By Dave Sheinin
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; D01
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.' "
By staying, Acta only subjected himself to as ugly a year as a franchise has endured in recent memory. In March 2009, General Manager Jim Bowden was forced out in the midst of a scandal over falsified birth certificates and identities in the Dominican Republic. By July, after a 26-61 start, Acta's future was no longer his own to decide, as the Nationals fired him at the all-star break, replacing him with bench coach Jim Riggleman -- a close friend to whom Acta still speaks regularly.
After the firing, Acta stayed in Washington for almost a month, painting his house to get it ready to go on the market and visiting the city's many museums and monuments with his family. He also surprised a Little League team that he sponsors in his native Dominican Republic by jumping on a bus with the kids as they got ready to make a 10-day, 10-city tour, and staying with them for the whole trip.
"I said, 'This is probably going to be the last time I have a summer off,' " Acta said. "'And I'm going to enjoy it.' No one wants to get fired, but man, I enjoyed that time."Leading his way
There was also plenty of time for reflection and soul-searching over what had gone wrong with the Nationals. Acta, a prolific book-reader who keeps a copy of John Wooden's autobiography with him at practically all times, knew his style of leadership had come under criticism by those who saw him as too detached and stoic, too unwilling to go after an umpire over a bad call or get in a player's face for failing to run out a grounder.
And it wasn't only the media and fans that raised those issues. Nationals President Stan Kasten said he, too, brought it up with Acta. Asked recently if he would have liked to have seen Acta show more fire in the dugout, Kasten said, "Truthfully I think I would have."
"I had that conversation with him," Kasten said. "But I think he was just doing what he thought was appropriate. He wasn't opposed to going out there. It wasn't stubbornness or laziness. He has considered how to conduct himself and concluded this is the best way. . . .
"He had a team that was not very deep. He had a very difficult roster to manage. Other guys would have pointed fingers at people, would have terrorized guys out of frustration. Manny never did. He kept a positive demeanor. On balance, that's always a positive."
Players, too, raised the issue. On the day Acta was fired, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said: "Sometimes you have to go out and [argue a call], not just because you're the manager, but because your players want you to step up. . . . Even if you think your player is wrong, you have to go out and stick up for your player. I think that gives the player the feeling that, 'Hey, this guy has my back, no matter what.' "
But the more Acta reflected after the firing, the more convinced he became that his leadership style was the right one -- because it was his own, and it was true. To go after an umpire -- who, after all, was not going to change his mind and who might eject Acta from the game -- would have been pretending to be something he was not.
"I think one of the greatest things I was able to do, through good and bad over there, was stay true to myself," Acta said. "And I didn't allow the failure on the field to change me and become a phony and do what some people wanted me to do. . . . The year  we were supposed to win 35 [games] and we won 73, I was cool, calm and collected. And then when you're losing, you're too laid-back."
Of Zimmerman's comments, Acta said: "Players are entitled to their opinion, but at end of the day, they're players. We're coaches. I'm not going to go out there and cause chaos just because a couple of guys who don't know anything about coaching -- just to keep them happy. That's not who I am."
Acta's new bosses in Cleveland spoke to players, coaches, scouts, media members and top Nationals executives in vetting Acta as a managerial candidate, and heard the occasional criticism of his dugout demeanor. But it hardly changed their opinion of a man Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro says has "a rock-solid foundation under him, with a positive energy and a positive attitude.
"I'm not going to tell him to change. And anyway, I can't imagine that being an issue. I've never heard of dugout demeanor being an issue."
It certainly isn't an issue now, with the sun shining in the Arizona desert, that sweet spring optimism in bloom, and the new manager and his rebuilding team just embarking on their honeymoon. Times like these, you would swear nothing could possibly go wrong, that it will be this good forever.