Better off Ned

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Bob Boone

Royals’ manager: 1995-97

Record: 181-206

How it ended: Boone was fired 82 games into the 1997 season, barely two months after he was given a contract extension and a strong vote of confidence.

Best remembered for: The Boone-o-Meter, a daily chart in the local Kansas City Star that counted how many lineups he used. In 1996, his one full season – Boone’s first season was shortened by the strike – the Boone-o-Meter calculated that he changed lineups 152 times in 161 games.

* * *

BALTIMORE — All around them is music and interviews and sweat and hugs. It is moments after Kansas City has beaten Baltimore in the Royals’ first American League Championship Series game in 29 years. The Royals didn’t just win a game, though. They won a 10-inning “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequel, a heart-stopping contest splattered with unlikely home runs and breathtaking catches and magnificent comebacks and bizarre failures and rolling boulders and attacking marauders and all those things that are good about baseball.

Go, shawty, it’s your birthday

We’re gonna party like it’s your birthday

We’re gonna sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday

And … “TURN DOWN THAT OLD MUSIC MAN”

That is Kansas City’s brilliant center fielder Lorenzo Cain shouting down the music so he can hear the questions people throw at him, and, to his left, third baseman Mike Moustakas talks about what it feels like to blast another October homer, and to his left the veteran Raul Ibanez, who is not even on the active roster, studies video of players so he can offer advice. Reporters and television cameras and Royals staffers mill erratically around the clubhouse like electronic football pieces.

And, near the door, Royals general manager Dayton Moore hugs manager Ned Yost and leans in close to Yost’s ear to say something.

“It’s a funny thing about managing the best Kansas City baseball team in three decades. Not many people tell Ned Yost that he’s doing a great job”

“You managed a fantastic game tonight,” Moore says quietly. “Sticking with (Kelvin) Herrera and (Wade) Davis for two innings, that took a lot of guts. They won us the game. You managed a great, great game. You did a great job.”

When Ned Yost smiles broadly – something that isn’t all that common — his cheeks redden somewhat so that he looks a bit like a beardless Santa Claus. He hugs Moore even tighter. It’s a funny thing about managing the best Kansas City baseball team in three decades. Not many people tell Ned Yost that he’s doing a great job.

* * *

Tony Muser

Royals’ manager: 1997-2002

Record: 317-431

How it ended: Muser was fired 23 games into the 2002 season. He was informed of his firing by reporters in the lobby of the team hotel.

Best remembered for: The cookie and milk quote. The Royals lost a game where they made four errors, and a furious Muser charged into the press conference and announced, “Chewing on cookies and drinking milk and praying is not going to get it done. … I’d like to see them pound tequila rather than cookies and milk because nobody’s going to get us out of this but us.”

* * *

You would think they would be naming Kansas City roads after Edgar Frederick Yost III, the regular guy everyone calls Ned. You would think they’d feature a Ned Yost barbecue sandwich over at Oklahoma Joe’s – that wonderful Kansas City barbecue restaurant in a gas station – or that the Boulevard Brewing Company would create a special Ned Yost Pale Ale in his honor.

You would think that everyone from Omaha to Oklahoma City, from Dodge City to Columbia would love the man who has managed more games than any Royals manager ever, the man who guided the Royals into the playoffs after the longest postseason drought in American sports, the man who is at the helm as this team wins heart-stopping game after heart-stopping game this October. The Royals are one victory from a World Series, as impossible as those words may sound, and you would think that there must be a Heartland love affair going on with the manager of this miracle team.

Well. It’s complicated.

Ned Yost greets his adoring public. (Getty Images)

Ned Yost has a unique knack for, well, irritating the bejeebers out of baseball fans. He seems to do this with a specially designed three-pronged plan.

  1. Yost makes numerous questionable strategic moves.
  2. He tends to explain these questionable strategic moves in colorful ways that baffle more than the moves themselves (for this, I have coined the verb, “Yostifying”).
  3. He gets very defensive when any of this is pointed out to him.

An example: In mid-September, the Royals were playing the last-place Boston Red Sox in the heat of Kansas City’s first real pennant race since the Ronald Reagan administration. In the sixth inning, with the bases loaded, Yost had his ninth or tenth best reliever, Aaron Crow, face Daniel Nava with the bases loaded. Nava homered.

So that was the questionable strategic move.

Yost’s first comment was more lament than explanation; Yost had pitched Crow in that spot instead of Kelvin Herrera, who had not given up a home run all year or any kind of run in months. Yost spoke of the situation the way someone might when their roof is damaged by the weather: “It’s frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead.”

So that was the colorful commentary on the questionable move.

And then, finally, there was his irritation when it was suggested to him that he did not have to wait one more out, he actually could have, you know, brought in Herrera earlier since the bases were loaded and he is, after all, the manager. “I had confidence in Aaron Crow,” he grumped. “That’s why! Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth inning. Kelvin’s is the seventh.”

And there was the defensive reaction.

This sort of thing has happened a lot the last few years. Then again, it also happened in a time when people did not know the Royals would make the playoffs, long before Kansas City what has so far been a magical postseason run. The Royals seemed in real danger of blowing the season and, in the September heat, Ned Yost seemed to be melting.

And that, it seems, had happened before.

* * *

Tony Pena

Royals manager: 2002-05

Record: 198-285

How it ended: Pena quit 33 games into the 2005 season, citing mental exhaustion (“I haven’t been eating, and I haven’t been sleeping”) and a belief he’d run out of ways to turn around the team. There seemed to be various personal reasons involved as well.

Best remembered for: His many loony stunts – many of which worked in 2003 when he had the Royals in first place for much of the season and was named the American League manager of the year. But by 2004, his various offbeat maneuvers, such as jumping in the shower with his clothes on and guaranteeing a pennant when the team was mired in last place, no longer entertained or inspired.

* * *

Ned Yost never saw the punch coming. He had taken over a Milwaukee Brewers team that was in the dumps, a team that had lost 106 games the year before, a team that had not managed even a break-even record in a decade. His job, as he understood it, was to play the kids, teach them how to be Major Leaguers, coax them through the land mines and over the barbed wire fences until they were ready to hold them own. Then he would get to win with them.

He did it. All of it. Yost was for a time a backup big league catcher who couldn’t really hit and couldn’t really throw … but he cared a lot. His father had been an All-American football player, and Yost played baseball with a football player’s intensity. Managers wanted him around. When he finished playing, Bobby Cox wanted him on the Atlanta Braves staff, where he was part of a team that always won. “He’s just the greatest guy,” Cox would say.

The Brewers lost 94 games his first year, 94 again his second, but by 2005 they started to hold their own. Yost was from the Bobby Cox school of discipline, hard work, closing ranks and us-against-the-world. By 2007, the young players, his kids, were grown up – Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart and the like – and they raced out to an 8½-game lead in late June. They were tied for first place as late as Sept. 18.

Then it kind of fell apart. The Brewers lost seven of 10 to fall out of the playoff race. That can happen to teams unaccustomed to contending, of course. What was weird is that it looked like Yost, who had been through many pennant races with the Braves, was unraveling. He bristled at questions. He openly ripped the press and the umpires in equal measure. He seemed to be drinking too much coffee. In the last week of the season, he was thrown out of three games. One day after calling the umpiring “a joke,” he said, “I stand by everything I said.”

It was odd. By then there were already lots of complaints from Brewers fans about the rigid way he used his pitchers and the seemingly destructive loyalty he showed to players when they weren’t playing well and his pungent unwillingness to admit mistakes. But, hey, this was the Brewers’ first winning-season in forever. He was growing with the team. When Yost barked, “For anybody to think this year was a failure or we didn’t accomplish anything, they’re dead wrong,” well, that made a lot of sense.

“The Brewers lost seven of 10 to fall out of the playoff race. That happens, of course. But what was weird is that it looked like Yost was unraveling.”

Then, in 2008, the Brewers improved. They got some young pitching to go with their powerful offense. They entered September with the second-best record in the National League and a 5½-game lead in the wild card.

And then, again, freefall. The Brewers began September by losing four in a row. Then they lost three in a row. Then they lost four in a row again. The power had disappeared, the pitching staff was fading, and the bullpen teetering. When everyone looked to the manager, well, Ned Yost once again seemed unnerved by it all.

“I don’t sense that they’re pressing,” Yost told reporters.

“If you start worrying about it, it puts a weight on you that you don’t need,” he said after the first four-game losing streak.

“We’re not doing anything different now than we were doing (when we were winning),” he insisted when the playoff lead began shrinking.

On Sept. 15, with just 12 games left in the season and the Brewers tied for the wild-card lead, Milwaukee did something more or less unprecedented: They fired Ned Yost. It was staggering. And Yost never saw it coming.

“He didn’t have all the answers for what was going on,” the team’s general manager Doug Melvin said sadly. “I’m not sure I have all the answers.”

Yost didn’t say much of anything other than he was shocked. He could have ripped the organization, but he did not. Instead he went to his farm in Georgia and shut everything out of his life. He turned off baseball. He went hunting and talked to friends and disappeared.

A thousand times he asked himself: What the hell did I do wrong?

* * *

Buddy Bell

Royals manager: 2005-07

Record: 174-263

How it ended: In August of 2007, Bell announced he would not return to the Royals the following year. He insisted that he was not pressured to leave; he just wanted to spend time with his family. Ten days after the season ended, he joined the Chicago White Sox player development department.

Best remembered for: The way he endured awful baseball. The Royals went on an epic 19-game losing streak shortly after Bell took over, leaving little doubt about the theme of his administration. In the midst of another losing streak, he was told that at least things can’t get worse. He shrugged and offered his grand statement of being a Royals manager. “I never say it can’t get worse,” he said.

* * *

Dayton Moore isn’t going to tell you that he agrees with every strategic move Ned Yost makes. He doesn’t. He gripes when he’s watching games just like everybody else. What he will tell you is something else: It doesn’t matter much. The stuff everybody always talks about — the pitching changes, the lineup cards, the in-game decisions — they are important as far as that goes. But they are not what being a big-league manager is all about.

“Strategy is just strategy, everybody in and around the game disagrees about moves,” Moore says. “You have thoughts about strategy. I have thoughts about strategy. Ned has thoughts. Every fan has thoughts. That’s part of what makes the game fun.

“But I’ll tell you what makes Ned Yost a great manager: He’s a leader. You look at his energy level. You look at how positive he is every day. You look at how loyal he is to this organization and to his players. The players play for him. That’s what counts. He has a great coaching staff, and he lets them do their jobs. These things matter more than strategy. … Just about any strategy will work if you execute.”

Moore is aware that many Royals fans have not warmed up to Yost even with the team winning. He vaguely understands it. There have been a few high-profile strategic blunders, such as one bizarre pitching decision in July that ended with Yost conceding, “I outsmarted myself.” There have been a few times Yost has said things that did not come off very well, like the time after a gripping Royals victory when he seemed to gripe about the crowd being too small and another time, after a tough Royals loss, when he suggested that his players played nervously because there was too big a crowd.

In these playoffs, a nation has seen some of Yost’s offbeat choices. In the Oakland wild-card game, for instance, Yost decided to use starter Yordano Ventura in an odd relief role rather than go with one of his extraordinary relievers – the Royals’ dominant three-man closing crew of Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland is the team’s greatest strength.

Yost insists on leading off shortstop Alcides Escobar, despite his career .299 on-base percentage, and insists on playing beat-up veteran Omar Infante, though Infante is obviously hurt and hitting .212 since the middle of July (.185 in the postseason). Yost also has gotten sacrifice bunt happy in the postseason.

The gears are turning in there. (Getty Images)

The players, though, keep on winning for him. “We all know, Ned’s got our backs,” pitcher James Shields says. The Royals best overall player, Alex Gordon, talks at length about how big a role Yost played in his emergence after he was sent to the minors to learn how to play the outfield. “I know that his belief in me has been a big part of my story,” Gordon says. Ibanez, who was brought in more for his leadership than his bat, sees how Yost lets the players be themselves. “This is a fun team, a team with a lot of really fun personalities,” Ibanez says. “I give Ned a lot of credit for letting these young players breathe and enjoy playing the game.”

And this is Moore’s point too: All the strategic things Ned Yost does that may drive people crazy are a miniscule part of a very big job.

“Let me tell you how I look at strategy,” Moore says. “To me, every single one of those 25 players on the roster should be able to do whatever job Ned asks of them. If they can’t do the job, it’s my fault – those are the players I gave him. Those are the players that we, as an organization, targeted and acquired and developed. If they’re not good enough to get outs in the sixth inning or get a key two-out hit, that’s our fault.

“Ned’s job, and the coach’s job, is to get these players to be a team, and I don’t think anyone could argue with how this team has come together.”

* * *

Trey Hillman

Royals’ manager: 2008-10

Record: 152-207

How it ended: Hillman was fired 35 games into the 2010 season, which led to a tear-filled press conference. Moore had gone to Japan to hire Hillman, and after the firing, Moore broke down as he said, “I love Trey Hillman.”

Best remembered for: A spring-training lecture. The Royals had played a sloppy exhibition game, and when it ended, while fans were filing for the exits, Hillman made his team stay on the field, and he lambasted them for their haphazard play. Moore, seeing the scene out his office window, would say it reiterated for him Hillman’s energy. One veteran player, however, called it, “Mickey Mouse. If he wanted to yell at us, he could have done it in the clubhouse.”

* * *

Ned Yost insists that he doesn’t read or listen to what other people say. He says that doesn’t care how he’s portrayed, and maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. There aren’t many people in the world who don’t care at all how they’re viewed.

After the Milwaukee firing, Yost kept trying to come up with his big mistake. For a time, he decided that it came down to how he treated the media. Yost, in a candid moment, admits being too prickly, too easily threatened. He was great friends with the race car driver Dale Earnhardt – Yost wears No. 3 in Earnhardt’s honor – and that’s how The Intimidator was too.

“Dayton Moore isn’t going to tell you that he agrees with every strategic move ... Instead, he will tell you that strategy doesn’t matter much, not when you’re looking at the big picture and what really matters”

An example: In one press conference in Baltimore, Yost misspoke and said “Coleman” (as in Royals relief pitcher Louis Coleman, who is not on the postseason roster) when he meant “Collins” (Royals reliever Tim Collins).

When a reporter said: “First just a quick clarification. I think you said Coleman …” Yost clearly sat up in his chair and a hard look crossed his face.

“I said Collins!” he said abruptly.

“OK, I’m sorry, I must have misheard you,” the reporter said, at which point Yost’s face softened a bit and his shoulders slumped a touch.

“I might have said, ‘Coleman,’” he said much more quietly, with a bit of a sheepish smile on his face. “I don’t know. But my mind said, ‘Collins.’”

This is the self-deprecating guy that Moore knows, that the players see, that friends like comedian Jeff Foxworthy swear by. But he finds it hard to let anyone else see it. Foxworthy is Yost’s hunting partner in the off-season, and he says that Ned Yost is one of the funnier people he knows — a rather astonishing statement about someone who so rarely comes across with a light touch in the media.

After a while, though, Yost decided his mistakes in Milwaukee went beyond how he dealt with the media. He was too unyielding, too sure that he knew best, too determined to do things rather than let things play out.

“When I came up (as a player), I was the guy who would try to run through a wall,” Yost says. “I was always hustling. … So you start your managerial career the same way, trying to set a rigid set of guidelines. ‘This is what I want you to do. This is how I want you to act. This is how I want you to play. This is how I want you to act when we win. This is how I want you to act when we lose. This is how I want you to act on the plane.’

“And I think I came to the realization that these guys are all unique. They’ve got youthful enthusiasm and they come from a different generation than I came from. … Why not just let them be who they are?”

And strategy? Yost’s shoulders rise again.

“If it works out then I look smart,” he says plainly. “If it doesn’t, then I’m stupid. And that’s just the way it works.”

* * *

Ned Yost

Royals’ manager: 2010-present

Record: 373-402

How it ended: It hasn’t ended yet. The Royals are in the playoffs for the first time since 1985. They’re in the running for the World Series.

Best remembered for: It’s an open question.

* * *

The only Royals manger to win a World Series was Dick Howser. He was a 5-foot-8 tough former shortstop who loved baseball with everything he had, wasn’t very warm or open to his players and used to say “piss on it, let’s get it done,” whenever things went wrong. Howser lost the first eight playoff games he managed and was widely viewed as a loser. Then his team won. These days, Howser’s No. 10 is on the base of the scoreboard at Kauffman Stadium, one of three Royals numbers retired.

I was once asking the late Dan Quisenberry, the great relief pitcher, why the team won for Howser. Quiz was a poet as well as a pitcher – he had written a poem about Howser with “piss on it” as a refrain – and he told me: “We didn’t win for Dick. We won for each other.”

And then, feeling like he had not said enough, he added: “Dick didn’t get in the way of how we felt about each other. That was what made him special.”

It’s something that stayed with me. Managing a baseball team isn’t as simple as math. Brilliant moves can fail miserably. Illogical moves can win games. Smart managers sometimes lose. Clueless managers sometimes win. The best manager in baseball history might be Casey Stengel, who was an utter disaster before the Yankees hired him. The best manager in baseball history might be Earl Weaver, whose teams lost three of the four World Series they reached. Joe Torre was just inducted in the Hall of Fame; when he was hired by the Yankees his career record was more than 100-games worse than .500.

Ned Yost’s strategies often don’t make sense. His explanations often make even less. There are many people who worry that Yost’s biggest blunder is yet to come and it will come at a particularly inopportune time in these playoffs. But those are just worries. There are a hundred anonymous quotes I could share from people around baseball about Yost’s managerial temperament and competence. But, maybe that’s the point. Those comments are anonymous and off-the-record.

Meanwhile, on-the-record, the Kansas City Royals are having a glorious and wonderful season that is not yet close to ending. Some time ago, Ned Yost was asked why he stuck with third baseman Mike Moustakas, a big prospect who had been struggling badly.

“You know what,” he said irritably, “maybe when we get home I can go to the third base tree and pick another third baseman … there is no third baseman tree. You don’t go grab another one. You let him develop.”

Moustakas had another tough year. He was actually sent to the minors for a while. But, he has been Babe Ruth in this postseason. He has four home runs, two of them directly deciding games. And maybe there’s a lesson there. Ned Yost may not get everything right. He may make fans and media types shake our heads too often. But his Royals are winning for the first time in a generation. And there is no manager’s tree.