Nationals name former Mets coach Acta manager
WASHINGTON -- Manny Acta began preparing to be a major-league manager when he was the only kid with a catcher's mitt in his neighborhood back in the Dominican Republic.
"So I was like, 'I'm running the game, or I'm taking the glove away,'" Acta recalled Tuesday. "I've run games all my life."
Now he'll run them for real from big-league dugouts after being hired by the Washington Nationals, who made him the youngest manager in the majors.
The 37-year-old Acta, the New York Mets' third-base coach the past two years, replaces 71-year-old Frank Robinson, who was the oldest manager in baseball and was told during the final week of a 71-91 season that he wouldn't be back.
Robinson was a Hall of Fame player who managed in the majors for 16 seasons. Acta's days as an infielder ended in the minors -- when he was 20, he said, "they told me to my face I couldn't play" -- and this is his first major-league managing job.
It's a return of sorts: Acta was Robinson's third-base coach with the Montreal Expos from 2002-04, before the franchise moved to the nation's capital. So Acta -- who said he learned a lot from Robinson, particularly about communicating with players -- already knows some key veterans, including first baseman Nick Johnson, catcher Brian Schneider, starting pitcher John Patterson and closer Chad Cordero.
"Frank was more of an old-school guy. We're going to have to wait and see how it's going to be with Manny," Schneider said. "He's young. He's motivated. He's waited to do this for a long time. He knows the game of baseball."
Team president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden said Acta impressed them with his personality, his knowledge of the Nationals and his ideas about how to turn around a club that finished last in the NL East the past three seasons.
"Usually, with a manager, they're strong in one area or the other. He's really well-balanced, all the way around," Bowden said. "He really understands teaching, developing, building a young club. He has great people skills, but he knows how to put the hammer down."
The Nationals hope to be competitive when Washington's new stadium opens in 2008.
"We have a very good plan in place here. We're going to do it the right way," Acta said. "We're going to be patient, and we're going to bring a winner here."
Meanwhile, Mets general manager Omar Minaya asked manager Willie Randolph to formulate a list of possible replacements for Acta.
Set to lead what's expected to be an inexperienced roster next season, Acta noted that Washington's most pressing problem is starting pitching, where Patterson is the only given. Acta said the defense needs to improve and that he will stress fundamentals.
"Everyone who's been with him has raved about him," Kasten said. "He came in here probably more prepared than any candidate we had, knowing our roster, knowing the holes in our roster."
Washington interviewed several people for the job with varying degrees of experience; Lou Piniella and Joe Girardi both withdrew from consideration. Bowden acknowledged it was "a very long process" with "a lot of candidates" and said Acta was part of a group of five up-and-comers under consideration.
Acta agreed to a two-year contract with two one-year club options.
He managed eight seasons in the minors and five in the Dominican Winter League, and he led the Dominican Republic to the semifinals at the World Baseball Classic this year.
During that tournament, Acta benched a struggling Alfonso Soriano, the All-Star who hit 46 homers and stole 41 bases for the Nationals in 2006 and has filed for free agency.
Acta said Soriano was the first player who called to congratulate him on his new job -- although Acta, Kasten and Bowden all cautioned they figure the size of a contract will have more to do with where Soriano winds up than who the manager is.
Still, Kasten and Acta spoke about how having the only Dominican manager in the majors would help attract Latin players and help expand marketing to Hispanic fans. At one point, Acta addressed fans in Spanish saying, "This is the capital of the world, and this is the world's team. Not America's team -- the world's team."
He played six seasons of minor-league baseball in the Houston Astros' organization before becoming a coach in Class A in 1992. That began a climb, first through the minors and then the majors.
"How appropriate: An immigrant from the Dominican Republic like me comes to America, works hard, keeps his nose clean and gets his chance to manage the capital of the United States' baseball team," said Acta, who became a U.S. citizen in 1999. "God bless America. Only here."
He flashed a broad grin repeatedly: When he stepped to the podium. When he donned a jersey with the number 14 and his name on it. When he drew laughs with his quick wit.
Bowden was giddy, too, at one point yelling into the microphone: "Let's Acta-vate, baby!"
"Hopefully," Acta said, "I can make Washington my home for the next 10, 20 years -- up until, probably, I'll move up to take Stan Kasten's place."
Fortunately for Acta, his new boss was smiling, too.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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