- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Yesterday gave Manny Acta one of the many firsts of his new career as manager: the first time he addressed his entire squad before the first full workout of his first team.

Remarkably, Acta didn’t have to rent an auditorium; all 78 players at the Nationals’ camp managed to squeeze into the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse.

It was an important moment, and I managed to get a copy of Acta’s address to the team, leaked to me by a confidential source whose identity I will not reveal (Take that, Stan Kasten.)

“Don’t forget, men — we’re gonna get ‘em on the run, we’re gonna go, go, go, go! — and we aren’t going to stop until we go over that goal line! And don’t forget, men — today is the day we’re gonna win. They can’t lick us — and that’s how it goes. The first platoon men — go in there and fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! What do you say, men!”

OK, so he didn’t deliver Knute Rockne’s historic speech to the Notre Dame football team. In fact, it was nowhere close to Rockne-like, not that he planned it to be.

“I won’t go out there and spill my guts,” Acta said. “This is not a football team.”

The jury is still out on whether it’s a baseball team.

Spring training speeches by managers hardly are historic motivational talks. Brian Schneider heard the same one from Frank Robinson for five years. “Frank would talk about winning, the rules and weighing in,” Schneider said. “Not much else.”

Felipe Lopez, one of the players Manny designated for his committee of leaders in the clubhouse, said the new manager’s talk consisted of three things. “He said just to play hard, respect the game and have fun,” Lopez said.

That’s not going to get Acta in a copy of “The Quotable Coach II.”

I must confess that, like Renee Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire,” the new Nats manager had me at hello this winter when he told me, “Hey, I’ve got a copy of your book, ‘The Quotable Coach.’ ”

He might be making good use of that copy this season, maybe referring to Chuck Tanner. “There are three secrets to managing,” Tanner said. “The first secret is to have patience. The second is to be patient. And the third, most important secret is patience.”

Acta will need that wisdom in August. But for now, hope springs eternal, and so does Acta. He was running all over the fields at the Carl Barger training complex yesterday, trying to get a look at his players, hitting ground balls in infield practice.

“I’m too young to be standing on the sidelines just watching these guys,” he said. “This is my first job. I have to make sure things are done the way I want them done. I do trust my coaching staff, but still I think I need to be there and make sure things are done the way I want them to be done.”

Acta elaborated a bit more about his pre-workout talk. “I did say some more stuff about team rules and the expectations we have and also covered some of the stuff about how we finished dead last in defense and were first in caught stealing and stuff that we want to get better at,” he said.

This is not to say Acta isn’t quotable. Far from it. He is more media savvy than most veteran managers. Not every manager can address the perception that his team is going to stink with the reason and intelligence that Acta did with reporters Monday.

“We respect everybody’s opinion,” he said. “If you have to make predictions, somebody has to be on the bottom. I’m not expecting you or any of the other writers to pick a team that finished dead last the last three years and is looking for four starters in spring training to win the division. That would probably cost some of you your job if you did that.

“But we are going to use that as a fuel. A lot of those guys in there have a lot to prove, and we are going to use it. We still respect everybody’s opinion, but we would rather be optimistic than realistic, in our case.”

Still, some of that realism crept in as he talked about those expectations. He referenced the issues with the starting pitching — the lack of a rotation — several times.

“I always think I can win, regardless of who I have,” he said. “I would have loved the challenge a little bit more if I had come to spring training and only had to look for one starter instead of four. The challenge is actually tougher, because we have to spend so much time trying to find the guys who are going to compete. Looking for four starters is not easy. … Not too many people walk into baseball having to look for four starters. But I have to do it. That’s what I’m here for.”

As Miller Huggins once said, “A manager has his cards dealt to him, and he must play them.”

The Nationals hope Manny Acta is “Cool Hand Luke,” and that sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.

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