Thinking positive

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There’s a book on Manny Acta’s desk titled “Best of Successories,” a collection of inspirational sayings and photos that was given to the Washington Nationals manager as a gift. That book has become Acta’s best friend, something he knows he can turn to anytime he needs comfort, and he’s constantly sharing its contents with everyone he comes across.

“Every day he comes in with his book of positive sayings,” third base coach Tim Tolman said. “He opens his book, picks one out and says: ‘This is what we’re going to go with today.’ Even if you’re in a bad mood when he walks in, by the time he walks out, you’re feeling good again.”

It’s called the power of positive thinking, and it’s all Acta and the Nationals can do right now to keep the faith during a grueling stretch of baseball that has seen this club plummet to the bottom of the major leagues.

Having just completed a nine-game road trip in which they lost the last eight games, the Nationals find themselves back in the company of the worst teams in the sport’s history. At 9-25, they are currently on pace to go 43-119 this season, same as the 2003 Detroit Tigers and only one game better than the 1962 New York Mets.

It has been a miserable stretch. Acta’s players can’t seem to get a clutch hit. The pitching, while significantly better than expected, still is prone to one or two costly mistakes a game. Injuries are mounting. Respectability appears impossible to attain. And the clubhouse, it would seem, could be on the verge of collapsing.

But in the middle of it all stands Acta, the 38-year-old rookie manager who simply refuses to let all this losing get him down. Other managers would see the current situation and feel the need to shake things up with some dramatic act of a tyrant. Not Acta.

“I don’t know what people are looking for,” he said. “Turning the table around or turning the spread over and not allowing the guys to eat? It’s not going to help. That has nothing to do with what happens on the field. If that’s what people will take, I think they’re wrong.”

It is simply not in Acta’s nature to focus on the negative and forego the positive. He remains upbeat and always looks forward to the next day. And for skeptics who wonder whether the manager is mugging for the cameras and turns sour when the lights go off, those closest to him insist that’s not the case.

“The guy you see in public and the guy you see in private — there’s no difference. There isn’t,” said Tolman, who has known Acta for 16 years. “He’s shown tremendous poise throughout the whole thing. I really admire the way he comes to the ballpark, where every day’s a fresh day.”

Acta acknowledges he knew what he was getting into when he signed up for the job. Nationals general manager Jim Bowden and team president Stan Kasten told him they weren’t going to spend money on the major league roster this season, and 2007 was going to be used as an evaluation year for the club to begin to identify which players figure into the long-term plan and which ones don’t.

And no matter how bad it gets, Acta always insists he has been through worse. He frequently points to the first professional club he managed — the 1992 Auburn Astros of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League — as the worst collection of talent he has ever seen.

Then again, Acta would be happy to have that team’s .395 winning percentage right now.

“Clubs are going to do this,” he said of the eight-game losing streak. “Are we going to go through it a little more often than a lot of clubs? Probably. But everybody’s going to go through it.”

It would be easy for Acta to draw upon his eight years as a minor league manager for ways to cope with his current situation. But as Tolman, a former manager in the Astros’ system alongside Acta, pointed out, there’s a significant difference between losing in the minors and losing in the majors.

“In the minor leagues, when you hand in the lineup card to the umpire, that’s really the end of your day. What happens out on the field is you just let your kids go out and play,” he said. “Up here, it’s totally different. When you hand in your lineup card to the umpire, your day is just beginning. Because all that matters is winning and losing. It’s totally different.”

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