The streets marked off by the policia and the long lines in front of the chicken and cheese empanada vendors were rivaled only by the monstrous lines a few feet away for a bottle of El Presidente beer. More than 3,000 people crowded into Parque Consuelo and in front of a stage full of dignitaries for a celebration in honor of new Nationals manager Manny Acta, a man who left the island a baseball hero a few months ago, but had returned to the Caribbean an island legend only a few months later.
Acta, only the fourth Major League manager from the Dominican Republic, was home again. The locals had been waiting in the park for almost five hours when Acta finally hit the stage to address his people, but the delay did not seem to bother anyone. Acta had finally arrived, in more ways than one, and that's all anybody really cared about on this night.
"I knew my country was behind me, especially my hometown, but not until you see it do you understand," Acta said. "It was unbelievable and they went way out of their way. I really felt blessed. I never gave anybody a problem in the neighborhood, so I guess that's why they always pulled for me."
Manny Acta Night in Consuelo included speeches by Acta, local politicians and a touching address by Acta's younger sister, Carmen, on one platform. On the nearby platform, Acta's immediate and extended family filled 35 white plastic chairs. Acta's mother, Blanca, and his youngest sister, Analym, sat on the edge of their seats in the front row, smiling from ear to ear. Manuel "Manolo" Acta, the proud papa, sat up straight in the back row on the same platform with his arms crossed and an expressionless look on his face. Besides an occasional smile, this is how Manolo sometimes shows pride in public.
Above, fireworks blasted dangerously close to the heads of the Acta family at the conclusion of the ceremony and aside from the obvious fire hazard, the benefits of the colorful pyrotechnics were two-fold -- it delighted the crowd, made up mostly of children, and drowned out the noise of one local who grabbed the microphone and started yelling, "Manny Acta, Manny Acta, Manny Acta, Manny, Manny, Manny, Acta, Acta, Acta, Manny Acta!" at the top of his lungs.
A performance and dance by a local merengue combo capped off the celebration that lasted well past 2 a.m.
"This is an important event for us," said Ramon Toledo, president of Liga Manny Acta, the youth baseball league the Nationals manager sponsors. "We are so proud of Manny Acta and a lot of people wanted to show him how much we love him. If we all did it one by one, it would not be possible. This is how we share our love for Manny."
Acta was initially against the hoopla involved with his homecoming, because he didn't want to be treated differently or singled out in the community that had raised him. He is much more comfortable off the platform and on the dance floor, looking up at a microphone instead of speaking into it.
"I have stayed humble to them," he said. "I am still the same guy. Whether, I am the Nationals manager or the same guy who played Little League baseball or basketball. I knew people were behind me, but I can never imagine this."
Consuelo will forever be in Acta's heart, but the community he knew as a boy has changed. Located in the province of San Pedro and only a few miles away from San Pedro de Macoris, Consuelo's population is an estimated 25,000, which is a lot more than the seven or eight thousand people who lived in the small community when Acta grew up.
Baseball and basketball are still important parts of growing up in Consuelo -- Major Leaguers Alfredo Griffin, Julio Franco, Rico Carty and Sammy Sosa are from there -- but the closing of the nearby sugar cane factory had as big of an impact on sport as it did on the community's economy. The factory sponsored youth league baseball. Without Acta's help and his Liga Acta, the children of Consuelo would not have an organized baseball league.
"Consuelo is a community that prides itself in education and sports," Acta said. "Right now, sports has gone down and we used to produce more players. The crime rate has gone up, and that is not good. There are not enough kids playing baseball right now, but we are trying to change that. We still have education."
|"Everything I do is to make my family proud, represent my town the best way I can. I don't like all the hoopla, but I am glad and I feel proud."|
|-- Manny Acta|
"The first thing he would do is wake up in the morning and go outside to play 'bolas' with his friends, sometimes without eating breakfast," Blanca said. "Then he would play baseball. Sometimes, I would have to spank him because he did not come on time because he was playing 'bolas' all the time. I would say 'Manny, get in this house right now. Quit playing that game!' But he loved that game so much and he was always winning the marbles from the neighborhood kids."
When Blanca recites her dialogue with the young Manny, she speaks in a higher octave and her Spanish doubles in velocity. She also smiles uncontrollable and laughs like there is no tomorrow. This is the source of Manny Acta's sense of humor.
"She lives to laugh and that has helped us get through life," Acta said. "You spend 30 minutes with her on the phone and she is laughing the whole time. That's one of the things that helps you in life, because no matter how tough it is and now matter how much you are struggling, you make the best of what you got and you laugh."
"Her and Dad? I guess they say opposites attract," Acta said. "Dad is kind of grumpy and he can be intimidating. Mom is fun. In my family, they respect me, because I can be disciplined like my dad, but I also have humor. It's a good mix."
The combination of intellect, discipline and humor is a big part of Acta's philosophy as a coach and a manager. Long before he became well known for his work as a coach in Montreal, with the Mets and as skipper of the Nationals, he mastered using these qualities while working as the manager of his hometown Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican winter league. He also won a Dominican league championship and a Caribbean Series title with Santo Domingo's Licey club by using his smarts, but also having some fun along the way.
While in the Dominican Republic recently, Acta threw out the ceremonial first pitch and was honored during the game between the Estrellas and Licey at Estadio Tetelo Vargas in San Pedro de Macoris. The crowd, made up mostly of Acta's family members, went crazy.
"[Estrellas Orientales] are the soul of this town and the region of San Pedro," Acta said. "The team has not won in 38 years, so basically they are the Chicago Cubs of winter ball in the Dominican. This is the town that produces so many big -league players, so there is always hope. The people here support the team and each win like it will be the last one."
Acta might be spending more time in the Dominican Republic than ever. The Nationals have an academy in San Cristoval and are making a strong push into the country. A tryout scheduled to feature 15 to 20 players topped out at around 50 players when the word spread that Acta was going to witness the tryout firsthand. The fact that the club recently signed teenager Esmailyn Gonzalez for more than $1 million likely also garnered the interest of other players looking to make their big-league dreams come true.
"We made a statement by signing Esmailyn that we are players and that we are going to pay if a guy is worth the money," Acta said. "Having me on the team and having a plan, I think we are going to be able to get some players."
The immediate future for the Nationals in the Dominican Republic is to be determined. To say the club will have to overcome a few challenges in the present as the 2007 season approaches is an understatement. The only certainty at the moment is the strong support Acta will receive from his family and friends in Consuelo regardless of where his club finishes in the standings in the National League East.
"Everything I do is to make my family proud, represent my town the best way I can," Acta said. "I don't like all the hoopla, but I am glad and I feel proud. My friend told me that I can't stop the way people feel about me and [it turned out] I could not stop it. I am glad I didn't."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.