Going Deep: Manny Acta And Fredi Gonzalez

The National League East is feeding upon itself. The Marlins canned Joe Girardi as manager and hired Braves coach Fredi Gonazlez. The Nationals said goodbye to Frank Robinson and grabbed top managing prospect Manny Acta from the Mets.

Both Gonzalez and Acta never played in the majors, worked their way up the minor league ladder for years and are now getting their first shots at running a big league team. I sat down with them at the Winter Meetings to discuss their clubs, their Latin American heritage, and what managing today really entails.

ALAN SCHWARZ: This offseason we've seen you two, Bud Black, Ron Washington and Bob Geren all get managing jobs without any previous major league managing experience. What does that say about the industry right now and what the job entails?

FREDI GONZALEZ: I'm glad for the opportunity, because you've got to start someplace. The biggest thing is, "You don't have experience." Well, you can't get experience if you don't do it. I'm not saying anything bad about the Bobby Coxes of the world or Lou Piniella, but I think we need to get guys like Joe Maddon. He waited an awful long time--more time than we have--to get an opportunity, and I hope that continues, that trend.

MANNY ACTA: I'm glad that, I don't want to call it the Recycle Era, it's kind of over. I'm glad they're taking chances on other guys. There are not that many geniuses out there. In this game, once you spend more than 10 years and pay attention to it, there's only so many trick plays and new things in baseball that you can learn that we've not learned. Fredi and I already know that in the eighth inning, game tied, first and second, no outs and our eighth hitter up--even the guy selling popcorn up there knows that you're going to bunt. It's the other part of the game.

SCHWARZ: What role will your Latin American heritage play in being a major league manager?

ACTA: We have to be thankful for what Felipe Alou and Ozzie Guillen have been able to do. Ozzie winning without having the managerial experience that me and Fredi have in the minor leagues and winter ball showed a lot of people what we can do. We can not only play the game, we should also be able to run it and coach and work in the front office. I think what helps me and Fredi a lot is that we're able to relate with these guys.

GONZALEZ: Communicate. If you bring a Spanish-speaking player into an office where the manager doesn't know Spanish, now you've got to bring an interpreter, and the message doesn't get across. I can bring in a guy into my office and say, "You're doing this" or "You're doing this well" and there's no interpreter.

SCHWARZ: You're both replacing very strong personalities--Frank Robinson in Washington and Joe Girardi in Florida, with all his controversy. To what extent do you take the previous manager into account when you step in?

ACTA: For 20 years in the game, regardless of whether it was Frank Robinson, Willie Randolph or whoever, I always tried to pick what I thought was good and makes players click from whoever was around me--from a distance, too. I was not only paying attention to what we were doing in our dugout but also what they were doing in the other dugout. And I've been able to learn from guys like Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Felipe Alou without being with them.

GONZALEZ: I don't even look at it as I'm replacing Joe. Joe did a tremendous job with those kids, and whatever the circumstances were, I haven't really obtained what happened with that. I'm sure that'll come up, and you know what, it was what it was. I'm going to be different, and the players adjust fast. If you treat them fairly, they'll play for anybody.

It's all about the players out there. We could know how to pitch to Carlos Delgado, how to pitch to Chipper Jones, but all of a sudden, that pitch doesn't go where it's supposed to, and it's game over.

Look what happened in the World Series with Jimmy Leyland. They have the bunt coverage on, but the kid throws it into left field five times. They covered that every day since the first day of their baseball career, how to cover a bunt. Everyone knew it was going to happen, and they didn't execute. It's still about the players.

SCHWARZ: Manny, you grew up in the Dominican Republic. Is it true that you were the only kid in the neighborhood with a catcher's mitt?

ACTA: Our population back home, the big majority is poor. I've never been rich, but my dad had a decent job and he was able to provide the equipment that most of the kids weren't as lucky to have. So I was the one able to organize the games and run the games because I had the only catcher's mitt in the whole neighborhood--and to have a ballgame, you need to have a catcher. I could organize things. I've always been able to do that.

SCHWARZ: And Fredi, you were born in Havana.

GONZALEZ: I came over when I was 3 years old. It was a freedom flight. You were able to put your name on a list, and when your name came up, the government knocked on your door and said, "You're leaving tomorrow, 8 o'clock in the morning, and you can't pack anything." This would have been 1966. And that's how we came here. Came to Miami, grew up in Miami.

SCHWARZ: You guys both have extensive experience managing in the minor leagues and in winter ball. How does that prepare you for the majors?

ACTA: When we were managing in the minor leagues, our record wasn't as important as developing the kids. But in winter ball, it's about winning--and also it helps you to deal with the different personalities and egos and organization philosophies. To create a positive atmosphere for these guys, where they want to play and they want to run through a wall for you, that's a key up here.

GONZALEZ: I think the game is easy. I think handling 25 different personalities is 80 percent of the job. When somebody comes in with his head down, make sure you pick that up and say, "What's going on?" Somebody's had a drag-out fight with the wife cause he didn't get up at 3 in the morning to feed the baby. We've all had problems.

ACTA: We're young and can relate to them. We can talk to them about the music they listen to, the clothes they wear. It's not all about baseball--it's getting to know the guy as a person.

SCHWARZ: With the Marlins doing so well last year with so many young players, how much pressure does that put on both of you to succeed right now?

GONZALEZ: That's been addressed a little bit. On paper people can say we've got to get 10 games better, but that's hard. You've got to be healthy, you've got to be lucky. We can improve every player we've got and still end up winning five less games.

ACTA: I'm starting Opening Day thinking that I'm going to win. On paper and payroll, things are not the same. But none of their guys have three cojones. Everyone has the same two cojones.

GONZALEZ: It's funny--Manny and I open up against each other. One of us is going to win and one of us is going to lose.

You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to alanschwarz@baseballamerica.com.