- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Manny Acta’s first congratulatory phone call after being named manager of the Washington Nationals came from a guy he benched — Alfonso Soriano.

In March’s inaugural World Baseball Classic, Acta managed the Dominican Republic and sat an 0-for-12 Soriano — then still a second baseman — after four games, replacing him with Placido Polanco.

“We’re from the same area, a couple sugar cane factories next to each other. We get along real good,” Acta said. “We just [sat him] the right way. We communicated with him. We talked to Fonzie and told him, ‘Hey, [the WBC] only lasts eight games, and you’re a power hitter and it might take you longer to get in shape. We can’t wait until December when you start hitting here, so we’re going to make a move here.’ He accepted it. I have always kept a good relationship with him.”

Soriano is now a free agent, and his shared heritage with the new manager seems like it would give him extra incentive to return to Washington. However, Acta acknowledged that doesn’t make much of a difference when money is concerned.

“I think my presence will help, but I think we all know that it might take more than my presence over here to bring Alfonso [back],” Acta said. “We’re good friends, but I don’t know how good of a friend I am to bring him over here on my presence alone.”

Soriano, who became the fourth player in major league baseball history with at least 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases, is the marquee free agent this offseason. He is seeking a deal that will pay him roughly $17 or $18 million a season.

“I was talking to Manny earlier before the press conference, and he’s said something that no one has really said,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. ” ‘If we’re not lucky enough to get Soriano back — which you never know, it might still happen — we did pretty good the first half two years ago without Soriano on the team. If you go back and look at that, that’s with pitching and defense. If we were ahead after the sixth inning, it was over. If you look back [to 2005], we can win without him.’ ”

Acta’s first order of business will be to assemble a coaching staff. The lone holdover from Frank Robinson’s regime is pitching coach Randy St. Claire.

Some of Acta’s prospective coaches are under contract with other teams, and he didn’t want to comment on potential candidates. Given Acta’s youth and lack of managerial inexperience at this level, he said he probably will hire a seasoned bench coach. Acta did rule out poaching his former team, the New York Mets.

By hiring the Dominican-born Acta, the Nationals are positioning themselves as major players in a talent-rich country that has produced stars like Soriano, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz. The Nationals already operate two Dominican summer league teams. Jose Rijo, a special assistant to Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, runs a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and already has funneled 16-year-old shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez to the Nationals.

“[Acta is] going to have a lot of influence in the Dominican. With he and Jose Rijo, we certainly have our presence felt there,” Bowden said. “We’re one of the few teams that still has two teams in the Dominican. We’re being very aggressive down there. We’re going to continue to improve our scouting department down there. We’re going to continue to improve our development down there, our staffing down there. Certainly having a Manny Acta and a Jose Rijo with you certainly helps because they are well-known there.”

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