PHOENIX - To catch up with Manny Acta at one of baseball's big gatherings, like the All-Star Game or the Winter Meetings, feels a bit like bargain-hunting on Black Friday: it requires both persistence and quick reflexes.
The former Nationals manager can barely walk 20 feet in a conference room without running into an old friend who used to coach with him, reporter who used to cover him or mentor who used to advise him. His smile and handshake are constantly at work, and if you're hoping to talk to him, you'd better pounce on a spare second, because someone else probably has the same idea.
Acta's greatest asset has always been his magnetic personality; he is relentlessly optimistic, with a big grin and even bigger laugh, and if he hasn't always been able to convince someone he is the most experienced choice for a job, he's had no trouble making them believe he's the most engaging option. It's why, when he was on the market two winters ago after being fired in July 2009 as Nationals manager, he had not one, but two teams willing to take a chance on him even though he'd left the Nationals with a 26-61 record.
And two years after he was fired on the first day of the All-Star break, Acta has as many reasons to smile as ever.
He is coaching on the American League staff at the All-Star Game, after Rangers manager Ron Washington picked a first-time coach as a kind of pay-it-forward gesture stemming from when Tigers manager Jim Leyland picked him back in 2007. He became a grandfather last winter. And his Indians are a half-game out of first place in the AL Central, almost two years to the day after the Nationals fired him with the worst record in baseball.
"You continue to work hard, do things right and somebody's going to notice," he said. "I think all of us know (getting fired) is part of the game. I've always said that there are very few geniuses in this game. All of us, at some point, are as good as our rosters. I do have a pretty good ballclub right now, a lot of kids that are talented and have high character. That's the way this game is - you've got to put things behind and keep moving forward. I wasn't the first one, and I'm not going to be the last one to go through it. I'm just happy to be in a good place and moving on."
The Indians have struggled after starting the season 32-20, going 10-17 in June and falling out of first place after losing to the Tigers on June 14. But Acta has taken a young team and put it in the middle of a pennant race, and in the process, he's helping to revitalize baseball in Cleveland; a team that couldn't draw over 10,000 fans for a game against the Red Sox in April had more than 27,000 fans on Saturday against the Blue Jays.
He posts his song of the day on his Twitter account, uploads a picture of his victory cigar after wins and explains his managing decisions to fans, starting tweets with "I'd rather help you than ignore you." In a town perpetually ready for heartbreak, he'll have to win to endear himself permanently, but he's well on his way.
"The fans' excitement is back, and our attendance shows that," Acta said. "At the beginning, it was tough because of the weather conditions and because two or three weeks of baseball is not going to convince people of the product we put on the field. But once people over saw this going on for three-and-a-half months, they do like the product on the field. We have guys that get after it, and that's what the people in Cleveland like. The fans are back. It's quicker than some people anticipated."
Should Acta choose to direct one of his laughs at the Nationals for letting him go, he'd have some grounds to do it; his replacement, Jim Riggleman, resigned on June 23, and the Nationals could be back in the market for another manager after the season if Davey Johnson decides he doesn't want to extend his tenure past the last three months of the 2011 season.
But Acta knows with the record the Nationals had at the time, he didn't have much of a chance to survive, and had he stayed, there's a good chance he wouldn't have stirred the kind of improvement in Washington that he has in Cleveland.
Asked about the 2009 season, though, Acta smiles, points at his watch and says, with mock incredulity, "It's 2011!" before letting a reporter finish his question.
It's clear, though, he's much more concerned with what's ahead of him than what's in his past.
"(Being at the All-Star Game) is one more dream accomplished," Acta said. "It's one less thing on my bucket list. The next thing should be managing one of these clubs, which only happens when you get to the World Series. But it means a lot."