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A-1 or a loser?
Manny Acta comes to the Washington Nationals with no guarantee attached. He could be terrific. He could be terrible. Probably, like most skippers, he will be somewhere in between.
During Acta’s introductory press conference yesterday, plaudits and platitudes flew with the same velocity as a Roger Clemens fastball. The way Nats president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden told it, you might have thought he was their first choice all along rather than a last-minute pick when all other reasonable candidates were unavailable.
Manny acted and reacted to perfection. He thanked God, Kasten, Bowden and “my most valuable wife, Cindy” in that order. And presumably so his bride wouldn’t feel slighted, he told her, to cheers from the audience, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”
Despite the outpouring of optimism, it will take at least a year or two before rookie major league manager Acta can be fairly evaluated. He takes over a last-place team with certifiably one of the worst pitching rotations since Candy Cummings invented the curveball in 1867. His first baseman and right fielder will be returning from serious injuries. His leading home run hitter likely will be lost to free agency. His second baseman has slowed dramatically the last two years.
The neighboring if not neighborly Baltimore Orioles provide ample evidence of how much of a crapshoot hiring freshly minted managers can be. They gave the job to Earl Weaver in midseason 1968, and he won pennants the next three seasons en route to Cooperstown. They also hired Phil Regan in 1995 and Lee Mazzilli in 2004, two guys who shouldn’t even be allowed to visit the Hall of Fame.
Over 71 seasons, the original and expansion Washington Senators also made wonderful and woeful hires. Legendary owner Clark Griffith was responsible for two of the former when he appointed Bucky Harris in 1924 and Joe Cronin in 1933 and was immediately rewarded with two of the three pennants the franchise won.
Harris was 27 and a fair-to-middlin’ second baseman when Griff tapped him. The so-called Boy Wonder steered the Senators to their first American League pennant, beat John McGraw’s favored New York Giants in a thrilling seven-game World Series and added another flag the following season.
Then Bucky didn’t win another pennant until 1947 with the New York Yankees. During two other terms with the Senators — from 1935 to 1942 and 1950 to 1954, Harris was neither a Boy or a Wonder. Of course, his players’ talent, or lack thereof, had something to do with that.
For most of his 36 years as bossman, Griffith hired only active or former players as managers. After Hall of Famer Walter Johnson failed to win a pennant over four seasons, Griff tabbed Cronin — like Harris, a twentysomething infielder — in 1933 and collected another pennant.
Griffith never had much money to throw around, and it surely did not escape his notice that he could save a salary if he picked an active player as manager. Cronin’s success was short-lived; in 1934, an aging team collapsed into seventh place. After the season, Griff peddled Cronin, who was married to his adopted daughter, to the Red Sox and filthy-rich owner Tom Yawkey for $250,000, prompting many a man to note “I wish I could sell my son-in-law for a quarter-million dollars.”
Griffith himself was a pretty good manager. He led the Chicago White Sox to the first American League pennant in 1901 and finished second with the customarily comatose Senators in 1912 and 1913 after arriving in town. The fact that Johnson won 32 and 37 games those seasons might have been a factor, too.
Considering the Senators’ losing records most seasons, it’s no surprise that many of their pilots crash-landed. Notable later failures included Chuck Dressen, who won pennants with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 and 1953. But when he turned up in D.C. a couple of summers later, Dressen discovered that his troops resembled Little Sisters of the Poor more than the Boys of Summer.
Chuck lasted two-plus seasons before giving way to another ex-Dodger: Cookie Lavagetto, whose ninth-inning, game-winning double broke up a no-hitter by the Yankees’ Floyd Bevens in the 1947 World Series. It wasn’t long, however, before Cookie also crumbled.
Longtime Washington first baseman Mickey Vernon did poorly with poor teams after the expansion Senators appeared in 1961. Two years later, he was succeeded by yet another former Dodger, Gil Hodges, who struggled with ghastly clubs for 41/2 seasons before escaping and reaching horsehide heaven with the 1969 Amazin’ Mets.
So which group — dandy or dastardly — will Manny Acta fit into? Who knows? All we can do is hope, cross our fingers and murmur a few silent prayers.
By John R. Bolton
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