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Stronger Link Than Most Think

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

NEW YORK

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.

"Stan and Mike are supportive," Acta said. "Stan says, 'Just win a few games so I can stop answering these questions.' "

If that trio does not support each other, who will? Asked about the status of his contract, Rizzo said: "I haven't asked and don't intend to. Since I got the job on March 1st, I've worked 24-7. I've never felt 'interim.' Joe Torre said, when they made him interim manager that he'd moved his furniture in and somebody would have to move it out. I've moved my symbolic furniture in."

Instead of worrying about whether Acta should be fired, the Nationals might want to focus their attention on getting Rizzo fully hired -- not just as "interim." Kasten never comments on the GM situation. But he's not going to do better than Rizzo, whose '07 draft class already has produced starters Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. As soon as Rizzo took his new job, he identified Problem 1 -- the bullpen of children -- before it ever blew up. He signed Beimel as a free agent, then (for about $5 each) picked up veterans Ron Villone, Julián Taváres, Kip Wells and Mike MacDougal. Bowden's kids imploded. The patchwork vets have had a bullpen ERA around 3.00 for almost a month.

Beimel saw both bullpen groups. "The young guys had a kind of deer-in-the-headlights look. I don't want to say they were scared, but they looked nervous warming up," Beimel said. "A lot of them were being put in situations -- one-run game, late-inning, middle-of-the-order up -- that they'd never faced in the big leagues."

As the Nats face 11 more games in a row with the tough AL East, more predictions of Acta's demise may continue. Someday, one may be accurate. The bill of particulars against him always comes down to one issue: Acta never gets angry. Aren't umps, who know he won't cause a flap, influenced by the angry voices from the other dugout? Won't Nats players, seldom if ever read the riot act by Acta, likely to take advantage, too?

The Nats have talked to Acta about showing more emotion. He could do it so easily. Any fool can fake a fit. But he won't. Even for his job. "He's very stubborn in his beliefs," one executive said. On the other hand, that's because they actually are beliefs.

As the Nationals continue to lose, and Acta leans on the dugout railing studying the field, showing nothing, enduring all, contesting nothing, feel free to view his utter calm as a fatal managerial flaw, especially on a team that comes up a crucial play or two shy of victory so often. And it may well be.

But on a team so young, so destabilized in such a short time, do the Nats really want to replace Acta with an unknown or unfamiliar quantity? Who else is so committed to sticking with this dubious ship? The Nats' predicament may be far more complex than it appears. How much stability and continuity can you throw overboard on the knee-jerk logic that, "It can't get worse."

Maybe those who build this sinking bucket, and still run it, suspect that it can.

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