- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | There is a certain code Manny Acta lives by, one that underscores his rosy outlook on the world that surrounds him.

As the Washington Nationals manager often says: “I’d rather be optimistic than realistic.”

That code has served Acta well for more than two decades in professional baseball, so he’s not about to change anything, even when confronted with his most daunting managerial challenge yet: how to resurrect the Nationals from a 102-loss season and perhaps save his own job in the process.

As he sat behind a desk in his office at Space Coast Stadium on Sunday, Acta rattled off a number of reasons the Nationals should be better in his third year on the job than in the previous two. Their lineup is more talented. Their rotation is more stable. Their bench is deeper.

None of that, of course, has anyone outside the organization believing Washington is capable of a complete Tampa Bay-esque turnaround in 2009. The skeptics still point to the unproven pitching staff, a roster that was only slightly tweaked over the winter and the difficulty in trying to make headway in the top-heavy National League East.

Acta, though, isn’t about to change his tune now. He remains as optimistic as ever.

“What am I going to do, sit here and concede already that we’re going to finish last? No, that’s not how you approach life,” he said. “If I wanted to be realistic, then I would still be back home in the Dominican Republic doing something else.”

There is nowhere Acta would rather be than on the practice fields of Viera, preaching and teaching to his players and trying to instill his ever-present enthusiasm in them.

It is precisely that positivity that earned Acta this job in the first place. Considered one of the game’s brightest up-and-comers, he interviewed for several managerial openings in October 2006 and wound up getting an offer from a Washington organization that was looking for an upbeat young manager after firing Frank Robinson during the final week of the season.

Acta knew the task before him would be difficult. The Nationals weren’t looking for any quick fixes. They were going to do this the long and slow way, building from within, letting young players develop in the majors and ultimately reaping rewards for their patience.

And Acta was willing to buy into the plan. He was only 37 when he was hired in November 2006, the youngest manager in the majors. He was willing to preach as much patience as necessary to get the job done.

But in the wake of a miserable season, it can be tempting for some to become impatient. This is a results-oriented business, and few managers are given more than three years to fix teams before job security becomes an issue.

Thus, 2009 is likely to become a referendum on Acta. The club holds an option to pick up his contract for 2010 but has yet to give any indication whether it will. General manager Jim Bowden and team president Stan Kasten continue to say positive things about Acta. They also haven’t offered any public commitment to him beyond this season.

Acta, who turned 40 last month, insists he doesn’t agonize over his future.

“All I can control is to manage this team to the best of my ability,” he said. “And then, if whoever’s patience runs out, that I can’t control. I really don’t worry about that.”

There have been hints of mounting pressure on Acta to show real signs of progress. On the final day of the 2008 regular season, Bowden fired all but one member of his staff: pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who has held that role since 2003.

Most of Acta’s previous coaches were longtime colleagues and confidants. He’s not nearly as familiar with his new staff, a group that includes two coaches who had already been with the organization (Rick Eckstein and Randy Knorr) but three who came from the outside (Jim Riggleman, Marquis Grissom and Pat Listach).

Acta met with his coaches as a full group Sunday for the first time, telling them he wants to continue the enthusiastic, teaching tone of the previous two springs. This wasn’t, however, a meet-and-greet session.

“We don’t have time to be getting to know each other here,” he said. “We have to get players going and spend more time on the field getting these guys better.”

Acta will be out on those fields Monday, directing the first formal workout of the spring for pitchers and catchers. And true to form, he will be upbeat, smiling and reinforcing positivity just as he has his entire managing and coaching career.

He has chosen optimism over realism his whole life. Why stop now?

“I have won at every level I’ve worked at before here,” he said. “So it’s going to be a matter of time. I’ve won at rookie ball. I’ve won at A-ball. I won in Triple-A the year I worked there. So I don’t have to change my approach. Just be patient, keep on working and it will come.”

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