- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

There’s nothing like the day a new manager is hired. It’s the first day of spring training and then some. Everyone is looking forward not just to the season but to a new era. The new manager hasn’t lost a game yet, hasn’t kept a pitcher in too long, hasn’t failed to pinch hit in a key situation.

It is one of the best days in baseball. And for Washington, yesterday also was a historic one with the first hiring of a manager here since Ted Williams in 1969.

Manny Acta was no Ted Williams as a player, but the Dominican native turned in a Hall of Fame performance yesterday when he was introduced as the manager of the Washington Nationals.

“How appropriate that an immigrant gets to manage the capital of the United States’ baseball team,” Acta said. “God bless America.”

It was a very emotional day for Acta, a dream come true, but someone dear to him was not able to share it. His older brother, Fernando, had died from an aneurysm in the middle of the 2006 season.

“He was my protector, my second father,” Acta said. “He always wanted to see this moment. He would tell me to be patient, that everything would be fine.”

Fernando would have been proud of his younger brother yesterday.

Acta made every right move yesterday at the press conference in the lower lobby of 1050 Connecticut Ave., the headquarters for Lerner Enterprises, where one of the team owners, Mark Lerner, embraced the moment of hiring his first manager.

“This ranks second,” he said, beaming, referring to another special moment when he gave a fan a team-autographed ball on the weekend the Lerner ownership group took over in July.

He was marveling in the performance of his new manager, who blew everyone away, as they like to say in the business, upon meeting the media.

“When Mr. Bowden said I was hired, I borrowed the famous line from Lou Gehrig and said, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,’ ‘ Acta said. It was probably almost as heartfelt.

After all, this was a .238 career hitter, a lifetime minor league infielder who figured out after six seasons in the minors he was not destined for the majors. Now he will be managing a club that has the potential to be one of the premier major league franchises.

Mr. Bowden — Nationals general manager Jim Bowden — said he targeted Acta as a candidate more than a year ago after a conversation with Arizona team president Jeff Moorad. Acta finished second to Bob Melvin in the Diamondbacks’ managerial search, and Moorad told Bowden he impressed them with his presence.

“Manny’s name kept coming up,” Bowden said. “He seemed to be everything we were looking for.”

What were they looking for? Someone with energy, intelligence, enthusiasm, who was eager to buy into the Nationals’ long-term player development plan — and, of course, who didn’t cost a lot of money. Acta, who coached in this organization in Montreal from 2002 to 2004 and then for the New York Mets the last two seasons, fit the profile.

“They have a plan for success here that, if you do it right, could make this a winning franchise for a long time,” he said.

Acta, who got a two-year deal, acted as if he were groomed for success, the way he handled the media yesterday — no small part of being a major league manager. Someone asked him how he might feel about having to discipline players, and Acta answered, “I go to bed with Cindy [his wife] every night. I am not thinking about them.”

He turned to his wife early in the press conference and said, “From Auburn, New York, to Washington, D.C., we’ve come a long way,” Acta said.

Sometime this summer, when he goes out to the mound at RFK Stadium to take out a starting pitcher in the third inning and looks to the bullpen for help, he may think he is still in Auburn.

It’s unclear how good a major league manager Manny Acta will be. He is universally respected in the game, and it is a testament to that respect that Alfonso Soriano — a player he benched while managing the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic — was the first player to call and congratulate him on getting the job. He managed two years in the Dominican Winter League and led Licey to the Caribbean Series title in 2004. He has eight years of minor league managing experience with some success. But how he can handle a bullpen or a young pitching staff in the dog days of a 162-game major league season is still one of the unanswered questions.

Yesterday, though, Acta answered every question with a championship style. When he put on his No. 14 Nationals jersey, he looked at Mike Wallace, the Nationals’ equipment manager, and said, “Perfect fit, Wally.”

It may be.

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