By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
One day before the Washington Nationals opened their season in Florida, Manny Acta called a late-afternoon state-of-the-team meeting with his players. Twenty-four players showed up on time. The one who didn't, center fielder Lastings Milledge, appeared in the starting lineup the next day, batting leadoff, digging in for the Nationals' first at-bat of the season.
Acta's decision -- Milledge was fined, nothing more -- was his alone to make, but it bothered some players and contradicted a recommendation from the front office. As the season dragged on and the losses accumulated, players appreciated Acta's even temperament and easygoing nature. But all the while, they wondered if a more demanding presence might benefit them. Acta, fired late Sunday night with a 26-61 record this season, left behind a clubhouse of players who almost universally enjoyed playing for him. Every so often, however, they wanted more from him. They wanted him to reprimand, to punish, to call out those who needed it. They wanted him to push.
Milledge, in particular, required such guidance. Several times after Opening Day, the 24-year-old showed up late to the ballpark. Some players spoke privately to Milledge, but he brushed them off. With Acta backed into a corner -- in spring training, he had declared Milledge his everyday center fielder and leadoff man -- the team, one week into the season, demoted Milledge to the minors. At the end of June, he was traded.
"There were situations where it was like, 'Oh man, I hope Manny says something.' And it never got said," said one player, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If one person steps out and is not reprimanded, eventually everybody is saying, 'Is it okay to do that or what?' We kind of police ourselves, but at the same time we're trying to build with each other. We just wanted him to say something one time to reaffirm everything."
Acta believed that players didn't generally respond well to public forms of discipline; embarrassment wasn't his teaching tool of choice. He reached out to players, recommending self-help books, always making himself available to talk about family. Yes, he could get angry -- but the fewer who saw it, the better.
"I can only judge by what I saw," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think there was a definite respect factor [among players] for his personality, and I think they enjoyed the levelness of it, the steadiness. I think to expect something different from Manny wasn't beneficial, because he was who he was. He was very consistent with it. It would be like asking Nyjer Morgan to hit like Adam Dunn; it's not in their makeup to do something. So I think you have to play to people's strengths, and Manny's strength was being a level guy. No highs, no lows."
Only in Acta's first season, 2007, did the manager show a willingness to bench players for failure to hustle. On April 22 of that year, Acta pulled Ryan Church from a game after the outfielder jogged down the first base line on a groundout. On June 7, Felipe López committed a similar offense -- twice. After it happened for the second time, López was benched and replaced with Ronnie Belliard. After that game, Acta said: "We're going to play hard, we're going to play right and we're probably going to [have to] out-hustle the opposition. It's not going to be tolerated, regardless of who you are."
In the last two seasons, counting this one, Acta never benched a player. Not that he lacked opportunities. This season, shortstop Cristian Guzmán didn't run after balls that deflected on his feet, Elijah Dukes ran into thoughtless outs on the bases, and Milledge misplayed balls in the outfield and refused a patient approach at the plate.
Acta's most outspoken criticism of a player, oddly enough, came in what ended up being his second-to-last game of the season -- and his final win. Dunn, in a 13-2 blowout, missed second base while trying to score from first on a Josh Bard double. That resulted in an out and nullified Bard's hit. "Just unbelievable," Acta said after that. "Inexcusable. Those bags, they haven't moved in over 100 years."
Several players interviewed for this story, though, acknowledged that a manager who lacks a zeal for punishment can still be a good manager. Acta, players said, probably will be -- once he gets the right talent.
"One thing I can say I learned from Manny, the way he carried himself all the time, he was professional," Willie Harris said. "He never got out of whack, winning or losing. That's one thing I try to do, stay even keel. Him being my manager the last two years, I learned that from him."