- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | The man the Washington Nationals once hired as the hottest young manager in baseball sat at his Florida home this summer. A television was his only connection to the game that sustained him, gave him a reason to learn English and brought him from the dirt fields of the Dominican Republic to the cathedrals of the major leagues. And in those months, everything Manny Acta had built was tested.

During his 2 1/2 seasons with the Nationals, Acta received ringing endorsements from Jim Leyland and Bobby Cox, made hundreds of friends and won a reputation as a sharp baseball mind who had a touch for relating to players.

But those attributes couldn’t stand up to the mammoth rebuilding effort Acta and his staff inherited; after finishing fourth in the 2007 NL manager of the year race, he led a 59-102 squad in 2008 and was fired last season at the All-Star break. The team was 26-61, becoming a national joke and prompting comparisons to the 1962 New York Mets that were only partially tongue-in-cheek.

So Acta sat at home, his reputation on one side of the ledger and his record (the 10th-worst winning percentage in MLB history at .385) on the other. It quickly became clear which one would win out.

Acta’s phone started ringing almost immediately with job offers for the second half of the season, though he politely declined and chose to focus on selling his house in Northern Virginia and spending time with his family. They picked up again after the season and, in the end, Acta had offers to manage from the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians.

His reputation outweighed the results in a way even he couldn’t imagine.

“Talking to a lot of baseball people in the industry, I knew that things were going to be OK,” Acta said. “I didn’t think right away I was going to get a major league managing job, but I had some stuff lined up.”

Now the manager of the Indians after agreeing to a three-year contract with an option for a fourth year, Acta is again doing what he loves. And he’s at the helm of a rebuilding project that looks infinitely more promising than the first one.

Cleveland still retains a number of its young starters who brought the team within a game of the 2007 World Series, and it traded back-to-back Cy Young winners (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) into the National League for impressive packages of prospects. And in the 40-year-old Acta, it has a manager who has already been through what he called a “grueling” renovation with the Nationals.

For Acta, those 2 1/2 years are at once a distant memory and a lesson he keeps close to his heart.

“Everybody needs to pay their dues,” Acta said. “That’s what I did over there, and I never ran from my problems. I think when you don’t run from your problems, you have an opportunity to show the rest of the world what you can do, and that’s what we did.”

Acta’s hiring was met with some confusion in Cleveland - you don’t lose 61.5 percent of the time and get parades in your honor - but baseball people saw beyond the record. They knew how barren the Nationals’ roster was when Acta took over, and the manager burnished his reputation by keeping his composure in a sometimes-chaotic environment that included the resignation of general manager Jim Bowden in March.

As any pregame encounter will establish, Acta has built scores of friendships from his time as a minor league manager through his major league jobs. Those friends started calling shortly after he was fired, and his stock again surged.

Asked whether he could remember another manager who had multiple job offers the offseason after he was fired, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman (who replaced Acta on an interim basis in July) only had one name.

“I want to say when Joe Girardi got let go a couple years ago, there was two or three teams trying to get him,” he said. “You know, they just develop a great reputation in the game and exhibited their skills as managers, and people recognize it and decide he’s the guy.”

It’s a stretch to put Acta in the same company as the manager of the World Series champions. And yet, plenty of insiders believe Acta can win on that level someday, even if his stoic approach didn’t work on Nationals teams filled with unproven players and questionable characters.

Acta is reluctant to delve into his time in the District, other than to reiterate he wouldn’t have changed the way he managed the Nationals. And maybe he’ll run into the same problems in Cleveland.

But in true Acta form, he keeps a sunny outlook on his future, believing his struggles with Washington will not conflict with his reputation - and they’ll even help it grow.

“I wasn’t the first or the last one that was going to go through a rebuilding process, and it’s tough. It’s grueling. It’s painful at times,” Acta said. “Going to the Indians, to the Astros, or wherever else I might go in the future - hopefully nowhere else - I already have that on my resume. Not everybody looks at wins and losses.”

• Ben Goessling can be reached at bgoessling@washingtontimes.com.

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