With Patience, Nats' Acta Manages Fine

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS, June 16 -- Last week, for a good 45 seconds, Manager Manny Acta lost his temper. The argument was all roaring mouths and flapping hands, pure heat, two alphas nose to nose. Others in the dugout pulled Acta and right fielder Elijah Dukes apart. And that was it. Except then, the argument was shown again and again on television, and contributed to what Acta called "the sadness of the world."

Until last Tuesday night, and indeed, since Tuesday night, Acta has guided the Washington Nationals with unapologetic patience and positivism. This year, Acta has used those qualities to encourage a lineup reduced by injuries and hindered by struggling hitters. He's adopted them as mantras for a last-place team. He's applied them as insulation to keep the clubhouse from becoming contaminated.

In the almost 1 1/2 years Acta has had the job, the manager's core personality traits -- tested often, but rarely broken -- have shaded the complexion of an entire team.

Negativity festers, Acta has said, and players do not respond well to it, which is why they almost never see it from him. Regarding Dukes, Acta -- speaking this past weekend in the visiting manager's office in Seattle -- said he does not regret the confrontation. From his perspective, the acceptance of Dukes's apology "five minutes after we had our confrontation" buried all negativity.

But that didn't happen, at least not beyond the clubhouse.

"We live in a world where people love to boo instead of cheer," Acta said. "They'd rather say no than yes. They love to say, 'You suck,' instead of, 'It's okay; you'll get 'em next time.' They love violence instead of calm. That's why I'm so worried and feel bad about my daughter's future in this world.

"It is simple," he continued. "The Washington Nationals sometimes go days without being seen on highlights on TV shows. And that night, because of a little argument in the dugout, we were the leading story. What does that tell you?"

The lesson extending from the one episode where patience broke only reaffirms why Acta despises negativity, and why he tries to seal it from his team. It's also why, in the past, Acta has tried to seal himself from unnecessary influences. Even now, he said he never watches the news. He started reading only four or five years ago, mostly self-help books. During his career as a minor league player and coach, he scrutinized the methods of his managers, deciding what worked by applying it to one litmus test: Did it make sense for the players?

That metric explains many of Acta's current rules, a list appreciated by those in the clubhouse for its brevity. Some managers demand helmets during batting practice; not Acta. Some place restrictions on post-victory music volume; Acta lets it blast. Some worry about facial hair; Acta lets it grow. Some ban blue jeans; Acta, aside from travel days, doesn't mind. His rules? "Nothing tacky," he said. Be on time. Play hard. Respect the coaches, your teammates and the game itself. None of those rules interfere with a happy clubhouse.

Even four years ago, though not nearly as positive or patient, Acta was still a "makes-sense" guy -- his words -- craving optimistic ideas that satisfied his logic. When he read a book called "Mind Game" (produced by the staff of Baseball Prospectus) that in part dismissed any correlation between manager ejections and tantrums and winning baseball, Acta put out the embers of his fiery side -- the one that, while coaching in the mid '90s in the New York-Penn League, prompted an argument with an umpire, a resulting suspension and a rebuke from the farm director.

So Acta changed, and became a little more patient. No more arguments. "The idea that causing chaos or kicking dirt is going to help you -- that's a myth," he said.

Then, as now, Acta viewed his personality like a first draft, revisable with a few strokes. When he encountered something new -- an improved way of operating, or thinking, or coaching -- he pledged to rewrite his persona. "I can change my ways tomorrow," Acta said. "Easy."

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