Baseball has taken Manny Acta all over the place the last eight years, to nearly every ballpark in the majors, to spring training complexes across Florida and Arizona, to winter ball stadiums in his native Dominican Republic and across the Caribbean.
It had not, however, taken him to the corner of South Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue. No, when Acta - now third base coach for the Mariners - walked into Nationals Park this afternoon, it was the first time he had set foot here since June 12, 2009, the night the Nats fired him as manager.
A lot has happened since that night, both for a Nationals franchise that has grown from one of the sport’s least successful into one of its most successful and for Acta, who got another chance to manage in Cleveland and then left the field for three years before joining Seattle’s coaching staff in 2016.
And so there are understandably some emotions associated with tonight’s opener of a three-game interleague series, as Acta finally returns to a place he still holds in the highest regard.
“It’s great,” he said from the visitors dugout this afternoon, a parade of D.C. players, support staff and media members stopping by to say hello. “It brings back a lot of good memories. Obviously this is where I started and got my first opportunity. I learned a lot here and was treated well by ownership and by the fans. It just brings back a lot of memories. It seems like it was yesterday, but it’s been eight years already.”
The Nationals franchise Acta took over in 2007 and then departed in 2009 bore very little resemblance to this one. That team was so far away from real success that ownership presented Acta with a surprise bonus check after he won 73 games as a rookie skipper, just as a thank you for helping the club avoid being a league-wide embarrassment despite a barebones payroll.
These days, the Nationals are aiming for their fourth division title in six years, with a payroll that has consistently ranked in the sport’s top 10 and a farm system that has churned out big names that have contributed both in Washington and as trade bait for other organizations. A team that drew an average crowd of 22,000 in 2009 is now headed for its fifth consecutive season averaging more than 30,000 fans per game.
“I’m very happy to see how things have turned around over the last five, six years,” Acta said. “The fans here deserve that. I mean, this is the capital of the United States. You deserve to have a team like that.”
As much as everyone at the time wanted to believe this ascension was possible, the cold reality was that this franchise was in a much deeper hole than anyone was willing to publicly admit. It required the bottoming out of back-to-back 100-loss seasons (ensuring the selections of No. 1 draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper) and it required the scandal of a Dominican prospect who lied about his age and identity (leading to general manager Jim Bowden’s resignation and Mike Rizzo’s promotion) and it required the understanding of ownership how to properly allocate resources to build a successful organization.
Acta wished he could have been part of the entire process, but deep down he knew that was unlikely.
“I always had the timeframe: It takes more than three years to rebuild an organization,” he said. “And when we started here in 2007, it was a tough situation. The farm system was dry. We had nothing. If you look around, Ryan Zimmerman is the only guy left. That tells you a lot. And in the big leagues, there’s only Ryan Zimmerman and then two years later guys like Tyler Clippard that came from the outside and Jordan Zimmermann that came from the system.
“Other than that, it was very rough. It was Zimmerman and a bunch of other guys. Cristian Guzman, Austin Kearns had some experience. But it was really rough because of the farm system being so depleted. And it takes a while. Jim tried to do his best, but it was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle with a bunch of guys who had shady makeup. He always felt like we could turn them around here. It didn’t work.
“But Rizzo and the scouting department did a tremendous job rebuilding this. And then the Lerners stepped in, and you have a tremendous franchise now, which is what you always wanted. But it’s hard to wait five, six, seven years with the same guy at the helm. I understand that.”
Acta’s reputation remained strong throughout baseball after his firing. He quickly had job offers from both the Indians and Astros and wound up taking a three-year deal in Cleveland, even though that was another rebuilding club. He was fired at the end of his third season with a .446 winning percentage, significantly better than the .385 mark he posted in 2 1/2 years in Washington.
Acta stepped away from the field after that. He and his wife, Cindy, moved from their longtime home in Kissimmee, Fla., to a condo on the beach near St. Petersburg. He watched his daughters, Jenny and Leslie, go to college. He did some television work for ESPN. And he continued to work in Dominican baseball.
But when the opportunity came to join Scott Servais’ staff in Seattle, Acta jumped at the opportunity. He always had a solid reputation as a third base coach with the Expos and Mets. And he was ready to get back into uniform.
“I knew I was going to come back, but I thought it was great to be away from the field, because then I could be outside looking in and see how different managers do things,” he said. “And here, I’m loving it. I’m around Scotty. He does things a little differently than I used to do it. I’ve learned a lot. I came from the Frank Robinson/Willie Randolph school, guys that were old school. And nowadays, that doesn’t work. So I’m seeing different ways how to do things and how to improve the direct relationship with players. It’s been a great experience. The last five years I haven’t been managing, it’s been outstanding. Because I’m seeing different ways. And if I do get another chance, I can put that all into practice.”
The knock on Acta as a manager was that he didn’t know how to relate to players. He never played above Double-A, and he was only 37 when the Nationals hired him as manager. Eternally upbeat and optimistic, he didn’t really know how and when to get upset and put his foot down.
He insists he has learned much since then. And, if given the opportunity to manage again, wouldn’t be entirely the same guy.
“Absolutely I’d do a bunch of things different,” he said. “Not the way I approach the game or run the game. But how to treat people and how to build a relationship with the players. That’s something I’ve learned over the years. I could’ve done better with that. But it was mainly because I came from the Frank Robinson and Willie Randolph school. Now I’m being exposed to the new wave of managers, Scotty and (Joe) Maddon and how all the other new guys do it. It’s a different game now, the way you have to approach the young players.”
Whether he gets another opportunity is another matter. He’s still only 48, but managers with a career .418 winning percentage who have been fired twice don’t typically get a third chance.
No matter what, Washington will forever hold a special place in Acta’s heart. His family made the trip here with him for this series. He spent the afternoon saying hello to dozens of old friends, whether high-ranking club executives or security guards on the field.
Even though the Nationals are now in their 13th season of play, Acta still has managed more games (410) than anybody else who has held this role.
No matter what happened eight years ago, there’s no hard feelings.
“That’s always important,” Acta said. “All you can control is to be a good person off the field. And I didn’t take it personally because I understood. I knew the life of a rebuilding manager is 2 1/2 years. That’s the average. And that’s what I lasted here. In Cleveland, I lasted three. But you can’t take it personally. It’s part of the game. I understood the direction they were going here. I’ve never been bitter about it.”