- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — From the moment he walked into the ballpark, Manny Acta was greeted with warm wishes. From clubhouse attendants. From groundskeepers. From Houston Astros players and coaches. And from fans, lots of them.

All have fond feelings for Acta, and all seemed to want to let him know it yesterday when the Washington Nationals manager arrived at Osceola County Stadium.

This otherwise unremarkable spring training game between the Nationals and Astros represented a homecoming for Acta, who spent 16 years in the Houston organization as a minor league player, coach and manager and who still lives a couple miles down in the road in St. Cloud.

His time, energy and focus might all be with the Nationals these days but make no mistake: Acta’s heart still lies with the Astros.

“I owe to them everything,” he said. “They signed me. They developed me as a player. They developed me as a coach. I had to leave because I had to follow my dreams of becoming a major league coach. But I was treated wonderfully, and I’ve got a lot of people still in this organization that I owe a lot to and have a lot of respect for.”

Based on the reaction Acta got from everyone he encountered at the ballpark, the feeling is mutual. Groundskeepers rushed to greet him behind the plate during batting practice. Astros coaches waited to get a quick moment alone with him.

Fans who have been coming to games here since Acta managed the local Class A team from 1998 to 2000 shouted out to him. He immediately recognized them all and wanted to go strike up a conversation with each of them until he remembered he had media obligations.

“I see a lot of familiar faces, not only on the field but in the stands,” he said. “I managed three years in this stadium, and a lot of the same baseball people come here. It makes me feel welcome.”

Acta first joined the Astros organization in 1986 as a light-hitting, 17-year-old infielder fresh from the Dominican Republic. He grew up with them, retiring as a player after only six seasons but immediately making the leap into coaching. By 1993, he was managing the organization’s short-season Class A team in Auburn, N.Y., and by 1998, he was sitting in the third-base dugout at Osceola County Stadium as manager of the home team.

He sat in the opposite dugout yesterday and remarked how he always assumed he would be an Astro for life.

“I never thought I would leave,” he said. “When you spend 16 years in one place, that’s what you think. But it was kind of a blessing in a weird way. It worked out great for me.”

The Montreal Expos came calling in 2002, offering Acta their third-base coaching job, and the Astros didn’t stand in his way. He spent the last five seasons with the Expos and later the New York Mets, all the while maintaining good relationships with several of his old Houston mates.

That came in handy when Acta won the job as Nationals manager because when it came time to hire a coaching staff, he already had two names in mind: Tim Tolman and Rick Aponte.

Both were fixtures in the Astros organization — Tolman for 19 years as a player, scout and minor league manager, Aponte for 32 years as a player, coach and scout — and both seemed natural hires for Washington’s staff.

Tolman, who actually managed Acta in Burlington, Iowa, in 1991, signed up to be third-base coach. Aponte, who played in the minors with Tolman in the 1970s, accepted the bullpen coach’s job and left the only organization he ever knew.

“Manny is a guy I’ve been through a lot with,” Aponte said. “We are friends, and it wasn’t something I had to think about twice.”

Together with Acta, Tolman and Aponte have helped bring some of the Astros’ philosophy about running an organization to the Nationals.

“I think there’s a way they went about teaching things,” Tolman said. “How they approached pitching. How they approach the running game. Doing the little things. At that time when we were coming up, they were kind of a small-market team. So there was a lot of stress on the little things, and I think I’ve carried it with me.”

Acta might need to dig deep into his experiences with the Astros as his first year with the Nationals plays out. His team lost for the sixth time in seven spring training games yesterday, and with predictions of a 100-loss season looming, the young manager’s patience eventually could run thin.

But none of that was on Acta’s mind yesterday. While his players all jogged down the right-field line and into the visitors’ clubhouse after the game, he lingered. There were still dozens of fans who wanted to say hi, get an autograph or snap a photo with this hometown hero.

And Acta was happy to oblige. Who knew you could take the boy out of Kissimmee, but you couldn’t take Kissimmee out of the boy?

“I was here a long time, and obviously that shows I didn’t burn any bridges,” he said. “I just treated people the way I wanted to be treated for 16 years. … They were responsible for all the things I am today.”

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