By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009
NEW YORK, May 28 -- As a way to keep sane during a hard year, Manny Acta thinks back to his first year as a professional manager. A harder year. He thinks back to 1993. "Every day," Acta said. "Yeah, every day."
For as long as he has managed the Washington Nationals, Acta has leaned on perspective, always willing to remind himself that the present is no time to panic. No scenario feels dire when you've already dealt with something worse. No scenario, so long as it comes with the right frame of reference, gives license to lose your steadiness.
The strategy explains why Acta -- at the helm of a dismal season, overlooking all those chronic late-inning blowups and defensive misadventures, entrusted with no contract beyond 2009 -- can somehow go to work on the hot seat without feeling on edge. Tenuous situations, for Washington's third-year manager, are nothing new.
This year, the profile is higher, but in 1993, the stakes for his family were greater. At age 23, he accepted his first managerial job, then drove up from Florida to Auburn, N.Y., in a 1986 Ford Escort with no air conditioning. He made $20,000 that season in the Class A New York-Penn League. His wife, coming with him, had abandoned her job in guest services at Disney World. In baseball, and in Acta's new career, the couple was fully invested. As he would for each of the next 19 years, Acta had a one-year contract.
Finding a job outside baseball would have required Acta, whose minor league playing career had hit a wall, to go back to school. "And I wasn't willing to do that," Acta said. These days, Acta takes comfort in a certain safety net: If he loses this job, he has the reputation and name recognition to find employment elsewhere, even in the minors. But in 1993, a lost job meant a potential dead end.
That is why he doesn't panic, Acta said. "Because I had 19 years in a row with one-year deals. I'm used to it. Now I think about it and it looks, 'Oh my!' But I did it for all that time."
Acta then said, referring to his first year, "I didn't have something to fall back on that could give us a better life."
This season, Acta has refused to abandon his patience -- a contrast to his demeanor in the minors, where he often lost his temper. By the time he took a job with Washington, though, Acta had made a conscious decision to remain steady, calm and non-argumentative, believing ballplayers didn't respond well to fire. So far, Acta has resisted every temptation to change.
After this season's team -- which Acta called the most talented in his three years here -- lost its first six games. Acta promised to "keep my cool head and stay positive." The season, he said, was too young to judge.
Then a bad week turned into a bad April, and Acta allowed that "we had a rough month. But we could have been in first place, too, in that first month. We blew about eight leads after the seventh." He said he wouldn't start panicking "until we lose 83 or 84 games where I'll be convinced we won't be able to play .500 baseball."
In this latest stretch, the Nationals have lost 12 of 14. With a 13-33 record, they would need to play .586 ball to finish at .500. In the past week, Acta has held a formal team meeting. He's watched his team get swept by the Mets. Now, the Nationals, 5-22 against the NL East, head to Philadelphia for a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park.
Asked Wednesday if he felt stressed out about his job security, Acta said: "No. Because I've been up here for already eight years in the big leagues," including stints as a third base coach with Montreal and the Mets before coming to Washington. "My name is out there. I already told you that I started coaching making $10,000 in my first job [as a part-time coach in 1992], so I have lived and gone through from $10,000 to, let's say, half a million dollars. And I have lived in all that range. So I feel that I can live with any salary.
"I think you're managing for your career -- always. Not just next year. You still feel that if you do things right, maybe somebody else will notice. Or also, once you get to this level, I can probably go back and get a job in the minor leagues somewhere, so you don't worry as much. I think it's tougher when you're in the minor leagues. Because once you're in the big leagues, at least now you have a little bit of a name, and people know who you are. But there are tons of minor league people that nobody even knows who you are. So if you fall back, there is no safety net."
Without a safety net, Acta and his wife arrived in Auburn in early June 1993. They found a one-bedroom apartment with a tiny kitchen.
"That first year was very scary," Acta said, "because next door to us was an ex-convict."
He turned out to be friendly, but he hit on Acta's wife.
By that point, Acta had a plan: He wanted to find a job in the big leagues -- even as a bullpen coach -- within 20 years. By 2013. Until then, he would work on his meager salary. He would wait for those after-the-year calls from the front office, where they would tell him whether he had a job for the next season. He would jump from one rental apartment to the next, car always packed with suitcases.
"So, you know," Acta said, "nowadays I really appreciate everything I went through."