On July 12, 2009, Manny Acta managed his final game for the Washington Nationals, a 5-0 loss to the Astros in Houston. He was informed after the game that he was being let go, and that coach Jim Riggleman would manage the club for the rest of the season. It was a move applauded by many fans who felt that Acta was the culprit behind the team's woeful won-lost record; the Nats were 26-61 at that point.
At season's end, there were two managerial openings: The Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians. The number one candidate for both jobs? Manny Acta. He took the Cleveland job and a three-year deal over a two-year deal with Houston.
Many Tribe fans were aghast. Why would they hire a guy with such a poor W-L record? The 2010 Indians went 69-93 under Acta, only a four-game improvement over 2009, and again, many Cleveland loyalists questioned the wisdom of general manager Mark Shapiro.
That was then. This is now.
As this is written, the Indians have the best record in the American League. Scratch that, they have the best record in baseball, period. Is Acta doing anything differently? Of course not. A manager manages the players he's given to work with. He doesn't select them, though. Obviously he has a great deal of input in the roster that leaves spring training. Bottom line, though, Acta is the same guy who managed the Nationals in terms of personality and overall baseball acumen.
I've already had calls on both the radio and TV shows asking if the Nats were "too hasty" in letting Manny go when they did. Maybe they were, but they did what many teams do when the results aren't there: Make a cosmetic change and hope it makes a difference to some part of the fan base.
The whole Acta saga should have been one of those teachable moments, but a lot of fans still don't get it. They want to believe that a major league manager can take mediocre talent and win with it. They're always looking for someone to pin blame on for a loss, as if a really good manager might go 162-0.
Which brings us to Jim Riggleman. Riggleman's as rock solid a baseball guy as you will ever meet in your life. When he went 33-37 in the final 70 games of the 2009 season, I thought it was a miracle, based on the personnel he had to work with. This year, he left Viera, Fla., with a team designed to compete, but make no mistake about it, it was no contender. I figured they'd win somewhere in the mid-to-high 70s, and that's pretty much where they seem to be headed.
The Nationals won 69 games a year ago, a 10-win improvement over 2009. Another 10-win improvement would be terrific, but anyone who thought they'd win in the upper 80s hasn't done their homework. Twenty-game swings from one year to the next rarely happen. Look it up.
Are there personnel issues with the 2011 Nationals? Of course there are. You've been missing your best player for almost 50 games. The pitcher you pinned so many hopes on is out for the year. Your offense has been sporadic, if not missing in action. Yet many of you still expected an above-.500 record?
ESPN.com recently ran a piece on the best managers in baseball history, and the number one guy was Casey Stengel, who won every AL Championship but two between 1949-60 with the Yankees, along with seven World Series titles. Before those 12 years in the Bronx, and for four years after that stretch, he managed the Dodgers, Braves and Mets, a total of 13 years, with exactly one winning record, 1938, when he was two games over .500.
So, did Casey go from from dumb to smart to dumb again? No, in fact he was always a pretty smart baseball guy (check out Steve Goldman's brilliant "Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, published in 2005) who baseball insiders knew was no clown in the dugout. His successes came when he had superior talent to work with.
How many managers out-manage their own rosters? That is, turn mediocrity into excellence. A handful might have done it once, or maybe just for part of a season. Buck Showalter did it in Baltimore in 2010, winning at a .590 clip with a roster he made over last winter when he had the chance. He knew that bunch wasn't a legitimate near-.600 percentage team, although the Orioles haven't come close to that yet in 2011. I look back at the 2005 Nationals and wonder how they managed to play .500 ball, much less be 50-31 over the first half of the season. Frank Robinson must have used the same formula he'd used with the '89 Orioles, who contended a year after 107 losses.
Managing must look easy to a lot of fans, since so many of them seem to know exactly what needs to be done, despite never setting foot in a clubhouse. "Oh, it's not brain surgery ..." they'll say, but chances are they don't know much about neurosurgery either. Some of my colleagues in the press box feel like they have to question the manager's every decision on their Twitter accounts, presumably because they have Twitter accounts and X number of followers, therefore they have to publish something to compete with their peers.
Hey, I'd love to see Riggleman have the same kind of run with the Nationals that Earl Weaver had with the Orioles, or Joe Gibbs' first term with the Redskins. I won't hold my breath waiting for it to happen, but the baseball smarts and backbone are there, even if the current player personnel isn't quite yet.