Two years ago, John Patterson was playing for Licey of the Dominican Winter League, encouraged to pitch for the club by his third-base coach with the Montreal Expos and the man who would manage that offseason team.
Patterson already knew and liked Manny Acta, but during those few months in the Caribbean, a distinct thought crossed the right-hander’s mind.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, he would really make a good big league manager,’ ” Patterson recalled yesterday.
Little could Patterson — or anyone else — have seen it coming, but two years later Acta is about to become his manager with the Washington Nationals.
“I was really excited when I heard the news,” Patterson said by phone from his home in Texas. “When I went down to the Dominican, he invited me to go out to dinner with him a couple of times and really tried to make me feel welcome. Manny really wanted to make sure I felt comfortable down there. He’s just a really solid person. I have a lot of respect for him. Not a lot of guys would do what Manny did, and I appreciate it.”
The Nationals are banking on more of the same from the 37-year-old Dominican native after selecting him to replace Frank Robinson as manager of a young, rebuilding ballclub. The organization hasn’t made Acta’s hiring official yet, but general manager Jim Bowden and team president Stan Kasten made their decision Saturday and are planning a press conference tomorrow to announce they have signed the New York Mets’ third-base coach to a two-year deal.
When Acta does officially take over, he likely will be greeted with overwhelming support from a Nationals clubhouse that features several familiar faces. Acta served as Robinson’s third-base coach in Montreal from 2002 to 2004, and a number of players remain with the organization, including Patterson, catcher Brian Schneider, first baseman Nick Johnson, second baseman Jose Vidro, closer Chad Cordero and outfielder Ryan Church.
Those players already know their new manager well, and they believe he will have no trouble quickly winning over the rest of the team because of his upbeat, commanding personality.
“A lot of us who are in this organization and played in Montreal know him, and he’s well-respected,” Patterson said. “For his first big league managing job, this should be a pretty easy transition for him. … He’s not an overbearing manager. He’s more of a player’s manager. He’s got a great personality. He knows how to talk to guys and get a response from them.”
Acta shouldn’t have much trouble relating to his players, considering how close in age he is to them. Even after turning 38 in January, he still will be the youngest manager in the major leagues, only a handful of years older than many of his charges.
Contrast that with Robinson, who at 71 was old enough to be some younger players’ grandfather, and the Nationals can expect a different atmosphere around RFK Stadium next season.
“It’s going to be fun,” Schneider said by phone from his home in Florida. “He’s going to be enthusiastic, doing early work, throwing batting practice. … I think it’s good because he’ll be able to relate with the guys. But young or old, it doesn’t matter. He knows the game of baseball.”
Don’t confuse Acta’s relatively young age with inexperience, because he spent the last 20 years preparing for this transition. After a modest, six-year career in the minors as an infielder, the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder immediately went into coaching. He got his first managing job at 24 with short-season Class A Auburn (N.Y.) and wound up spending eight years managing in the Houston Astros’ farm system.
Acta’s big break came in 2002, when Major League Baseball bought the Expos and Robinson named Tom McCraw his hitting coach. McCraw had worked in the Astros’ system and recommended Acta for the opening as third-base coach. Though he began the job with no major league experience as a player or coach, it didn’t take long for those around him to sense his potential.
“It was obvious that Manny at that point was a very hard worker, and he seemed to get along well with players,” said Tony Siegle, the franchise’s assistant GM from 2002 to 2006. “But I think what he had to learn was that as a coach and authoritarian figure, you sometimes have to do things that are not to the liking of the players. Manny at first had trouble with that, but I think he has long since understood that. I think he’s really come a long way.”