By Tracee Hamilton
Monday, June 29, 2009
I would normally throw a guy like Manny Acta under the bus without a backward glance. His baseball team's winning percentage is hovering around a cool .300, yet he remains calm, even in the face of the Holy Trinity of baseball adversity: poor fielding, poor pitching and poor hitting, sometimes all at once.
Acta -- the public Acta -- is placid. Passive. Robotic.
The Nationals manager constantly reads self-help books. He never watches sports on TV. And he enjoys "CSI: Miami."
Seriously, what's up with this guy?
"If that's the worst thing people are going to say about me, that I'm not going to go out there and create havoc and throw bases, I can die [happy] tomorrow," said Acta.
Recently, the worst thing people said about Acta is that he would be fired. However, his job is probably safe for now, and perhaps for the rest of the season. (The club has an option for 2010.) He might have Fox's Ken Rosenthal -- who on June 13 reported that Acta would be fired in a matter of days -- to thank for that. The rest of the media, The Post included, chased the rumor as well. Team president Stan Kasten can smell a journalist's blood in the water the way Lassie sensed Timmy was trapped in an old mine. (Unlike Lassie, however, Kasten won't run for help.) Acta may have been in trouble June 13, but he doesn't appear to be now.
"I think he has the demeanor to be a long-term solution as a manager," Kasten said last week at the National Press Club. " . . . I can't predict whether it will work here, but I think he will, I think he's going to serve as a long-term manager here. That's my hope."
Ah, the demeanor. For many Nats fans, that's been the rub. Acta won't throw a fit. He won't throw a water cooler. He won't even throw a party.
Acta doesn't need Zen; Zen needs Acta.
The 40-year-old Nats manager is sometimes compared to Joe Torre, in the "laid-back dude" way, not the "four World Series rings" way. But the amazing thing about Acta's mien is that it's not God-given. It's a choice. And it's not a choice he's willing to change.
"When I first started managing, I was probably way too brutally honest to my young players and said things that I shouldn't probably say to young kids that were starting to play the game," he said of his early years with Auburn in the short-season New York-Penn League, where he managed for four seasons (1993-96). "I spent too much time arguing with umpires and stuff and getting thrown out of the game until my farm director just flat-out told me, 'You're being paid to manage the ballgame, not to get thrown out the game. You gotta stay in the game and watch these kids and teach them how to play.' "
In my first job out of college, I used to throw telephones in anger -- sometimes just the receiver, sometimes the whole apparatus. I, too, was told by my boss that my temper would hurt my career. I threw a phone at him. Acta had a different reaction to the advice he was given.
"I finally got to a point where I saw that temper tantrums and stuff didn't win me anything, and so I did a lot of reading and a lot of research and studied a lot of people around me in sports and saw that you didn't have to be out-of-whack fiery to have success," he said.
Acta's role models in sports are former UCLA coach John Wooden and Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox, although he admits he doesn't follow Cox's lead when it comes to ejections. Cox holds the career major league record, a mark previously held by the late John McGraw, the original out-of-whack fiery manager who happens to be one of my all-time favorites. I'm sure Mugsy would have thrown a mean phone himself, if there were phones.
While Acta maintains he knows every profanity in three languages -- Spanish, English and French, which he picked up during his stint as a coach with Montreal -- he seldom uses his trilingual talents. His bench demeanor could make a sphinx look like a soap opera actor. MASN's cameras will not catch him cursing in any language. And that's a deliberate decision.
"I've learned throughout the years that as soon as one of my guys boots a ground ball or gives up a home run, I have three cameras right on my face," he said. "I saw managers in the past show their emotions on TV and the players don't like that and the people that are related to the players at home don't like that. . . . I told myself . . . the day I get a shot [at managing in the majors] I'm not going to be able to do that. I'm aware the camera's on me; that's why I'm not [cursing] anybody or doing anything that's uncalled for."
I've been assured that Acta's stoic facade does not indicate a lack of passion, however.
"Of the people I've met in this game, he has one of the strongest passions to win of anyone I've ever been around and it burns brightly," said Tim Purpura, a former general manager in Houston who was in charge of the Astros' farm system while Acta was managing there.
"You have to be yourself," Purpura added. "You can't try to be someone you're not. That's the one thing I'll say about Manny: He has really gained a sense of himself as a person and as a manager. He knows what works for him. The other side of the equation that I'd point out is that what he shows during a game might not be what he shows in the clubhouse and behind closed doors. You can't judge a book by its cover."
Acta represents a lot of things that drive me crazy. He's cool, calm and collected. He ingests self-improvement books like M&Ms. He is earnest in his quest to be a better person. David Caruso's inability to act and his overuse of sunglasses as a plot device doesn't even annoy him! No one is this nice.
Okay, let's try this: What would Acta like to do if he weren't in baseball?
"I would want somebody to give me a lot of money . . ."
Ah, HA! Here it is, finally, a chink in the armor! Greedy selfish bas--
" . . . so I could be a philanthropist. That's what I would like to do."
Sigh. I give up. Keep him.