Stan Kasten first met Manny Acta on Oct. 24, when the Washington Nationals president (along with general manager Jim Bowden and assistant GMs Bob Boone and Mike Rizzo) sat down at a District restaurant for a lunch meeting that extended well into the afternoon.
Long before the check arrived, Kasten realized he was talking to his new manager.
"I knew in the first 30 minutes," Kasten said. "From his presence, the ideas in his head, the way he articulates them ... I knew right away this could really be the guy."
Yesterday afternoon, Acta officially became "the guy," formally introduced as Nationals manager during a lengthy, articulate and often amusing press conference at the Lerner family's Washington Square office building.
Acta, who at 37 becomes the majors' youngest manager, received a two-year contract with a pair of one-year team options that if picked up would keep him in town through 2010.
The way the Nationals and their new manager spoke yesterday underscored how all parties involved expect this team will be a winner by then.
"We have a very good plan in place here," Acta said. "We're going to do it the right way. ... We are going to stick with it, and we are going to make Washington one of the most important baseball towns in the world like it deserves to be. We are going to bring a winner here sooner [rather] than later."
The Nationals believe Acta is the man to take them there. After an exhaustive, six-week search for Frank Robinson's replacement, Kasten and Bowden settled on this bright-eyed, commanding native of the Dominican Republic who spent the last 14 years working his way up the coaching ladder to reach this milestone in his life.
Acta was on Washington's radar screen from the beginning, but he didn't really come into focus until the former New York Mets third base coach came to town for his interview after his team was eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
To that point, Bowden and Kasten were considering as many as 10 candidates, some of them well-known names like Lou Piniella, Joe Girardi and Dusty Baker and others lesser-known men like Terry Pendleton, John Russell and Trent Jewett.
But once they spoke with Acta, who spent the entire day meeting with Bowden, Kasten, Rizzo, Boone, former assistant GM Tony Siegle and owners Ted and Mark Lerner, the entire focus of their search changed.
"He just blew us away," Mark Lerner said.
Acta, who served as Robinson's third base coach in Montreal from 2002 through 2004, wowed his new bosses with his knowledge of the Nationals' roster, front office, farm system and ownership structure.
"He came in here probably more prepared than any candidate we had," Kasten said. "Knowing our roster, knowing the holes we had in our roster, knowing what we might need, knowing the kids in our minor leagues. I really think that we have a manager who is ... very, very much on board with our plan and in sync with how we all will build this thing together. That was very important to me."
Even though Acta's interview took place three weeks ago, the process still needed more time to play out. Bowden and Kasten met with several other candidates after that, and Acta (who also interviewed with the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers) left for Japan for nearly two weeks to coach a team of major league all-stars.
Upon returning to the United States on Friday, he was offered the job, prompting him to cancel a scheduled interview with the Oakland Athletics and to begin working out contract details with his new employer.
"We were looking for the right person to take this franchise, to help build it into a world champion, and Manny Acta just fit so many categories," Bowden said. "He just seemed to fit everything we were looking for."
So after a whirlwind six weeks that saw him travel from New York to Texas to California to the District to Florida to Japan and back to Florida, Acta found himself in downtown Washington yesterday speaking to a throng of reporters.
Standing at the podium, wearing his No. 14 jersey and red "curly W" cap, the man who taught himself English as a young minor league infielder two decades ago beamed as he spoke about the opportunity he has been given.
"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," Acta said. "God bless America. Only here."
Mark Zuckerman of The Washington Times breaks down four issues facing the Nationals now that they have hired a manager:
1. HIRE A COACHING STAFF
Only pitching coach Randy St. Claire was retained from Frank Robinson's crew, so Jim Bowden and Manny Acta must fill out the rest of their staff ... and soon.
2. PURSUE PITCHING
John Patterson is the only pitcher assured of a spot in the 2007 rotation, and there aren't many attractive in-house options. The Nationals' brain trust says it's not going to sign big-name free agents, but it has to find arms somewhere.
3. SETTLE THE SORIANO SITUATION
No one expects the Nationals to re-sign Alfonso Soriano, but team president Stan Kasten keeps saying he won't completely rule it out. At this point, it's pretty safe to say the 40-40 man won't be back next season.
4. OFF-THE-FIELD ISSUES
The organization needs to sign a new radio deal, sell tickets for 2007, market the club over the winter, hire a television color commentator and make sure the new stadium is ready for 2008 ... with plenty of parking!
THE HIRING PROCESS
A look at some of the candidates the Nationals interviewed:
Why he got the job: He's young, energetic and familiar with the organization after spending three seasons as third base coach in Montreal. He's an up-and-coming first-time manager who should fit in well with a rebuilding team.
Why he didn't get the job: He says he took himself out of the running, but that doesn't mean the Nationals were overly enamored with him. Girardi received praise for his work in Florida, but he publicly clashed with management, and that might have scared the Nationals off.
Why he didn't get the job: Jim Bowden often has called Piniella the best manager he has known and likely would have hired the 63-year-old if given the chance. But Piniella wanted to win right now, and he felt he had a better chance with the Cubs.
Why he didn't get the job: Another potential up-and-comer, the Braves' hitting coach is familiar with Stan Kasten. But Pendleton was reluctant to move from Atlanta and may be holding out to take over there when Bobby Cox retires.
Why he didn't get the job: He has a solid record as a manager in San Francisco and Chicago but never seemed right for this job. He has been around the block, doesn't have a great reputation for handling young pitchers and was probably too old for the Nationals.