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Managing to remain humble

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

ST. CLOUD, Fla. -- Little about Manny Acta's house stands out.

Sure, it's a nice place: Four bedrooms plus a playroom, with an enclosed pool and hot tub in the backyard and a huge HDTV in the living room.

But that's what most upper-middle class homes look like these days. A stranger at the door likely would assume this house is owned by the regional manager of a local computer software company, not the manager of the Washington Nationals.

Which is just fine with Acta, who prefers the quiet comfort of his Central Florida tract-home development to a luxury condo on the beach or a three-story mansion along a golf course.

"Why would I need anything more than this?" he questions as he sits on the back patio. "What do I need, 10 bedrooms? No, this is perfect."

And this is home. Yes, Acta grew up in the Dominican Republic and still spends regular time there. And yes, during the baseball season, he migrates north to his team's locale. But when he needs to unwind, when he wants to lounge around with his wife, Cindy, and daughters Jenny (20) and Leslie (11) and leave baseball behind, he comes here.

Where is here? Well, with due respect to his neighbors and the community at large, it's basically the middle of nowhere. Visitors had better pay close attention to Acta's driving directions -- "take Boggy Creek Road for about 20 minutes, make a left when you pass the old-time gas station" -- lest they wind up in a swamp, face to face with a family of irritable alligators.

This is backwater country, only 30 minutes from the Orlando airport but seemingly a continent away from civilization.

And this is exactly where Acta wants to be. The people of Washington may know him only as the enthusiastic new manager of the local ballclub who has hit the big time after two decades of anonymity. But people around here know him only as the 38-year-old husband and father who shops at Kohl's and celebrates his birthday with the guys from his rec league softball team.

None of that has changed since the Nationals hired him two months ago.

"I always take pride in being humble. It's one of my favorite words," Acta said. "A lot of people from where I come from are shocked. They think you're supposed to change, and I haven't. I'm just trying to be myself."

Acta has been this way since the day he first set foot on American soil in 1987 as an 18-year-old prospect in the Houston Astros' farm system. After growing up in poverty in the Dominican village of Consuelo, even a minor leaguer's modest salary and living conditions felt luxurious to a kid who left his family behind, taught himself English and set out to realize his dream of making it to the major leagues.

Twenty years and one major career path shift later, Acta has arrived at last. He did it the hard way, fizzling out after six unmemorable seasons as a light-hitting infielder, then transforming himself into a coach and manager and working his way up through the ranks of the minor leagues in laborious fashion.

Cindy, his wife of 18 years, has been at his side nearly from the beginning. A Central Florida native six years older than Acta, she lived in the same apartment complex in nearby Kissimmee as many of the Astros' minor leaguers and immediately took a liking to one tall Dominican player in particular who could speak English.

"I thought, 'Hey, he's cute,' " she said.

By the end of the summer, the two were living together. Within a year, they were married, trying to make do on Manny's minuscule salary and the little bit Cindy brought in from working at Disney World.

"When we first started out, we were struggling," Cindy said. "A lot of the girls think it's glamorous. They don't understand: At that point, it's not."

And in the Actas' case, it never really became glamorous. There isn't much glitz in moving to a new minor league town every year or two. There have been 12 total stops over the last two decades, and the Actas can recite them all.

Manny: "Let's see ... Sarasota. Osceola. Auburn, New York."

Cindy: "What about Columbus?"

Manny: "Oh yeah, Columbus, Georgia."

Cindy: "Back and forth with Kissimmee."

Manny: "Burlington, Iowa. Asheville, North Carolina. Auburn, New York. Quad City, Iowa. Back to Kissimmee -- I stayed there for three years. Then we went to New Orleans. Montreal. New York. And now, D.C."

Not that the Actas ever complained. They knew what they were getting into. Upon retiring as a player in 1992, Manny Acta laid out a career plan he hoped would land him a coaching job in the major leagues ... in 20 years.

"I didn't play in the big leagues. I didn't have the big name," he said. "So I had to work my way up through the minor leagues. I knew what it was going to take. And I consider myself lucky. It only took me 10 years."

After only 10 years as a minor league coach and manager, Acta finally got the call in 2002 from a most unlikely team: the Montreal Expos. Recently purchased by Major League Baseball and due to be eliminated by the end of the season, the Expos were forced to slap together a bare-bones coaching staff to work under manager Frank Robinson.

One of Robinson's first hires was longtime friend Tom McCraw as hitting coach. McCraw had worked alongside Acta in the Astros organization and mentioned his name to Expos general manager Omar Minaya. At 11 p.m. the night before pitchers and catchers were due to report to spring training, Acta's phone rang. It was Minaya, offering him a job as Montreal's third base coach and infield instructor.

The pay wouldn't be good, and the job security would be even worse, but Acta didn't hesitate to accept the offer.

"I don't care," he thought to himself. "I'm fulfilling my dream. I'm going to the big leagues."

He hasn't been back to the minor leagues since. After three seasons with the Expos, who of course never were eliminated, Acta followed Minaya to New York to become the Mets' third base coach. Finally making decent money, he could have been content right there. But there was one more step before he felt he could say he had fully realized his dream: He wanted to manage a big league team.

General managers around the sport had begun noticing Acta, recognizing the championships he won managing teams in the Dominican Winter League as well as the way major league players responded to his "rah-rah" coaching technique. So the job interviews started cropping up, first with the Arizona Diamondbacks, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Acta didn't land either of those gigs, but he knew he would be a hot commodity last fall when several jobs opened up. Three other teams contacted him -- the Texas Rangers, San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics -- but the Nationals zeroed in on him, pegged him to be Robinson's replacement and charged him with resurrecting this young franchise from the bottom up.

It has been a whirlwind since, with flights back and forth between Orlando and Washington, scouting trips to the Dominican, phone calls at all hours of the day with GM Jim Bowden and more media requests than Acta ever could have imagined.

But it hasn't gotten to his head, nor does he plan to let it. He understands his life has changed dramatically in the last two months, but that doesn't mean he is going to change.

He hasn't splurged one bit since getting the job. His few material possessions (the HDTV, the pool table, the first new car he ever bought himself) were purchased with the bonus money he got for making the playoffs last season with the Mets. That was well before the Nationals hired him.

"I could get my salary tripled tomorrow," Acta said. "We're not going to move out of this house. We have what we need here."

When they go to the store, they go to Wal-Mart. When Leslie asks whether she can have an iPod, they tell her no. When they throw a birthday party, they invite the same friends they have had for more than a decade.

This is the only way Manny Acta ever has known it. And it's the only way the kid from Consuelo who has chosen to raise his family in the similar-looking swamps of Central Florida ever plans to know it.

"That's why, if it all disappears tomorrow, people are still going to treat me the same," he said. "Because I haven't changed. I haven't forgotten where I come from."