By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007
When Manny Acta flips around the channels in the wee hours of the morning -- looking for an old "Law & Order" rerun, or perhaps a sermon from motivational preacher Joel Osteen -- he doesn't waste his idle time wrestling over trivial matters, whether he should have removed his starting pitcher or should have hit-and-run, much less whether he was prepared to manage a major league baseball team.
"I don't think I have learned as much as I'm being reassured of the plan that I had put together in my mind over the last five years," Acta said.
A know-it-all? At 38, hardly. "Manny's so open-minded," said New York Mets executive Tony Bernazard, a longtime Acta friend and confidant. As Acta comes to the conclusion of his first year as a major league manager -- leading the Washington Nationals -- he remains curious. He leafs through books for new ways of thinking, bounces ideas off his coaching staff and spends time "just talking baseball constantly," Bernazard said.
Through all that, the film Acta plays in his mind of the season just past isn't much different than the one he scripted in his days as a minor league coach and manager, in his stint as a third base coach in the big leagues with the Montreal Expos and then with the New York Mets. In those times, Acta said, he would manage both teams, pulling make-believe levers and pushing pretend buttons. This year, he did it for real, massaging a clubhouse, yanking players when they didn't hustle, juggling a bullpen that was the most worked in the National League.
"I hate to use the term 'handling,' " Acta said. "But I have always been pretty comfortable that I can 'handle' people. I can always convince people to do what I think is right."
Acta might have an easier time doing that now, with a season nearly behind him. His Nationals were almost universally predicted to finish with the worst record in baseball, yet before play began last night had a better mark than nine clubs. For Washington, 2007 was supposed to be about developing pieces for the future. Acta was part of making that development happen, all while developing himself. As third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, "He's learning -- just like the rest of us."
But the reviews from both inside and outside the organization have only reinforced what Acta thought -- that he was equipped for this job. He has a number of different expressions for his grip on his sport. "Some people watch the game," he says. "I see the game." Those qualities -- confidence, intellect -- have General Manager Jim Bowden promoting his man for National League manager of the year.
"I think he's the best young manager in the game," Bowden said. "He's highly intelligent. He's well prepared. He's a good motivator. He's a good leader. . . . I think he runs a good game, and I think he's a winner."
Or, as Bernazard said: "Manny has what I call the key characteristics or ingredients of a manager. He's a great communicator. He's extremely intelligent about the baseball aspect of it, and he absorbs information."
All of which brings up a salient point. With the Mets in the midst of a monumental collapse -- a seven-game lead in the National League East on Sept. 12 had evaporated after last night's games -- New Yorkers were analyzing the personality and passion of Manager Willie Randolph, who served as Acta's boss for two years. In two series against the Mets over the past two weeks, Acta has spoken at length -- on the field during batting practice -- with Bernazard and Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon. He hosted General Manager Omar Minaya -- who first hired him onto Frank Robinson's staff in Montreal in 2002, then insisted he come to New York when Minaya got the Mets job in 2005 -- in his office before Wednesday's game.
That kind of information is enough to send Mets fans into a frenzy. Acta has a two-year contract with club options for two more years. Though team president Stan Kasten declined last week to discuss when and if the Nationals would pick up one or both of Acta's options, if Bowden and Kasten continue to feel as they do now, Acta is likely to be in Washington through 2010, when his deal would run out.
Even then, mentioning him as a candidate to replace Randolph in New York -- "Willie is perfect for this type of situation," he said -- makes Acta uneasy.
"I was never a candidate to manage" the Mets, Acta said. "I do have a good relationship with Omar and Tony and the Wilpons, but that even goes beyond baseball.
"I'm comfortable in Washington. I like it over there. I like my situation. They gave me my shot, and I'd be willing to stay there with the Lerners [who own the Nationals] and the team as long as they treat me the way I want to be treated and they think that I'm an asset to the organization."
If there is one thing Acta has learned this season, it just might be how to navigate the politics and policies of an organization from a position of power. Bowden is a hard-driving, hands-on GM, one who solicits opinions for any corner he can find, unlike others for whom Acta has worked.
"It's just different for me," Acta said. "It's just part of the job. But from Day One, I think the Nationals knew that they were not hiring a yes man. I have always been that way."
Come Monday, all the hours will be idle, with more time for "Law & Order." But whether the Nationals sweep or are swept this weekend in Philadelphia, Acta's approach to the offseason will be the same.
"No regrets," he said. "I did the things that I thought would probably work at this level when it comes down to running the clubhouse and running a baseball team. I still think they work."