- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Manny Acta lay awake in his bed much of Wednesday night, and even when he did manage to close his eyes, he was haunted by a nightmare in which his electricity went out, causing him to oversleep and miss the first workout of his major league managing career.

In a way, Acta actually was relieved he had the bad dream.

“Once I had that, I felt normal,” he said. “You don’t go through any of that stuff when you’re a coach. But when you’re managing, whether it’s minor league, winter ball or here in the major leagues, I just find that you’ve got to have that.

“Everybody has to be nervous and have a little bit of butterflies on your first day.”

The Manny Acta Era officially got under way yesterday, with Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers holding their first organized workout of the spring, all under the watchful eye of their rookie manager.

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These things are typically mundane affairs, and rarely does one team’s camp look much different from another. Fielding drills. Baserunning drills. Bullpen sessions. Batting practice.

But there was a different vibe at the Nationals’ morning workout, something not seen in previous years. Guys were enthusiastic, drills were crisp and when someone shifted from one field to another, he didn’t walk. He ran.

“There’s no walking in baseball,” Acta said.

All of this was a reflection of Washington’s new 38-year-old manager, the youngest in any major league camp this spring. Acta is high-energy and hands-on when he takes the field, and he sets an example for his players by joining them in every activity.

He stretched with them. He jogged with them. He joked with them. And he would have hit grounders and played catch with them if he had the chance.

“It’s the first time I don’t have to throw BP or hit fungoes or be on one field directing traffic,” said Acta, who still carried a bat and glove with him all morning. “So it’s kind of boring for me. Not enough action.”

No longer a third base coach or minor league manager, Acta has more pressing duties. He dutifully watched every one of the 16 pitchers who threw bullpen sessions during the workout, standing next to general manager Jim Bowden, pitching coach Randy St. Claire and bullpen coach Rick Aponte.

St. Claire may control the Washington pitching staff, but Acta has the final say. And when the time comes next month to whittle the 12 contenders for starting jobs down to four, he wants to be able to make informed decisions.

Acta’s enthusiasm and attention to detail did not go unnoticed by his players.

“That kind of thing brings life to a ballclub, to see your manager out there doing the work with you,” right-hander John Patterson said. “I think you’re going to see so much of that during spring training and during the season. I think you’ll see it affect the ballclub in a very positive way.”

Before the Nationals took to the field yesterday, Acta gathered the 38 pitchers and six catchers in camp in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium and held his first team meeting. During the 20-minute speech, he conveyed an upbeat message, challenging his players to ignore the gloom-and-doom predictions coming from outside the organization this spring.

“It might get old to you guys, but it’s a very exciting time to be part of the Nationals,” Acta said. “If you don’t want to see that, you’re blind. It’s a great opportunity for guys. … Who wouldn’t want to be in the capital of the United States, with a brand-new stadium and a team that’s going to be in the top 10 in revenues and also has a good core group of young position players already in place? If you don’t want to be in this type of situation, there’s something wrong with you.”

Players seemed to respond in kind to the message.

“It was very positive and a speech that hopefully a lot of guys in here take to heart,” Patterson said. “Take it personally that people don’t expect us to win and use that as motivation out on the field.”

Said catcher Brian Schneider: “No matter what happens this year, it’s going to be a very good clubhouse. It’s going to be positive.”

Of course, everyone feels good on the first day of spring training. The true test will come during the dog days of July and August, especially if the Nationals (as expected) experience a losing streak or downward spiral. Will the good vibes still permeate through the clubhouse then?

Acta believes the groundwork he’s paving now will make a difference. And that’s why the majors’ newest manager wore a grin throughout yesterday.

“I could feel the excitement,” he said. “I think the first day sets the tone for the rest of spring training. I think it went very well.”

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