Nationals' Acta manages his way to longtime goal

Big league IQ dwarfs Double-A talent

April 19, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN REPORTER

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."

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