won just 36 and sit in last place in the National League East, Acta's mix of relentless positivity, defiance of outside expectations and realism about his team's chances have impressed most of those who watch him from inside the dugout and from the executive suites.
"We know one thing about this year," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "We hired the right manager."
As much as the Nationals pumped Acta's presence after they hired him in November -- saying both publicly and privately how impressed they were by his demeanor, presence, attitude and aptitude -- they couldn't know for sure until they saw him in the dugout, watched him before games, listened to him after. "We'd like him back next year," team president Stan Kasten said, grinning sarcastically.
To Acta, though, the comfort in his new position -- even amid what began as and likely will continue to be a season of struggle -- feels normal. Asked what the most significant surprise about his job has been, and his response is that he has to meet with reporters twice a day, once hours before the game and then again immediately afterward. A tiny fraction of the job, to be sure, but it also is a measure of how prepared he felt he was for this position. The other stuff -- double switches, juggling relievers, dealing with injuries, knowing the opposition, massaging egos -- was expected, routine.
"Knows the game," said Pat Corrales, Acta's bench coach. "Great knowledge of the game."
Corrales made his major league debut as a catcher in 1964, five years before Acta was born in the Dominican Republic. He was hired because both Acta and the front office felt that a young manager needs a sage nearby.
That might be true of Corrales, who managed more than 1,200 major league games for Texas, Cleveland and Philadelphia in the '70s and '80s, then served on Bobby Cox's staff in Atlanta for 17 seasons. But Corrales finds that when the Nationals misplay a ball or miss a sign, he is the one fidgeting on the bench. Acta moves on.
"I'm telling you, I get more upset than he does," Corrales said. "So even-keel. It's one of his strengths. He keeps his temper."
Acta rarely emerges from the dugout to question a call, has yet to get in an umpire's face, hasn't come close to being ejected. Some fans have questioned those tactics. Does it show a lack of fire? Acta's response is simple.
"What good does it do?" he said. "You're not going to get the umpire to change the call. You don't do your team any good by being ejected. I haven't seen one game changed because of an argument."
The serenity extends beyond disputed calls, beyond in-game situations. Each day, Acta meets informally with his coaches in his tiny office. "We try to pump him up," third base coach Tim Tolman said, "and in turn he pumps us up."