A class Acta
Rookie manager has Nationals exceeding expectations
Posted: Thursday September 13, 2007 2:15PM; Updated: Thursday September 13, 2007 2:15PM
It was early April, not yet two weeks into the new baseball season, and already the Nationals looked like everything that everyone feared they would be. They had won one game. They had lost eight, including, at the time, six straight. Other than the one win, courtesy of a walkoff single in the ninth, the Nats hadn't had a lead all year. They hadn't scored a single run before the fourth inning.
Veteran baseball watchers all over the country scrambled to downgrade their expectations, which were low to begin with. One hundred losses seemed a sure thing. One hundred and five, 110, maybe even 115 looked doable. "It wasn't just 1-8," Stan Kasten, the team's president, recalls. "It might have been the world's ugliest 1-8 in history."
That's when Manny Acta, the team's hyper-upbeat manager, decided to call a postgame meeting. He wanted to give a little pep talk before things had a chance to turn really ugly. Acta wanted to tell his players to keep their heads up. He wanted to remind them to continue to work hard. He wanted to tell them not to give up.
Unfortunately, being the rookie manager that he is, Acta didn't think the team meeting idea all the way through. The Nationals, you see, were starting 25-year-old right-hander Jason Bergmann -- who had all of eight career starts and who lasted only 3 2/3 innings in his previous one -- the next night in Atlanta. The Braves were going with future Hall of Famer John Smoltz.
"When you're going to have a meeting to address your team, you've usually got to have your best pitcher on the mound and you've got to have a good chance to win," Acta says with a laugh. "[Third base coach Tim Tolman] told me after the meeting, 'Are you crazy? We're facing John Smoltz. And you go out and talk to these guys? What are you doing?'"
Bergmann pitched six scoreless innings and the Nats won that game -- and three of their next four. And so began, in earnest, the big-league managerial career of Acta, 38, the youngest skipper in the majors, and the unlikely revival of the Nationals.
Consider this year's success stories in the dugout. Bobby Cox with the Braves. Mike Scioscia with the Angels. Joe Torre with the Yankees. Tony La Russa with the Cardinals. None can top the Nationals, rock bottom after years of neglect as baseball's unwanted stepchild of a franchise, with their personable, perpetually positive new manager. Acta has taken this team, which tumbled after that 1-8 start to 9-25 on May 9, and cajoled the group of largely unrecognizable names into playing .500 ball since then, a remarkable turnaround by any standard. The Nationals are 56-56 since May 9, better in that time than more than half the teams in the game.
Manager of the Year, perhaps, as some Acta backers are saying? Realistically, on a team that will finish with a losing record and is fighting to stay one step out of the National League East cellar, that's unlikely. But who's been better this season? Who's done more with less?
"There was never any sense of panic or anything. He never really freaked out.," says Ryan Zimmerman, the team's 22-year-old third baseman. "His message has been the same all along: Don't believe what people say. Baseball's a crazy game, where any team can beat any other team on any day."
Acta's passion for his job is immediately identifiable and completely undeniable. A former minor-league infielder from the Dominican Republic who never made it past Class A, Acta jumps at the chance to get hands-on with his infielders or to talk shop with his players or coaches. He enjoys the interplay with the media. He studies hard for the game and relishes the chance to match wits with the guy in the other dugout. He's also a voracious reader who taught himself English and who can be seen reading a little bit of just about everything on team trips.
"This is not just a baseball guy," Kasten says. "He's got layers. He's a fascinating guy."
He clearly knows what he's doing, too, both in the X's and O's of the game and in managing the egos and talents of a group of kids who still are learning to play at the major-league level. The Nationals, with an average age of just under 28, are one of the youngest teams in baseball. Acta teaches. He disciplines. He molds. And he never lets the negative influences from the outside get hold inside his clubhouse.
"I'd rather be positive than realistic," he says. "This job here is more about working and handling people than the X's and O's of the game. Every manager in this league has a very good idea of how to run a ballgame. It's about getting everyone to play hard for you, and to sell what you're trying to preach and teach."
Acta started peddling his way of doing things during the interview process with the Nationals last winter. After an exhaustive managerial search that included talks with Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker and Joe Girardi among maybe a dozen candidates -- Girardi reportedly was offered the job but pulled his name from consideration -- the Nats hired the relatively unknown Acta in November.
"I tell you, within 30 minutes of meeting him, I said 'Whoa. This guy can do the job,'" Kasten says. "I knew he could."
Though Acta wasn't a big name among fans, baseball people knew him well. For the previous two seasons he had worked as the Mets' third base coach. He had spent three years before that as third base coach for the then-Expos under manager Frank Robinson. He was a coach and manager in the Astros' organization, a successful manager in the Dominican winter league and he managed the star-studded Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic in 2006. That kind of experience made him a candidate for a lot of jobs last winter, including the ones in Texas, Oakland and San Francisco.
"He was always real positive. We'd be in the dugout talking baseball all the time," says Braves backup infielder Chris Woodward, who was with the Mets during Acta's tenure there. "You could tell that he had a good mind for managing."
It didn't take Acta long to figure out that the opening in Washington, for him, was an attractive one. A young team, lacking in pitching and with a shallow farm system but with a solid plan for the future and the means to bring it about. A new ballpark on the horizon (it opens next year). Proven front-office decision makers. What could be better?
"This is the perfect situation for me. A lot of my friends, they just don't understand that part of the game. They wish that I'd jump right into a team that is going to be battling for the division," Acta says. "I have to tell them, 'I don't think I was going to be getting a call from Theo [Epstein] or Brian [Cashman] or [Ned] Colletti or one of those guys.'"
The Nationals signed him to a two-year deal, with the option for a couple more, Acta cobbled together a coaching staff and then he burst into spring training with some demands. First, he wanted to improve the Nationals' defense, which led the NL in errors in 2006. He wanted, too, to improve the team's base-running, also terrible last season. And, of course, he wanted to stay positive during the whole process of trying to get better.
His players seemed to buy into his vision from the start. Zimmerman got to know Acta a little bit over the past couple of years, talking to him while Acta stood in the coaching box at third and Zimmerman took grounders between innings of Nats-Mets games. The third baseman also got a scouting report on his new manager from the Mets' David Wright.
Despite the positive previews, the Nats lurched to a terrible start, and in late April, Acta faced his first real crisis. In a game against the Marlins, outfielder Ryan Church, another of the better young players on the team, hit a slow ground ball to first base and loafed his way down the line. Acta immediately pulled him from the game.
"That definitely made an impression," Zimmerman says.
Even Church agreed, grudgingly, with the rookie manager's call. "I got the message loud and clear," he said at the time. "We'll leave it at that."
Soon after, the Nationals hit rock bottom, with an eight-game losing streak in early May. Not long after that, though, they began their climb up. (That losing streak remains their longest of the year.) They earned their first sweep of the season, at home against the Marlins. They won a series against the Braves. In Cincinnati in late May they put together their first road sweep.
They had a winning month in July and took a six-game winning streak, their longest of the year, into early August, when they moved briefly ahead of Florida in the NL East standings. They are 7-4 this month and have been ahead of the Marlins every day since Aug. 20. They have a winning record at home. They've won more one-run games than they've lost.
The Nationals still lack a discernible ace for their pitching staff, but they are now in the middle of the NL pack in runs allowed per game. Their real problem this season, the one that has plagued them from the start, has been hitting. The Nationals are the lowest-scoring team in baseball.
During his first season in the majors, Acta's on-field style has emerged. It is a combination of, as he puts it, old-school by-the-gut and new-wave statistics-minded managing. He hates bunting early in games to move a runner over, especially with hitters at the top of the order, and he has the stats to prove that strategy doesn't work. He often uses relievers for only one inning at a time, and never for more than three days straight. He substitutes often for defense late in games. He believes, loosely, in pitch counts. He thinks pitching and defense win games. He is, for the most part, the only one that can give a green light for someone to steal. The Nats rank 11th in steals.
The plan has worked much better than anyone expected. And, from here, it should only get better. Though the farm system is relatively barren, revenues should increase as the team moves into its new ballpark. The payroll should begin to rise as well. Kasten, who helped run the dynasty that was the Braves in the '90s, is sinking money into scouting and player development. And now the franchise has the man to pull it all together at the big-league level.
"I cannot exaggerate the depth of our condition a year ago. We had a lot of work to do. Not as much as the hysterics out there thought -- that we'd be the worst team ever," Kasten says. "Even with the rosiest outlook, though, Manny would have exceeded those."