A (Warning) Shot in the Dark

After a promising start in 2006, Nationals Manager Manny Acta faced insurmountable challenges during the 2009 season
By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ST. LOUIS In '06, Ryan Zimmerman's manager was Frank Robinson. They adored each other. They just didn't know it. Neither realized that the other was gushing praise.

Zimmerman, then 21, had a season he still hasn't matched, driving in 110 runs and almost winning rookie of the year from Hanley Ramírez. The kid from Virginia Beach was in awe of Robinson, who inspired him and instructed him at times in hitting. As for Frank, he said Zimmerman might someday be better than he was. That said it all because, of course, Robby meant he'd be the whole package: toughness, leadership, a winner.

Ever since Robinson left, Zimmerman has been managed by Manny Acta -- 410 games worth, including horrid records the last two years. So when Zimmerman, who's here as the Nats' lone All-Star Game representative, learned that the calm, analytical, stat-studying, modern Acta, who was the antithesis of the crusty Robinson, had been fired late Sunday night, you could tell that Zimmerman longed for a return of the Old School.

You don't miss the hellfire, or the scorn in a manager's eye for mediocre play, or the wrath in the clubhouse after too many defeats until you drop 102 games one season, then are on track to lose 114 more the next year. Then you start to long for higher standards and shorter patience, for more bench jockeying and a few knockdown pitches, for less friendship with umpires and maybe even a bench-clearing encounter with the opposition.

"I think some people here are so used to losing they don't have that fire to win. That's the next step we need to take," Zimmerman said to the media gathered here on Monday. "As bad as it sounds, maybe something like this will wake some people up. 'Hey, this isn't about me. It's about everyone.' "

Asked about Acta's lack of on-field fire, Zimmerman said: "I don't need that kind of stuff. But I think a lot of players do. Some people have said that they would've liked him to do more of that. Sometimes you have to go out [to argue] because players want you to step up at some points I think you have to do that stuff."

The Nats have finally done something the way a normal baseball team would do it. Late on Sunday night, they fired Acta and they did it right by the book, just like a major league outfit. What a switch.

The Nats dismissed Acta with regret, but also with eyes open. They now concede he simply was not a proper match for a team whose everyday players lacked any passion for fundamentals -- on defense, in situational hitting or on the base paths -- and whose discount bin bullpen lacked the gumption to throw strikes. Or, maybe, knowing how cheap their pedigrees were, the poor relievers realized what would happen if they did.

Back in April, when a mere 7-17 start by the Nats brought "fire Manny" rumors, team President Stan Kasten said: "We want him to be the long-term solution here. But if things get stupid enough, any manager gets fired. Manny knows it. That's just the game."

Oh, things got stupid enough, and much more.

By June 2, the Nats canned Acta's pitching coach, Randy St. Claire. They might as well have fired off a shot for Manny's gun lap. At that moment, a countdown to the All-Star Game began. In effect, Acta was given six weeks to get his team straightened out. If he didn't, then the club would use the three-day midsummer hiatus to replace him.

Just one week ago, Acta still had a chance for survival after the Nats went 8-9, the Washington baseball equivalent of pennant contention. The Nats even won series from the Yankees, Blue Jays and Braves. Then came a trip worthy of a demonic painting by Hieronymus Bosch, but instead of nightmare visions of sinners being punished in hell, the Nats drew up new and grotesque ways to lose ballgames.

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