Acta's hard work, perseverance pays off
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Tears streamed down Manny Acta's face that day when the National Anthem played.
"Until that moment, I wasn't sure I was in the big leagues," he said.
It was Opening Day in Montreal in 2002, a landmark time in his life. After 16 years in the Minor Leagues, Acta was wearing a Major League uniform for the first time.
He'd been hired to be part of Frank Robinson's coaching staff at the beginning of Spring Training that year, and even if it wasn't exactly the career path he had in mind, it was a day that felt richly rewarding.
Ten years later, Acta is one of baseball's most highly regarded young managers; a bright, ambitious 43-year-old in his third season with the Indians.
Sometimes, the tough road is also the most rewarding. Acta arrived in the United States in 1986 after being signed by the Astros in his native Dominican Republic. He was 17 years old and spoke virtually no English.
But he had dreams. He wanted to provide for his family and to make it big. He'd known Dominican big leaguers like Tony Fernandez and George Bell and hoped to do the things they'd done.
"My biggest issue that first year was ordering food," he said. "When we were in Sarasota, [Fla.,] [Minor League instructor] Rick Aponte would take us to a Burger King, and he'd tell us, `Whoever can order food, I'm going to pay for it.'
"I learned how to say, `Chicken sandwich and vanilla shake.' I went there for two months and asked for the same thing every time. The lady would ask if I wanted fries, and I'd say, `Chicken sandwich and vanilla shake.' She'd ask if I wanted something to drink, and I'd say, `Chicken sandwich and vanilla shake.'" By the end of that season, something remarkable had happened. When an executive with the Astros met with the team's rookies, he asked Manny Acta to raise his hand.
Dan O'Brien congratulated him for learning the new language faster than any Minor Leaguer he could remember. "You're going to translate the whole meeting for me," O'Brien told him.
How did he learn so quickly?
"I'm not saying I was great," Acta said. "I could communicate. In talking to Tony Fernandez growing up, I learned that I needed to adjust to here. I remember him carrying a book called 'Basic English.' It was very embarrassing to not understand a word that's being said in the meetings.
"I watched television and listened to my English-speaking teammates. It was one day at a time. Baseball does such a good job teaching English in their Dominican academies now. Back then, it was nonexistent. I felt it was embarrassing if someone told you to go right, and you went left because you didn't know. They'd assume you were not smart enough. We have the bad habit of saying, `Yes, yes, yes,' at everything they tell us. We're embarrassed to admit we don't understand."
Acta couldn't have known it at the time, but he'd made an impression that helped get him to Montreal that day in 2002. Seven years earlier, the Astros called him in and told him his playing career was over, but he'd made such a good impression that the organization had a job for him.
"It was sad, but it was also like a relief," he said. "My last year or so, I knew. I was in Double-A in 1990. In 1991, when I showed up to Spring Training, they pulled me aside and said, `We don't think you're going to play in the big leagues.'
"At first, it was hard. (Astros Minor League manager) Rick Sweet had a good meeting with me and said, 'They think highly of you here.' I was like, 'OK, I'm not that good. I know that. I'm going to start my career as a coach.' It was comforting to know people liked you. I knew that year at camp, 50 guys were going to be told to go home. I knew I wasn't going home. Right away, I set out my goal. OK, I didn't make it as a player. I've got to make it as a coach."
Acta coached some and went to scouting school. Finally, at 24, he became a manager in Class A baseball. For the next six seasons, he became a huge influence on dozens of youngsters, teaching them not just the fundamentals of the game, but how to behave like Major Leaguers.
"When I got to the United States, I saw the American players as the enemies," Acta said. "All I knew was the graffiti you'd see on the walls, things like that. We came over here defensive. We came to realize they were just like us. They happened to speak a different language. You just need to treat people the way you want to be treated."
Acta's life began to change at that point. First, Astros farm director Tim Purpura told him, "We think you've seen enough games in Class A."
The Astros wanted him to coach at a higher level, but before that happened, he got a telephone call from a former Astros coach, Tommy McCraw.
"Would you be interested in joining Frank Robinson's staff in Montreal?" McCraw asked.
McCraw had intended on hiring someone else, but was urged to consider Acta.
"Do I know him?" McCraw asked.
Yes, you do, the manager was told.
"Is that the kid who used to come over to the Major League complex and throw batting practice during Spring Training?" McCraw asked.
Within two years, Acta was getting interviewed for big league jobs. The Nationals took a chance on him after the 2006 season.
"Obviously, handling personnel and working with people is the most important thing," he said. "The strategy isn't the hardest part of the job. There's no right or wrong. You either bunt, or you don't bunt. It's about working with people and creating the right atmosphere so people will run through a wall for you."
The Nationals fired him midway through his third season, in 2009. Six months later, both the Indians and Astros offered him their big league managing jobs.
Acta has come so far in such a short amount of time that there are still days he can hardly believe it all.
"I live with an attitude of gratitude," he said. "There's still a dirt road in front of my house. I grew up in a wooden house with a sheet metal roof, a dirt road in front and a sugarcane field in the back. Now I'm managing in the big leagues. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think it would happen."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.