A Washington Nationals player was late to the ballpark for a game last summer. When he finally showed up in the dugout in the fourth inning, he didn't even tell manager Frank Robinson that he had arrived. Why? Because he was afraid of what Robinson might say or do.
That's one reason why the Nationals named Manny Acta as their new manager. As they attempt to build their franchise with young players, they wanted a manager who was less intimidating than Robinson, they wanted a manager that all the players had the courage to talk to, they wanted a manager who wasn't one of the greatest players in the history of the game. It doesn't matter that Frank Robinson's door was always open, and that once you get to know him, he is a great guy and great communicator. It doesn't matter that he is a great hitting instructor and "the best talent evaluator I've ever seen," said Buddy Bell, one of his former players.
Still, the Nationals wanted someone completely different, and that's what they got in Manny Acta. He's not 71 years old. He's 37, the youngest manager in the major leagues. He didn't hit 586 home runs. He hit six in six minor league seasons; maybe Acta can relate better to a hitter in a slump. At the same age (21) that Robinson was having one of the best rookie seasons ever, Acta was told by the Astros that his career as an infielder was over before it even got beyond Class A ball, and that he should consider coaching and managing. After eight years of managing in the minor leagues -- five years in winter ball -- and five more as a coach in the major leagues, Acta was up for managerial jobs this offseason with the Giants, Rangers and A's. The Nationals interviewed several candidates, including NL Manager of the Year Joe Girardi, but kept coming back to Acta.
"He has great enthusiasm, he's very upbeat," said Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, who was with Acta on the recently concluded trip to Japan with a group of major league All-Stars. "He likes being out there. He likes doing things. He likes being busy. He knows he's in a good situation. He likes what the Lerners [the Lerner family owns the team] have to say. He likes what [club president] Stan Kasten and [general manager] Jim Bowden have to say. In Japan, he couldn't stop talking about the opportunity that might be before him."
Acta was born into a hard life in the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic, so, he says, he has learned to make the best of whatever he has, which is vital given that the Nationals are tremendously short of starting pitching. The Nationals have no visible minorities in their ownership group or their front office; hiring a minority was not essential, but it doesn't hurt. Acta speaks two languages. The Nationals have several Latin players, which made Acta even more attractive. There was even hope, however faint, that Acta could help convince free agent Alfonso Soriano to sign long term with the Nationals (Soriano is going for the big money. The manager won't have anything to do with his choice.). Acta did, after all, manage Soriano on the Dominican team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Acta benched Soriano in the WBC and replaced him at second base with Placido Polanco. Acta won the respect of the Dominican players, including first baseman Albert Pujols, partly because of his people skills with players, and the ability to be tough when necessary.
"He has an impressive amount of managerial experience," said Kasten. "Whether it is minor leaguers or the big time stars from the Dominican, players at all levels have raved about his work ethic, his command and his ability to lead men. He's another building block for our franchise, but he's a very important one. We're beefing up our Dominican scouting. That's a great advantage. We have the only Dominican manager in the major leagues."
"If Manny turns out to be exactly what they thought he'd be, then he's going to stay here for a while."
-- Nationals catcher Brian Schneider
Acta should have a smooth transition. "We have guys from so many different backgrounds on our team," Schneider said. "He speaks two languages. I see a guy who can relate to the players. He is a younger guy. He is always asking questions. He has an open door, you can speak to him. He says it doesn't matter how far you went in baseball, it's how you know the game, and he knows the game."
And he knows a bunch of the Nationals players, having been a bench coach for several of them in Montreal (2002-04). He won't be starting over with some of them, shaking hands with them for the first time. And, coming from the third base coaching box for the Mets, "he's staying in the NL East," Schneider said. "He knows the division. He's pumped about that."
Manny Acta is pumped about a lot of things. He has a chance of a lifetime with an organization that is planning on building from within, with young players, which is perfect for Acta. Within two years, the Nationals will have a new ballpark and, likely, new hope and a lot of money to keep improving the team. "If Manny turns out to be exactly what they thought he'd be," Schneider said, "then he's going to stay here for a while."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.