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Nationals' Acta manages his way to longtime goal

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- His transformation began in a minor league dugout in Burlington, Vt., with advice from a trusted friend and with a phrase that would seem benign to anyone not within his inner circle.

Back in 1991, Manny Acta, now the Washington Nationals' new manager, was in his only season as a player-coach. Previously he had been a light-hitting, hard-charging middle infielder with a lofty baseball IQ and a playing ceiling that hovered at Double-A.

Realizing his best tool for reaching the big leagues was his mind, Acta agreed to the player-coach role in Burlington. But there was a problem.

Acta the coach couldn't separate himself from Acta the player. He kept riding the umpires for making mistakes, forgetting his position as a newly appointed staff member.

So the club's manager, Tim Tolman, had a talk with his fledgling right-hand man.

"I said, 'Manny, you have to set an example,' " said Tolman, who is now Acta's third base coach in Washington. "If they see you getting on the umpires, the other kids are going to think that's OK, that they can do that, too."

Acta thought about that for a moment. Tolman was right; but the umpiring wasn't particularly good and the players should know when the men in blue were mistaken. He needed a compromise. That's when he created "paper or plastic?"

"Basically that was his way of saying the ump's next job would be as a bag boy at the Save Rite," Tolman said. "So now he could still get on the umpires and say, 'paper or plastic' and none of the umpires knew what he was talking about. But all of the players knew that the umps had missed a call."

"That," he said with a wide smile, "is my best Manny Acta story."

That, say those who know him, is pure Acta. He absorbs information, studies concepts and listens intently. Then he puts his creative spin on things.

In life. In baseball.

"I knew about Manny resume-wise before I met him, but within 30 minutes of meeting him I knew he also had that other indefinable quality you're looking for and that is: Can this person lead men?" said Stan Kasten, the Nationals' president. "Can you craft a vision and persuade other people to follow you? I think Manny has that quality."

Always managing

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Acta wanted to be a big leaguer, like most kids from Consuelo, a small sugar cane town near the fabled baseball city of San Pedro de Macoris. Yet, even as a teen, he sensed he had another calling.

"I have managed all of my life," Acta said. "When I was playing growing up, I used to manage the Little League team. When I was playing as a 15-year-old, I would be managing the kids that were 11 and 12."

In 1992, the .236 career minor league hitter quit playing and devised a 20-year plan to become a major league coach. Within 10 years, he met that goal, signing on with the Major League Baseball-run Montreal Expos as third base coach in 2002.

So Acta was forced to recalculate his life's plan. He figured another 10 years and he'd be one of baseball's 30 big league managers. That time frame, too, was obliterated.

He was a hot managerial candidate by 2005, and his stock skyrocketed in March 2006, when he led the powerful Dominican Republic's inaugural World Baseball Classic team.

"I think it was just a matter of time," said Orioles third base coach Juan Samuel, who grew up in the same town as Acta and managed against him in the Dominican Winter League. "He was probably qualified a long time ago. For the past three years or more his name came up a lot. ... And when the news came in the Dominican, the whole country was happy for him."

So happy that his hometown threw a fiesta for him this winter, complete with fireworks and a parade. Acta, whose favorite phrase is "stay humble," was embarrassed by the attention.

"I kind of wanted to tell them to use that money for something better," he said. "But they said the general consensus was that they wanted to do it and I couldn't stop it."

Only 38, Acta is baseball's youngest manager. With the resignation of Felipe Alou in San Francisco, he's also the only one who's Dominican-born.

"It's not only about my country, but all of Latin America and all of the minorities," Acta said. "It shows everybody that you can do it and it gives everybody hope. I am not only a minority, but I am also a minor leaguer, a guy who didn't have a name as a player."

And maybe that's why he seems to be the perfect fit for this Nationals team, a group of mostly young and unheralded players looking for an opportunity.

"He's been around the league long enough to be a manager. He knows what he needs to do to win and he knows baseball," said Nationals infielder Felipe Lopez. "He communicates with everybody. He is one of those guys who comes in here and laughs. You know he is the manager but he treats everybody like friends."

During the previous five seasons, the Nationals/Expos were managed by Hall of Fame outfielder and former Orioles great Frank Robinson, the definition of an old-school skipper. In many ways, Acta is a stark contrast to the 71-year-old Robinson.

"Don't take anything away from Frank, but it was tough to approach him and talk to him because that guy could still probably get out of bed and hit in the big leagues. It was more of an intimidating type thing," Nationals outfielder Ryan Church said. "Manny is much more approachable. He is very well liked around baseball so I think there are a lot of people pulling for him and pulling for us."

Tejada's a big fan

Acta's circle of admirers reaches up Interstate 95 to Camden Yards, where one of his biggest supporters is Orioles All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada, whom Acta managed to a Caribbean World Series championship in 2003-04 and to the WBC semifinals in 2006.

"He didn't play in the big leagues and he has waited so long for this. And I think he is not going to give it away," Tejada said. "He is going to do the best he can and he will be great. And I hope he gets the Manager of the Year this year."

As soon as Tejada learned last November that the Nationals had hired Acta, he grabbed his cell phone. Tejada and fellow Dominican star Alfonso Soriano were the first big leaguers to congratulate their WBC manager.

"I was so happy," Tejada said. "I was feeling like I got my first contract."

Yet Acta will need more than just moral support and well wishes to be successful here. He inherited a club that has finished in the National League East basement each of the past three years, and, after five wins in their first 15 games in 2007, might continue that trend.

The Nationals' offense was among the league's bottom in homers, runs and batting average. Their pitching, led by ace John Patterson and a collection of who's-that starters, had posted the NL's second-highest ERA. And the defense, which Acta thought would be much improved from 2006's disaster, committed 15 errors in 15 games.

"I have always been optimistic and positive," Acta said. "But I have never told anybody here that it was going to be easy, because I know what we are facing."

Already thin, the Nationals were dealt a double blow on Opening Day when center fielder Nook Logan (left foot) and shortstop Cristian Guzman (hamstring) were injured. The duo was supposed to shore up the up-the-middle defense and, instead, Acta had to juggle his defense and lineup starting Game No. 2.

"That put a dent on the perspective we had coming out of spring training in being a defensively solid ballclub," Acta said. "I think the guys settled down and when [Guzman and Logan] come back, I think we are going to have more depth than we have now and things are going to change."

Optimism reigns

He's also buoyed by the starting pitchers' performances after a brutal first week. And he is sure the offense will begin to produce once Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns start hitting consistently.

"It's a long season and a lot of teams have started the way we have started. It's just that everyone has picked us to be a bad team, so it gave people more fuel to say whatever they want to say," Acta said. "But we are going to get better."

That's been his mantra since his initial Nationals interview. That's when he fell in love with the team's young players and Kasten's plan for rebuilding the franchise through scouting and development that day. He also relishes being in the media spotlight of Washington under a new regime in a soon-to-be new stadium.

Most of all, he loves putting his fingerprints, his own creative spin, on a major league ballclub after years of dreaming about this chance.

"I'm not done yet. Now I have to become a stable major league manager and one day win a championship," Acta said. "I can't get satisfied now. I've got a challenge ahead of me. I have to make this team a winner."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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