Acta goes the hard way

LOS ANGELES – Manny Acta sat in his office at RFK Stadium, measuring the trauma of three straight losses to the Detroit Tigers and the 32 runs his Washington Nationals had given up in them.

In his first season as a big-league manager, having been granted the keys to the downtrodden Nationals and damn glad for it, Acta had allowed the potential for defeat. But these were rigorous losses, the kind a World Series team puts on the overmatched, that define the distance between wholly competent and barely passable.

Timidly, a clubhouse attendant from the visitors' side leaned in. If you have the time, the young man relayed, Jim Leyland would like to talk.

This was beautiful. Back in the Dominican Republic, where Acta grew up amid the sugar cane, his oldest and closest friends wryly tweaked his managerial aspirations and ascendancy by calling him "Jim Leyland." Leyland was managerial royalty to Acta, alongside Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa.

Now he was going to stand in front of the man himself, having just had his butt handed to him over three long days.

This was going to be some introduction.

The way Acta saw it, never having met him, Leyland represented the "human part" of the game.

"He's so legit," Acta said. "From talking to guys who played under him, he really cares about his players."

Just as Cox runs a ballgame and as La Russa resists the conventional, in Acta's view, Leyland inspires loyalty.

For those three days in June, Acta, 38 years old and some 70 games into his managerial career, could summon no way to approach Leyland.

"I was too shy," he said.

So, Acta trailed the clubhouse attendant out of the clubhouse, through the doors and to Leyland. He stuck out his hand.

Leyland hugged him instead.

"He had no business talking to me," Acta said. "But, he took the time to talk to me in private. He told me to keep it up. He told me he went through the same thing early on in Pittsburgh. He told me, 'You can do it.' "

From the torrent of a sweep, Acta took a drizzle of affirmation.

"And he did it the hard way," he said, "just like me. He didn't play up here."

Raised in San Pedro de Macoris, the cradle of shortstops, Acta was a middle infielder who didn't make it. Signed by the Houston Astros at 17, Acta only three years later was hearing hints that he might not make a bad coach. When he was 20, the Astros dispatched him to Double-A to be a backup infielder. Then he became a third baseman who never hit home runs. At 22, they sent him to scouting school in Haines City, Fla., at the conclusion of which Acta used the tools he acquired for self-evaluation.

"My OFP – overall future potential, they called it – was quite low," Acta said, smiling. "Now I could say, you can't play."

In the small manager's office at Dodger Stadium, he laughed. It had been a long time since he'd cried over the same news.

"That was very, very tough on him," said Jose Acta, Manny's younger brother. "It was very tough on all of us. I couldn't believe it when somebody told him Manny was not going to make it. He loved the game. But, apparently, he didn't have the God-given talent people have, the talent he so admires in players like Vladimir Guerrero and Ryan Zimmerman."

By the following season – the summer of 1993, as a 24-year-old – Acta was managing in the New York-Penn League. Eleven years later, he'd also managed in the Midwest and Florida State leagues, along with the Venezuelan and Dominican winter leagues, and in 2006 managed the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

He was Frank Robinson's third-base coach in Montreal for three seasons and Willie Randolph's in New York for two. Mets assistant general manager Tony Bernazard called Acta "the best third-base coach I've seen in my life, and that's in 34 years in the game."

A name in baseball circles but not beyond that, Acta was the darkhorse candidate for big-league jobs in Arizona, Los Angeles (Dodgers), Texas, San Francisco and Oakland before the Nationals, spurned by Joe Girardi, hired him last November.

He is the youngest manager in the game, with one of the more arduous jobs.

The Nationals seem destined to lose somewhere between 90 and 100 games. They score the fewest runs and are among the worst draws in baseball.

And, for this, Acta is one of the irresistible success stories of 2007.

Baseball generally gives these tasks to its retreads or its youth or, as Acta's brother, Jose, said, "Where Lou Piniella doesn't want to go."

"The tough jobs usually come to us because you need to prove yourself," Manny Acta said. "As a first-time manager, you're not going to be given the Yankees or the Red Sox."

But, Acta pressed his optimism and core philosophies – fewer outs on the basepaths and fewer sacrifice bunts for an offense that would have difficulty scoring runs anyway, surer hands in the field behind a no-name staff – against the predictions of a historically bad season. So, maybe it's 95 losses. It's not 115. The Nationals are not the worst team in baseball, even while losing Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson and Jose Guillen from the offense, and four-fifths of their opening day rotation. So far, they're not even the worst team in their division.

Hey, when the '62 Mets are in play, this looks pretty good. With a new ballpark and more payroll coming, these Nats could be a pest in the National League East in just a year or two.

"He believes in us," first baseman and reclamation project Dmitri Young said. "When I came up from minor-league camp, he told me to forget about what the media is saying. 'Play it hard, play it right and good things can happen,'" he said.

With so many fresh, raw and marginal players, Young added, "It could have very easily gone the other way. It didn't."

So stand the Nationals, better than awful and on the brink of what Acta believes will be their most trying month, peppered with series in the NL East, each team vying for the playoffs or – in the case of the Florida Marlins – trying to stay ahead of the team that was supposed to lose 120 times.

"We've got to stick together and do what we've been doing," he said. "I don't want to waste all the effort we've made in the last six months. … The season isn't over. Nothing's accomplished. I don't want to go home thinking, 'Yeah, we won more than 40.' "