After Bravura Debut, Acta Faces Follow-Up

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 21 -- There was an envelope placed in Manny Acta's hand, and inside the envelope was a letter. The letter was from the Lerner family, which owns the Washington Nationals, and inside the letter was a check. And the check? Well, it doesn't even matter what the number was, or how many zeroes it had. What mattered was the check itself, a bonus for a job well done in 2007. The letter -- it mattered, too, applauding Acta for a fine job on and off the field as the Nationals' manager. But above all, what mattered to Acta was the gesture.

"I told them, 'You don't need to do this -- this is my job,' " said Acta, who confirmed receiving the bonus after a reporter, who already had been told of it by another source, asked him about it. "I don't have any incentive bonus in my contract. I've never had one in any contract -- because it's just my job. My job is to win. My job is to get it done. And I thought it was an outstanding gesture. I wasn't expecting it."

On Friday morning at 9 a.m., Acta, 39, will address the Nationals prior to the team's first full-squad workout of the spring, and he will do so with a much higher profile and stronger reputation, both within the organization and around the game, than he had a year ago, when he walked into that same room having never managed a big league game.

That profile and that reputation were forged last year over the course of a surprisingly solid 73-89 finish with a team many experts figured would lose 110 or more games -- a performance that earned him a fourth-place finish in National League manager of the year voting -- and through constant interaction with players, reporters and fans, who universally praise the job Acta did last season.

Principal owner Mark Lerner declined to be interviewed for this story, but President Stan Kasten acknowledged how thrilled ownership is to have hired Acta following the dismissal of Frank Robinson.

"He took command of the team the minute he stepped in the locker room," Kasten said. "He's a no-nonsense kind of guy, in terms of what he demands, but he's supportive of everyone on his team. He doesn't tolerate not playing the right way, but he makes it fun to play the right way, and do it together."

There may not be another manager in baseball for whom it can be said: He is immune from criticism. In a game where every columnist, blogger and talk-radio caller must have a strong opinion or be unheard, it is virtually impossible to recall something bad that has been said or written about Acta. Even Acta himself, who ought to know, could not come up with an example of his being criticized.

"It'll come," he said. "We had such low expectations, it helped me in the first year -- because people were expecting so little. People who know about the game saw the way we handled our bullpen, and the way we handled our team -- regardless of the talent -- and knew we knew how to handle the team, which was 90 percent of the job.

"I'm fiery, but I don't show it as much on the field. I don't go out there every single call. But I guarantee you, there will come a time if we struggle a little bit, and we have high expectations, some people are going to bring that up."

It may seem difficult to perform a thorough, honest self-evaluation when the feedback is universally positive, but Acta said it was not difficult at all. It involved a lot of time by himself, "Thinking about [the season], reflecting on it, month by month, going over particular situations with different players.

"To me, everything went smooth -- very smooth -- other than maybe I couldn't get the best out of, let's say, Felipe," Acta said, speaking of infielder Felipe L¿pez, who had a career-worst season in 2007 while dealing with personal problems. "But the thing is, I felt like I did everything I could do. And [L¿pez] acknowledged that, both at the end of the season, and again just the other day when I talked to him."

That may have been his biggest disappointment of 2007, but in the next breath Acta said he counts his handling of L¿pez's situation -- which included highly public tough-love gestures such as multiple benchings, as well as countless hours spent consoling and encouraging the player behind closed doors -- as one of his biggest triumphs of 2007.

"It was huge," he said, "because the rest of the guys right away said, 'He's not afraid to take a guy out.' "

Acta also spent time this winter crunching numbers and looking for ways to improve his understanding of them. He is the sort of manager who can speak knowledgeably about newfangled stat-geek terms such as VORP (value over replacement player), who understands the critical value of a high on-base percentage, and who is willing to give any player the green light to steal bases as long as he can demonstrate a success rate of at least 70 percent, which in statistical circles is considered the cutoff point at which the value of the bases gained outweighs the damage of the outs made.

"If there are things out there that can improve me, I can't just be such a hardhead and say, 'I'm doing it this way, because Casey Stengel did it this way,' or, 'The first guy I ever learned under told me you have to bunt in this situation,' " Acta said. "You have to adjust in life. I consider myself a mixture of old school and new school. I've evolved a little bit in life. I haven't been afraid to change my mind."

Acta's new challenges in 2008 include the raised expectations of last year's strong finish and an influx of talent this offseason, and the addition this year of several players with significant baggage attached to them.

But when Acta speaks to his assembled charges Friday morning, at the start of a journey together of more than seven months, he already will have their full respect and the self-confidence gained by the successes of 2007, which is all he needs. Anything else would be a bonus.

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