Manny Acta went to a P.F. Chang's for dinner one night during spring training in Arizona, finished his meal, cracked open his fortune cookie, and found this:
"Your sports teams will be very successful this year."
The manager of the Cleveland Indians, Acta has but one team. He isn't much for luck and, truthfully, nobody really pays attention to fortune cookies. But he wasn't about to tempt fate. He still has that little slip of paper.
Entering play Saturday night in St. Louis, the Tribe was five games over .500 and one-half game out of first place in the AL Central.
Ranking the performances of major league managers is an almost-impossible task that is as fluid as last night's bullpen and tomorrow's disabled list. The blog-o-sphere is full of such rankings, and they all pretty much regurgitate the same cast of characters.
I came across one the other day that listed Bobby Valentine of the Red Sox No. 1 on its list of best managers. Bobby Valentine?
How about judging managers by those who do the most with the least? Not many, if any, would rank ahead of Acta and Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle, who toil pretty much in anonymity with franchises located about 135 miles apart.
Hurdle's Pirates also are above .500 and in second place, this in the NL Central, where St. Louis and Milwaukee were among teams entering play Saturday looking up at the Bucs.
Hurdle has a legitimate star in Andrew McCutchen (.325, 10 home runs) but has no one else hitting even .280. The Pirates' .226 team batting average ranks 29th of 30 MLB teams, and their 47 home runs are about half the New York Yankees' total. Their on-base percentage is the worst in baseball.
The Pirates do have pretty solid pitching, albeit by a primarily no-name group. The staff ERA is 3.28, and the bullpen is even better at 2.53.
Acta's Indians don't have even that. Their 4.47 ERA is among the worst in baseball, and the bullpen, despite having its moments and a very consistent closer in Chris Perez, is not much stingier. Only one pitching staff in baseball has walked more batters, and only four have surrendered more hits.
Nobody is hitting .300, and if I'd told you three months ago that Jason Kipnis would be the power leader, well, where in the standings would you have expected this team to be?
The Tribe plays small ball about as well as any team in the American League. They do the little things, they steal bases, they draw a lot of walks, they play pretty good defense, and, so far, they've been winning close games.
Detroit was expected to run away with the AL Central title, and the Tigers might still claw their way back with the likes of Miguel Cabrera-Prince Fielder on offense and Justin Verlander-Jose Valverde on the mound. The Tigers are rattling around below .500 and closer to last place than first, and their obvious lament is a well-stocked disabled list that has claimed the best outfielder, starting catcher, and No. 2 starter, among others.
Cleveland's Acta, though, has quietly maneuvered a team with its share of injuries -- the loss of third baseman Jack Hannahan was huge, designated hitter Travis Hafner's power has been missed, and Grady Sizemore has yet to walk to the plate -- and underperforming pitchers and inconsistent hitters to early contention.
So if you're one of those grousing about the job Jim Leyland is doing in Detroit, and there is certainly some grousing going on, then you should be praising the job the stoic, intense Acta is doing in Cleveland.
The Indians were in a similar position about this same time a year ago and faded to a second-place finish, 15 games behind Detroit.
Maybe it will happen again. Maybe it will not.
Acta's first major league managerial job was with a bad Washington Nationals team -- first-time managers aren't hired by the Yankees, after all -- and he was fired midway through his third season with a .385 winning percentage. A few months later, the Indians and Houston Astros literally squared off to see who could hire him first.
I didn't get it. But I'm starting to.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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