Manny Acta went to bed last night hoping he wouldn’t have a nightmare like the one he had before his first official spring training workout as manager of the Washington Nationals: The electricity goes out in his home, shuts off the alarm and causes him to miss his first official game as a major league manager.
“No, I hope not,” Acta said, laughing, before yesterday’s final preseason workout at RFK Stadium. “I’ll let you know tomorrow. I will have a couple of cell phone [alarms].”
He won’t need them. There is no way Acta is going to miss Opening Day 2007. He and his wife, Cindy, have waited for this day for 15 years, dreaming about it in places like Auburn, N.Y.; Davenport, Iowa; Kissimmee, Fla.; and all the minor league towns across America where he has opened a season.
He dreamed of this day in Caracas, Venezuela, and in his homeland of the Dominican Republic, where he managed winter league baseball.
Today is your wake-up call, Manny Acta. The dream finally has come true.
“I joked around with my wife sometimes when we were down in Florida,” Acta said. “I would say, ‘I have to drive carefully because I haven’t become a major league manager until Opening Day comes. If I have a car accident, I am not going to go down in history as manager of the Washington Nationals.’
“[Today] is when reality will set in and I will be able to say that I did it. I will not only be in my country’s history but also part of D.C.’s history. My name will be there, and we’re not stopping there. That is one goal, and then we will move to the next one.”
Opening Day is such a remarkable day in baseball because it means something different to everyone who puts on a uniform, and often it means something special.
For John Patterson, Opening Day means he officially has become the ace of the staff, the No. 1 pitcher and the player his teammates will count on to outperform the No. 1 pitcher on every other major league team when he goes to the mound. It is a huge moment of responsibility.
For first baseman Dmitri Young, Opening Day means a moment of redemption. Young came back from illness and alcohol abuse that last year nearly ended his career and this year forced him to accept a minor league deal with the Nationals, a deal that didn’t even allow him to work out with the major league club when he first arrived at spring training. There was doubt Young would ever see an Opening Day again in a major league uniform, but he played his way into a job and today will take the field.
For Ryan Church, remarkably, this Opening Day means his first in the starting lineup in the major leagues. It just seems like he has been here before. Church was supposed to start Opening Day 2005 but was hurt in the final days of spring training and had to sit out. He expected to be here last year but was stunned to be sent down to Class AAA in New Orleans in favor of rookie Brandon Watson. Whatever dark cloud has been following Church these past two seasons will disappear today, at least for one day.
But the star of this special day is Acta, who will become just the fourth Dominican to manage in the major leagues while Cuban-born Fredi Gonzalez of the Florida Marlins manages in the other dugout. The game marks the first time in major league history that two Latin American managers will debut against each other.
“It’s good for the game, but I really want to point out that, yes, we are minorities, but we are also qualified,” Acta said. “I never want anything given me because I am a minority. Me, Fredi, whoever else — we are qualified to do this, and we hope we can establish ourselves and keep opening the doors. When I was playing [Class] A ball, Fredi was managing an independent team in Florida.
“I have a lot of respect for Fredi because he, like me, did it the hard way. We didn’t play up here. We didn’t have a big name. We worked hard in the minor leagues, earned the respect of our peers up here and got a job.”
It’s more than a job, though. Everyone has a job, but few have their closest family and friends come to watch the first day at work. Few have parents who fly nearly four hours to watch. Acta made arrangements for 25 people to share this moment with him, including his parents, Manny and Blanca, coming from the Dominican Republic.
“Tomorrow it is really going to kick in,” he said. “Even today, I am handling it just like another day and that it is not a big deal. But I think it will hit me tomorrow. Even on the lowest level where I have worked, the first day of Opening Day, you get those butterflies and stuff. Then they will be gone. This is what we work for.”
It is, as Sam Spade once said, the stuff that dreams are made of.