Acta at forefront of Indians' development
Manager seems to be good fit for players, Cleveland's goals
CLEVELAND -- The 2010 season will end this weekend how it started for Manny Acta: with a trip to Chicago.
What has transpired in between is another step in Acta's managerial journey, one that's very much incomplete. His first year donning an Indians uniform concludes Sunday, but the 41-year-old native of the Dominican Republic hopes there are many more to come.
For a man whose recent experiences could have soured his view of managing at the Major League level, optimism springs eternal. The Tribe's 68-91 record through Thursday, unsightly as it may be, won't alter that mindset.
"We can turn this thing around faster than a lot of people think," Acta said.
There are reclamation projects, then there were the 2007 Nationals.
Acta's inaugural year in Washington, in his first big league managing opportunity, produced a 73-89 season. Some might label that a disappointment, but given the expectations -- or lack thereof -- bestowed on Acta's team, it earned him a sixth-place finish in voting for the 2007 National League Manager of the Year Award.
"We overachieved big-time my first year, and it was a lot of fun," Acta said. "It was a complete rebuilding process. We didn't even have a starting rotation. Our No. 1 guy was supposed to be John Patterson, and he was hurt, so we basically had to come up with a starting rotation in Spring Training. The situation was Ryan Zimmerman, and then we were trying to find a core group of guys that could be added to him.
"It was a very valuable experience, because the challenge was big."
It became even bigger, so big the Nationals dismissed Acta on July 13, 2009, after he went 85-163 in the 1 1/2 seasons that followed his promising debut campaign.
Fair or unfair, Acta had been deemed expendable, a puzzle piece that needed to go for Washington to regain its footing as a franchise.
Acta landed on his feet three months later, as the Indians on Oct. 25, 2009, named him their 40th manager in club history.
Before he even managed a game for the Tribe, Acta knew he'd immersed himself into a situation better than the one he inherited with the Nationals.
"Coming here has been easier because of the farm system and the young players that are already in place," Acta said. "There are less ingredients that we have to get in order to take the next step."
Whereas Zimmerman was essentially the lone core player at Acta's disposal in Washington, he now oversees a team that -- when at full strength -- will feature building blocks such as Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana and Grady Sizemore.
Injuries forced three of the aforementioned four to miss an extended portion of the 2010 campaign, a main reason Acta believes his first year with the Indians unfolded the way it has.
"This is a club that cannot afford to absorb the type of injuries we absorbed," Acta said. "We're not the type of team that can have somebody get hurt, then plug in a guy who hit 35 home runs two years ago or go out and get a someone. It really hurt us."
And so, Acta's efforts to rebuild the Tribe can't be measured solely by wins and losses. Prior to being considered one of baseball's elite, a team must first undergo a process the Indians put on full display for all to see this season: player development.
But if one thinks that rebuilding gives Acta an excuse to accept losing, think again.
"I want to come out every year that I manage and prove everybody wrong, even if I have a rebuilding ballclub," Acta said. "I don't enjoy losing, but the main objective here is to develop these guys and turn this franchise around. It's not that we don't worry about winning and losing. When we leave Spring Training, our goal is always to win the division. We don't just say, 'Hey guys, don't worry about wins and losses.'
"What we're worried about is getting them to learn how to win, and what that takes."
As he now teaches his players, Acta can recall a time not long ago when he played the role of student. A three-year stint on Frank Robinson's Expos staff from 2002-04 gave Acta his first taste of coaching in the Majors.
It tasted sweet.
"I benefited a lot by starting my career under Frank," Acta said. "Those three years were priceless because he gave me a lot of responsibilities. I was the third-base coach, infield instructor and in charge of the defense, so that really helped me gain confidence at the big league level."
Years later, Acta still seeks out the advice of Robinson -- a Hall of Famer whose picture hangs prominently in Acta's office -- one of his many mentors.
"I'm a guy who has tried to take something out of anybody I've worked for or come in contact with," Acta said. "I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to pick up the phone and call guys like Frank Robinson or Bobby Cox and know they're going to be there to answer my questions. Those guys have been very big influences on my baseball life."
Acta is doing his own influencing these days. In some ways, he might not even realize it.
When Shelley Duncan watches Acta, he imagines himself.
Without a role in the Indians' everyday lineup, Duncan has spent countless hours sitting on Acta's bench this season. The outfielder uses that opportunity to follow his skipper's strategic progression through a game -- not as a way to pass time, but because Duncan one day hopes to be in Acta's position.
"It's been a privilege learning from him," Duncan said.
Consequently, Duncan has gained a new respect for a job often met with harsh criticism.
"I appreciate a lot of the stuff Manny does after the fact," Duncan said. "He makes decisions that at first you might feel upset about, but once you understand why he's doing it and the reasoning behind it, you really appreciate it.
"He's done a really good job putting guys in positions to succeed, knowing their strengths, knowing when they need days off, and teaching them the right and wrong way to play the game."
Then there's the manner in which Acta handles the media, no easy task in a sport where emotions run so high.
"One thing I admire more than anything is how he talks about his players," Duncan said. "He's extremely honest, but not degrading. There are plenty of managers out there who the easy thing to do would be to throw their players under the bus. He doesn't."
What Acta has done is promote a stress-free environment in one of the Majors' youngest clubhouses, where footballs are tossed just as often as baseballs.
Still, the question lingers: Will Acta cultivate a winner?
Chris Perez has experienced both ends of the spectrum.
The reliever's first big league manager was Tony La Russa, a man whose personality could be justly described as anti-Acta. Drafted and developed by the Cardinals before debuting with them in 2008, Perez spent one-plus season under La Russa, a period in which he saw firsthand how a manager's personality can weigh on players' minds.
"Tony was very hands on and trying to control a lot of stuff, especially with young guys," Perez said. "Now, it's kind of refreshing for me just to come to the ballpark, do my job and not have to always worry about saying, 'Hey, Tony' and kind of sucking up to him, you know? He's like the opposite of Manny.
"In that respect, Manny's awesome to play for, a great player's manager. You don't have to look over your shoulder and say, 'Am I doing something wrong?' All you have to do is worry about the game. In that way, it's nice."
But can a great player's manager become a winning manager? For Perez, it comes down to one factor.
"The most important thing is having the respect of your players," Perez said. "[Rays skipper] Joe Maddon has that kind of personality, and they're winners. The players just need to know that when you do say something, we have to do it.
"I definitely think Manny's personality could work for a winning team. It takes the pressure away. If a young guy gets called up and goes 0-for-4 and he's maybe thinking, 'Oh no, I'm going to get sent down soon,' Manny comes back and says, 'Hey, get 'em tomorrow. No big deal.' Then they're like, 'Oh, OK.' That definitely helps.
"We're going to make errors and dumb plays, but if you come down too hard on them they're going to stop being aggressive, instead of just letting them play and say, 'Next time, maybe do it this way.' He has a great approach, especially for a rebuilding team."
If there's one part of him that hasn't changed over the past four years, from his very first day as a Major League manager, it's Manny Acta's refusal to fear failure. Losses have piled up, but his confidence remains high. The way Acta sees it, he -- like the Tribe team he leads -- must first endure growing pains before reaching a desired destination.
"Every one of those managers who sit at the top right now, they've gone through what I am going through," Acta said. "To me, it would be very rewarding to turn this thing around. It would be special."
As for his Indians, they've gained instant admiration for an individual they would like nothing more than to reward with a winner.
"In a situation like this, it can go one of two ways," Perez said. "You can either accept that you're going to have struggles, or you can deny it and try to overcome them. I don't know if Manny's accepted it, but he works with it. He brings enthusiasm every day, which makes you come to work wanting to play hard for him."
That enthusiasm fuels Acta, regardless of the environment he inhabits. Asked this week whether he was looking forward to the offseason, Acta said he would manage into December if he could -- proof that the Tribe's struggles haven't dampened his spirits in the slightest.
No, the Indians are not a finished product. Their climb back toward contention, much like Acta's managerial journey, is incomplete. And in that respect, the two might be a perfect fit.
"I find it very fulfilling to see these guys make progress," Acta said. "I show up to work every day making sure I've prepared myself in the best way possible to give them a chance to succeed, win as many games as possible and not worry about the perception of my win-loss record. At the end of the day, people are going to realize that you're probably about as good as your roster.
"Everyone has a different job in the big leagues. Some of us come into Spring Training expected to win with the roster and payrolls we have, and then some of us are expected to rebuild, teach young players how to play the game and take them to the next level. I have to accept that, stay true to myself and do my very best."
John Barone is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.