- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

The scene had a feeling of destiny to it: Manny Acta took his place behind home plate, waiting to catch the first pitch from President Bush in Opening Night ceremonies at the District’s new jewel, Nationals Park.

This manager, this team, this ballpark, this moment. It all seemed meant to be: a glorious night for a young man who grew up in a small village in the Dominican Republic, a team that was nearly killed off by baseball, a city that had been abandoned by the game.

It was all so improbable, yet the paths of Manny Acta, this franchise and this city were connected by people and events long before Bush walked to the mound last night and delivered his final season-opening pitch as president, before Acta hauled in the high toss from Bush, before Acta shook the president’s hand as they walked off the field together before a packed house.

“It is a big moment for me, my family and my country,” Acta said before the game. “To be able to meet [the president], shake his hand and be part of a ceremony with him is very special.”

Acta himself believes he was meant to be in that position last night.

“I believe in destiny, but I also believe you create your own destiny,” he said. “I have thought our two paths [his and this franchise] were almost meant to get to this point.”

If you are looking for connections, coincidental or otherwise, start at the beginning.

The Nationals, in their previous incarnation as the Montreal Expos, began play in 1969, the year Acta was born. And in the infancy of both Acta and the Expos, baseball left Washington.

Acta, like nearly every young Dominican man, grew up playing baseball and was good enough to be a minor league prospect for the Houston Astros. But after six minor league seasons, he realized his path to the majors lay in a different direction.

He became a minor league coach in 1992. His goal now was to be a major league manager — just like one of his heroes in the Dominican, Felipe Alou, the manager of the Expos and the first manager to come off the island.

“My eyes were always on the Expos because Felipe was in charge,” Acta said. “Every one of us wanted to follow in his footsteps, and my dream someday was that maybe he would notice me and want me to work with him.”

Acta was managing for the Astros’ farm team in Auburn, N.Y., in the New York Penn League in 1994 when the fortunes of Alou and the Expos franchise changed. Baseball went on strike, and a team that seemed on its way to the World Series collapsed under the financial weight of the game. For many Expos fans, this marked the beginning of the end for baseball in Montreal. At the same time, another movement was starting in Washington to bring baseball back to the nation’s capital.

Acta was watching. “I was on my second year of my 20-year plan: I had set out to coach in the minor leagues for 20 years, and hopefully someone would notice me and give me a shot at a big league job,” he said.

Someone did notice. When the Expos were sold to Major League Baseball in the three-franchise swap involving the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins, Frank Robinson was named the new manager. His batting coach and close friend, Tom McCraw (the last Washington Senator to get a hit before the team left after the 1971 season), recommended Acta to Robinson, and Acta joined the Expos’ staff.

“A lot of people warned me against it,” Acta said. “They said that team was going to be contracted, you will be there a year and the team would go away. I said, I am going to achieve my dream. Even if the Expos disappear, I am going to be in the big leagues for at least a year.”

But the Expos didn’t disappear, and Acta, like many with the franchise, kept an eye on the developments here in Washington, whether the city would deliver the ballpark that would allow the Expos to relocate and the franchise to survive.

Acta left the Expos to join general manager Omar Minaya with the New York Mets just as the Expos moved to Washington after the 2004 season, and Acta kept an eye on baseball in the District.

“The team didn’t have an owner,” Acta said. “I didn’t know Jim [Bowden, the Nationals’ general manager]. But I kept in touch with most of the guys, and there was a mutual good feeling. I thought when Frank might retire, my chances were not very good because the front office would probably bring in people they knew. But I got the news I had the interview, and it worked out well.”

Well, indeed. And perhaps things worked out just the way they were supposed to, with Acta catching the first pitch in baseball’s new Washington, D.C., home from the president of the United States.

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