By Chico Harlan and Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Employed by an organization with a tenuous infrastructure and in charge of a crumbling team, Manny Acta, in the end, ran out of support both from those above him and below him. The team he managed couldn't win. The team that hired him 2 1/2 seasons ago, finally, lost the willingness to keep waiting. Though the Washington Nationals crave stability right now as badly as they crave some victories, the team decided late Sunday night to fire Acta, sacrificing the short-term stability in hopes of sparking a competent second half.
During a news conference yesterday announcing the firing of Acta and the hiring of bench coach Jim Riggleman as his interim replacement, team president Stan Kasten acknowledged an organization in flux, and said, "I'm very uncomfortable with that. I've strived my whole career [for] value, stability and consistency and I want to get to that here. We're not there yet. I think we're working toward that."
Following Washington's final game -- and final loss -- of the first half, Acta on Sunday flew with his team from Houston to Dulles International Airport. Around 10:45 p.m., he was back at his Nationals Park office, planning for a restful all-star break, which included a Jonas Brothers concert with his teenage daughter. But Acta, too, knew that managers of sloppy 26-61 teams can't take employment for granted. By 11 p.m., sources said, he was summoned into the office of acting general manager Mike Rizzo. There, Rizzo and Kasten delivered the news. Nobody from the Lerner family, which purchased the team in 2006 and hired Acta that November, attended that meeting or yesterday's news conference. There, it was also announced that Pat Corrales will replace Riggleman as bench coach.
During the first half of the season, as Washington stumbled toward the worst record in the major leagues, Acta's job status was the subject of much debate, and those in and out of the Nationals organization questioned whether his unfailingly calm approach matched the needs of an undisciplined, error-prone team. Acta, 40, had a 158-252 record in his 2 1/2 seasons. But this one was his most disappointing. He'd called this club, in spring training, the most talented of his tenure.
Those in Washington's front office who often referred to Acta as a future managerial star kept waiting for results that validated that belief.
"The reason it took so long," Kasten said, "was that we didn't want to do this. We thought it was going to turn."
"I don't believe he was losing players in the clubhouse," Rizzo said of Acta. "I do believe that we kept, for a while now, kept thinking this was going to turn around, that we were going to start playing better. We always continued to underachieve in my opinion. We thought this was a prudent time to make a move."
The decision to remove Acta extends a tumultuous season for the Nationals. Their former general manager, Jim Bowden, who resigned in March, is now living in California and appearing on a talk radio show. Their former pitching coach, Randy St. Claire, was fired in June. Their No. 1 draft pick, Stephen Strasburg, remains unsigned. The members of their Opening Day bullpen are largely scattered across the country now, playing for different organizations in minor league ballparks. They have a general manager with no permanent title, an ownership group that operates largely out of public view, several veterans who could be in their final days and weeks with the ballclub, and a president who still hasn't committed to a single permanent piece of leadership below him.
Although the firing was characterized as a matter of underperformance by the team and not a statement on Acta's laid-back personality, Rizzo said a new manager might bring a new tone to the Nationals, who headed into the all-star break having lost six of their past seven games. And perhaps such a shift is needed.
Though Acta during his minor league days sometimes flashed a volatile temper -- screaming at umps, drawing suspensions, embarrassing his wife -- he'd become convinced, by the time he arrived in the big leagues, that those antics benefited only the league office that collected his fine. He saw no correlation between yelling and winning.
His arrival in Washington, where he replaced Frank Robinson, was touted as an injection of youth and energy. But those two characteristics are not synonyms. Acta oversaw his teams with an old yogi's stoicism, watching each day's loss while avoiding any sort of outburst. At its best, that even temperament connected to a rich dignity -- and for all the circus losing, Acta himself was never the sideshow. But at its worst, Acta's patience doubled as a conduit for the status quo, which is okay for contenders, but not for the worst team in baseball.
"Every player is different," said Ryan Zimmerman, the team's lone all-star. "Personally I don't need that kind of stuff, but I think a lot of players do. There were some points, sometimes, where some people have said some stuff on our team -- not to him, obviously, but player-to-player -- that they would've liked for him to do more of that."
Acta's time in Washington will be remembered both for its initial spark and its subsequent woes. In his first season, 2007, Acta, then the youngest manager in baseball, became the face of an undermanned, overachieving team that defied widespread 100-loss predictions and finished in fourth place. But last year's team, overwhelmed by injuries, finished with 102 losses -- worst in baseball. This year, Acta's team had even fewer excuses for its dysfunction. The Nationals, though they've stayed relatively injury-free, lead the majors in errors and have the second-highest ERA.
In connection with those on-field problems, Acta's job security, of late, had abraded. In the final weekend of the 2008 season, then-general manager Bowden fired all but one member of Acta's coaching staff, separating the manager from his closest hand-picked lieutenants. Acta entered this year without a contract for 2010. At the start of June, Washington fired St. Claire -- a move that avoided the bigger move. Since then, the Nationals have gone 12-25.
"I want to thank the Washington Nationals for giving me the opportunity to be a Major League manager," Acta wrote in a statement. "It was a great learning experience, I have no regrets."
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report from St. Louis.