Manny Acta embraces fresh start as Cleveland Indians manager
GOODYEAR, ARIZ. --
The old scout appeared in front of Manny Acta out of nowhere, like some kind of ghost of fungoes past. The man, whom Acta had never met in his life, had his hand outstretched and he was saying something utterly nonsensical: "You're my manager of the year." Acta did a double take, looking around to make sure Charlie Manuel or Lou Piniella wasn't standing behind him. ¶ It was December 2008, at the Major League Baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas, and Acta was at his low point as the manager of the Washington Nationals -- or what he thought was the low point. That season, he had endured a 59-102 nightmare. At the end of it, all but one of his coaches were fired, and an enraged Acta had to be talked out of quitting himself. ¶ "But, sir," Acta told the old scout, still thinking the man was confused, "I just lost 102 games." ¶ "It's not that you lost 102," the man said. "I want to know how in the hell you won 59."
It was at that point that Manny Acta realized he was not tethered forever to the legacy of losing that was being constructed at that time in Washington. He realized baseball people knew the difference between a bad manager and a good manager with bad players. He realized something better awaited him somewhere, someday.
Somewhere, someday was Goodyear Ballpark, Friday afternoon, under a cloudless desert sky, as Acta, cutting the same dashing, square-jawed, barrel-chested figure as ever, led his charges onto the field for their exhibition opener. Only this was the Cactus League, and these were the Cleveland Indians. And besides the uniform and the cap, there was something else different about Acta.
There it was, right there! A big, old, easy grin, last seen on Acta's face in Washington around April 2008.
"I don't regret my time in Washington. Far from it," Acta, 41, said. "I wish it had been different, because everything I start I like to finish. But things worked out for me in the end, and I'm extremely happy to be here now. This is a good fit for me."
Out of chaos, renewal
Out of the untenable mess that was the Nationals franchise -- where the crooked lines drawn by a dysfunctional, disgruntled clubhouse and a chaotic, impulsive front office always intersected in the manager's office -- Acta has emerged unscathed, his reputation unsullied by what occurred on the field during his 2 1/2 years in the Nationals' dugout.
Where critics in Washington saw Acta as an emotionless, unimaginative leader -- and the 10th-losingest manager, by winning percentage (.385), in baseball history (minimum 320 games managed) -- the rest of baseball apparently saw him as the same charismatic star-in-the-making he was when the Nationals first hired him to replace Frank Robinson before the 2007 season.
There were just two managerial openings in baseball this past winter, and those teams -- the Indians and the Houston Astros -- practically fought over Acta, who had his choice of offers. Ultimately, he chose the more progressive, better-stocked (with young talent) Indians over the Houston franchise that was dear to his heart as the organization that had given him his start in baseball, as a player and a coach. The Indians sealed the deal by offering Acta a third guaranteed year.
"It was rewarding," Acta said of the competing offers. "But I wasn't thinking, 'See, told ya so.' None of that. It was rewarding because it completely gave me faith in how the industry sees every one of us, how so many people see us as more than wins and losses. Everyone knew what I was going through. Our character was tested for 2 1/2 years."
Perhaps nothing tested Acta's character as much as the Sept. 28, 2008 firing of five of his coaches, some of whom he considered among his closest friends in baseball. When informed of the decision, Acta was livid, telling his Nationals bosses he was prepared to resign on the spot.
"They just told me: 'Right now, you're upset. You've just got to think it through. You're not yourself right now,' " Acta said. "I told them, 'I'm going to think it through, and I'm going to let you know whether I'm going to come back or not.' But I never quit. I have a lot of friends in the game who I could bounce things off. They said: 'No, you don't do that. That's part of the game.' "