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.
The Nats stand behind Acta. But, as one team executive notes, that's partly because he is a "players' manager" who shows patience, seldom shows up veterans in public and, with the exception of one dugout confrontation with Elijah Dukes last season, may never have chewed out any of his current players. Acta compares a team to a family, where anger is an ineffective form of discipline. Most managers in Cooperstown have disagreed.
"Motivation is a player's own responsibility. It's our job. Nobody should have to get us ready to play," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said when asked about Acta. "I think that a manager in the major leagues is probably the most overrated position in sports. Unless you have $230 million of egos to manage, I don't see the problem. If you don't know how to play by the time you get here, it's not the manager's fault."
Take that as an endorsement, as it was intended. Or ask yourself if the Nats, perhaps, have players who are not as self-motivated as Zimmerman who could use some external motivation, as well as some remedial work on "how to play the game."
Last week, after the Nats had lost the first seven games of a homestand, Acta finally called a team meeting -- another sign of desperation or lost equilibrium of which he disapproves. He told his players they were better than their record, to play hard and keep plugging. Then he asked if anybody had anything to add?
Reliever Ron Villone, 39, an old-school type who'd only been on the team for a week, was the only player to say anything, according to a source. The 245-pound Villone looks like he could break your leg -- by looking at it. He was named in the Mitchell report. And he's the only Nats reliever with an ERA under 5.00. Villone's is 0.00.
The old left-hander, according to sources, said he and his fellow relievers were the laughingstock of baseball, that they should be sick and tired of seeing themselves mocked on TV, that their stuff was good enough to challenge hitters and that they should suck it up and "attack." Add the colorful adjectives of your choice.
In other words, it was exactly the kind of speech the Nats will probably never hear from Manny Acta. Do such pep-talk gimmicks work? Or just make everybody feel better for a day? Does chewing out an umpire make him bear down harder? Or just make an enemy? Does "showing up" a player sometimes, even chewing him out at full volume in the dugout or clubhouse, increase a team's intensity and accountability? Or is it more productive, in the long haul, to do it Acta's mature way -- in private, with wisdom, not volume?
The Nationals might wish to ponder these questions if they like and admire Acta as much as they claim. Because if they don't shape up and stop playing like a bunch of dead-weight rock-head scared-to-death bush leaguers -- oh, sorry, that was the Earl Weaver-Davey Johnson in me escaping.
Let's put it as Manny might. If they do not perform better in their chosen profession in the reasonably near future, they may not have Manny Acta -- who will probably be a fine manager somewhere someday -- to shield them from their sins indefinitely.