- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2008

From the sugar-cane fields of a small town called Consuelo, the major leagues can appear light years away. Baseball is the national pastime in the Dominican Republic, maybe even more so than it is nowadays in America, but only a handful of the country’s best ever make it to the “Grandes Ligas” and play before huge crowds at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.

Manny Acta, though, never doubted he would leave Consuelo for the United States and make it in the big leagues. He had seen neighbors like Tony Fernandez, Alfredo Griffin and George Bell make it, and he knew how that changed the lives of each of those men for the better.

“It was always my dream,” Acta said. “Baseball is a way out of poverty down there. It’s a way to give your family a better life.”

Twenty-two years later, Acta sits behind his desk at Nationals Park and smiles when he thinks about the long and winding road that brought him from Consuelo to Washington … with more stops along the way than he’d like to remember.

Now 39, the second-year Nationals manager has realized his dream, but not the way he originally mapped it out. After six mostly fruitless seasons as a light-hitting infielder in the Houston Astros’ farm system, he took the advice of the scout who drafted him (Julio Linares) and went into coaching.

Linares knew what he was talking about, because Acta has become one of the most-respected young managers in the game, having guided a Nationals club that was supposed to lose 100 games last season to a successful campaign.

His team has taken a step back so far this year - it entered the weekend with one of the worst records in the National League - but Acta continues to draw praise from observers both inside and outside the organization who are impressed with his patient-yet-forceful style and believe it will only be a matter of time before he manages a winner.

“Of all the things that the organization did right, I think hiring Manny to manage this team was the most important,” general manager Jim Bowden said earlier this season. “He’s the ultimate team player. He’s a major part in everything we do and is just a special person.”

When he arrived in the United States for the first time in 1987, the then-18-year-old Acta was scared out of his mind. He couldn’t speak a word of English. When he and six Dominican teammates missed their connecting flight in Miami and were forced to spend the night in a hotel, he was too frightened to pick up the telephone that kept ringing in his room.

“I’d never been in a hotel before,” he said. “I didn’t speak the language. My phone kept ringing at night, and I didn’t want to answer it. What am I going to say? I don’t speak English.”

Upon finally making it to Sarasota, Fla., for spring training, Acta came to an important realization: If he was going to make it in America, he was going to need to speak the native language.

So he bought himself a copy of a book called “Basic English” and proceeded to teach himself. When he was on the field or in the clubhouse, he refused to speak Spanish. Even if he looked and sounded silly in his broken English, he was committed to getting it right.

“They’re not going to adjust to me,” he remembers thinking. “So I better adjust to them and learn as quick as possible.”

Every step since has been a learning process for Acta. After retiring as a player and turning his attention toward managing, he set out a career path that he hoped would get him to the big leagues. In 20 years.

Few young managers would have the patience to take the long road to the majors like that, but Acta knew he had no choice. He wasn’t a well-known figure in baseball circles and thus wouldn’t get the “fast-track” treatment that a lot of star players get when they retire and become coaches.

So Acta and his wife, Cindy, who met early in Manny’s playing days in Florida and married soon after, began their journey together. It took them to far-flung burgs like Auburn, N.Y.; Davenport, Iowa; and Kissimmee, Fla., before the call finally came.

Just days before the Montreal Expos were set to open spring training in 2002, Acta got a call from general manager Omar Minaya. Minaya had heard good things about Acta from Tom McCraw, a former Astros coach who had just been added to the Expos’ staff, and offered him the third-base coaching job.

Acta didn’t hesitate to accept. At last, he had reached the major leagues. And it took him half as long to get there as he originally thought it would.

“I feel blessed that it only took 10 years,” he said.

After three seasons in Montreal, Acta followed Minaya to New York and became the Mets’ third-base coach. Managerial opportunities started cropping up, and when the Nationals (who had relocated from Montreal) came calling in November 2006, Acta knew he had found his new home.

“I had a soft spot for this club,” he said. “This is where I started.”

And this is where he plans to remain for some time. The Nationals already picked up the first of two options on Acta’s contract, ensuring he’ll be their manager through 2009. They’re likely to pick up the second option at some point, locking him up through 2010.

Washington has embraced Acta, and Acta has embraced his new hometown. He and Cindy bought a house in suburban Northern Virginia, and though their primary residence remains in Florida, they frequently return to town even during the offseason.

The kid from Consuelo wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love it here. I really love it here,” he said. “There’s so much to do, and it’s such an important city with so many things to offer. I’m committed to staying here, and I hope I’m here for a long time.”

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