Boswell: A Stronger Link Than Most Think
The last person you'd ever expect to see in Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night walked into the visiting manager's office. Why, it's Manny Acta. What are you doing here? Weren't you fired yesterday?
"Haven't you heard? I've got three more days," said Acta, smiling with that nothing-bothers-me manner that drives his detractors nuts.
So, eventually, Manny, if you lose a few more games and get fired, whom will the Washington Nationals name as interim manager? Bench coach Jim Riggleman or Class AAA manager Tim Foli? Or will it be Bobby Valentine, now in Japan; or perhaps ex-manager Buck Showalter, who worked with acting GM Mike Rizzo in Arizona; or even semi-retired Davey Johnson? More important, after the whole offseason search process is complete, who's the manager in '10? The baseball grapevine has good reasons why it won't be any of those five.
"It's going to be me," said Acta. And this time, he wasn't smiling. Instead, he was poking his finger into his chest, his face animated with the kind of pride you know must be in him; otherwise, how could he have come from the depths of poverty and a brief low-minors career to become the only Dominican manager in the majors.
"It's going to be me," he repeated, not hostile but defiant. "Watch." With that, he walked toward the field at Yankee Stadium where his Nats lost for the 25th time in their last 30 games.
Nobody in baseball seems able to get a handle on why the Nats really, really don't want to fire Acta. What are they waiting for, a sign from the heavens? For a tablet with "Can Manny" chiseled on it to materialize in a burst of flames on the pitcher's mound? What is it about 16-46 that they don't grasp? Sure, the Nats might as well get the No. 1 overall pick in the '10 draft. But do they really have to make a run at the '62 Mets' 120 losses?
"We're really trying. We say that things can't possibly get any worse," reliever Joe Beimel said. "But then they do. We keep finding new ways to lose."
Why does any team keep a manager whose karma is obviously roadkill, who couldn't be more snakebitten with a (live) rattlesnake belt? Maybe baseball is missing something big, obvious and ugly about this Acta paradox. One central reason they don't fire Manny is because, in an organization where turmoil is constant, he is one of the few cohesive elements, one of the few people left who keeps organizational disintegration at bay. Acta, who reads Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" on the team flight, may be a strong link, not a not a weak one, on a franchise whose core personnel has been atomized in a year.
After last season, the Nats fired all of Acta's coaches except Randy St. Claire. Last month, they fired him, too. So far this year, the Nats have also fired executive José Rijo and "retired" GM Jim Bowden. They have an "interim" tag on Rizzo and apparently have not added anybody to their front office to compensate for the extra workload when Bowden departed. On a team with this much turnover, only two authority figures remain in their '08 roles -- Kasten off the field and Acta in the clubhouse. And Manny still connects with a team that continues to give him its effort, as in Tuesday night's 5-3 loss when the Nats led the $201 million Yankees 3-2 after six innings. But, of course, lost.
Ask the Nats' vets about Acta and they don't glorify him. But they not only support him, they seem to cling to him. "I had Joe Torre last year," Beimel said. "He never gets too excited. But he'll let you know if he doesn't like something. Manny reminds me of Torre. Some managers are with you when you're good and flip out when you're not."
At the moment, the Nats have three adults holding an embattled, poorly constructed fort -- Kasten, Rizzo and Acta. Perhaps they don't want to see it reduced to two.