Nats' Acta Manages To Keep Cool But Should He Be More Fired Up?

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, May 29, 2009

Has any manager ever begun his career as badly as Manny Acta of the Nationals (145-224) and gone on to be any good? I doubted there could be many, but I checked. I was wrong.

The list is substantial and includes some of the most famous managers in history: Casey Stengel (10 pennants), Miller Huggins (six), Joe Torre (six) and Bobby Cox (five) as well as Terry Francona, Chuck Dressen, Fred Haney and Burt Shotton, who also started just about as miserably as Acta but eventually won a pair of pennants apiece.

So, I showed the list to Acta. Before he even looked, he said, "I know Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Terry Francona are on it."

"Every manager on the list, for 100 years, has one thing in common," I said.

"Let me guess," he said, smiling amiably. "They all got fired from their first job."

You're not going to sneak up on Manny with that one. He knows history says he's probably going to be fired if his team does not improve before the all-star break. It's partly about him. But it's mostly about baseball. That's the game. When things get ugly enough, and at 13-33 the Nats are atrocious despite ranking fifth in runs per game in the National League, the manager usually pays in the end.

Besides, the Nats have already gone the extra mile. The cliche says, "They fired the manager because they couldn't fire the team." The Nats have actually reversed that dictum. They have "fired the team" multiple times already, rather than can Manny. And it's only May. So far, the Nats have had two full-scale bullpen purges, a center fielder exiled to Class AAA and a free agent starting pitcher released outright. Nobody has gotten that much support under fire in this town since Abe Lincoln backed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Acta's wife worries. He tells her she has it backward. He's getting the best education in the world for a young manager. He'll probably never have a job as hard as this again.

Perhaps only Acta, the stoic optimist, the anger-management and self-improvement guru, could view his time in Washington as uniquely valuable. When will he ever again have enough left fielders to start a breeding farm but not one relief pitcher who can throw strike one? Why, it's a priceless opportunity, even richer in (im)possibility than two years ago when his Nats escaped 90 losses despite a pitching rotation in which 116 starts were given to Matt Chico, Jason Bergmann, Mike Bacsik, Jason Simontacchi, Micah Bowie, Joel Hanrahan, Levale Speigner and Jerome Williams.

The consensus within baseball, and I'm merely part of it, is that Acta will be remembered someday as a good manager. But, like so many others, probably not with his first team. Acta's managerial style during games -- a blend of Torre, Mahatma Gandhi and a petrified pillar of salt -- just isn't what fans want to see when a team is 13-33. Neither in many cases do front-office executives or owners.

This week in New York, the Nats were on the wrong end of two game-changing replay decisions on home runs that were awarded -- dubiously -- to the Mets. Acta's reaction was not to react at all. He believes that anger is unproductive and that arguing with umpires does no good. At 40, he might be the world's oldest young manager, having run his first ballclub in '93 at the age of 24. Along the bush league trail, he once had a big temper but learned it did him no good, but plenty of harm. So, he mastered it.

Among managers, however, that makes him a glaring exception to the umpire-baiting, base-throwing, chew-'em-out-at-a-team-meeting rule. What Nats fan has forgotten how, in the '05 wild-card race, Frank Robinson, one of Acta's mentors and heroes, got a home run call reversed in the Nats favor. And that was before replay.

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