CLEVELAND -- The longest-tenured "head coach" in Cleveland has designs on actually earning that title, rather than merely having it handed to him by the frequent turnover of the Browns and Cavs. "If we win 100 games this year," manager Manny Acta told the crowd at the Indians' Town Hall Meeting on Thursday night, "maybe Chris [Antonetti] will lock me up like Mike Scioscia." Acta is one of few who seem to believe the Indians are capable of winning 81 games, let alone 100, and his optimistic attitude is precisely what makes him the perfect man for an imperfect job.
Entering his second year on that job, Acta is spending the weekend visiting area malls as part of "Tribe on Tour," spreading the gospel of Indians baseball at a time when plenty of non-believers -- turned off by trades and a bare-bones payroll -- exist, often vocally. Between the sagging local economy, the mass exodus of jobs and bodies and the losses piled up by the professional sports teams (dating back to Opening Day 2010, the Indians, Browns and Cavs are a combined 82-141), Cleveland can be a pretty pessimistic place to live. Yet here is the Dominican-born Acta, exuding positivity in part because he has to, and in part because, well, that's just his nature. "I think there are a lot of positive things going on around here," he said after the Town Hall. "If you look at the other 29 clubs, a lot of clubs would have loved to have the success we had in the mid-90s and 2005 and 2007. It's too bad a lot of people enjoy the negativity instead, and it's too bad they can't clone a million of me and put them in the middle of town." In the absence of a million Actas, the Indians will have to start generating some wins if they're going to win over the hearts and wallets of local sports fans. Coming off a 2010 season in which they drew the lowest attendance in baseball, there are obviously plenty of hearts left to win. What the Indians are selling, at this juncture, is an idea, not a track record, because it remains to be seen whether the assembled youth can consistently and meaningfully contribute at the Major League level. But one thing we have learned during the rebuilding is that in Acta's patience, practice and personality, the Indians have the right man at the helm. "It's exceptionally important for us to clearly articulate where we are as an organization and the belief we have in the future and explain why," said Antonetti, who is entering his first season at general manager but was the point man in the decision to hire Acta. "I think Manny's an unbelievable spokesperson for that. He has the ability to relate to people, he's always honest and upfront, and I think our fans relate to that." What struck me about Acta on the job last year was his hands-on approach. While Eric Wedge's militaristic delegation of responsibilities certainly served its purpose for a time, Acta, who is one of the few managers you'll find wielding a fungo bat, takes more of a coach-like approach. "We use the technique of preach and teach," Acta said. "Baseball is repetition." That plays well on a young, developing team. In time, the Indians hope to see how it plays with a contender. But as the work to get to that level continues, Acta is acting as an educator of the fan base, as well. He points to the recent examples of the 2010 Padres and '09 Rockies (teams that defied all reasonable expectations to contend for -- and in the Rockies' case, claim -- a playoff berth), looks at the Indians' roster and says, "Why not us?" After getting more consistency out of his pitching staff down the stretch in 2010, Acta joked with his coaches that had the season been extended another two months, the Indians might have been in a position to contend. "I expect them to be better," he said of his young players. "That's why we're excited. Those guys had invaluable experience last year. Plus, some of our kids had the experience in [Triple-A] Columbus of winning a championship, and they're going to come up and push those guys. Youth will not be an excuse to not get better." The lessons of Baseball Economics 101 can't be used as an excuse, either, though it certainly played no small part in the Indians' rapid fall from grace after 2007. Acta, dismissed by the last-place Nationals in mid-'09, took this job knowing the climb back to coherence would be a long and difficult one. But he also knew that the job's inherent difficulties were the reasons it was available to him in the first place. Looking forward to his second season with the Indians, the city's longest-tenured sports leader remains as optimistic as ever that if he and his coaches teach the kids well and bring them up right, the Indians will do their part to dispel the negativity that's in the air. "You have to remind people that it's been done before, and we're not selling dreams to anybody," Acta said. "This is reality. This is what this market, this franchise, has to do. We're facing it head-on, and hopefully people understand that."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.