Only one man can understand the inner sanctum of Ned Yost’s psyche, but its inhabitant advertises the space as a place of optimism.
“I do not allow negative thoughts into my mind,” Yost said one day last week. “If they start creeping in, I stop it. Kick ’em out.”
Asked for a demonstration of this practice, his hands gripped his chair. His head shook. His eyes bulged. “Stop!” he shouted.
The display could be interpreted as comedy, but Yost is not joking. He credits relentless confidence, in part, for his longevity as a manager.
Inside Yost’s office at Kauffman Stadium, four plaques hang along a wall. They commemorate the 500th, 600th, 700th and 800th victories of his career, four milestones accrued as manager of the Royals.
The fourth was hung a few weeks ago, after the Royals pushed toward the lead in the American League Central and Yost pushed toward a unique place in franchise lore. On Sept. 24, Yost will manage his 771st game for the Royals. He will surpass Dick Howser in September for the longest tenure as skipper since the organization’s dawning in 1969.
As the Royals hunt for October for the first time since 1985, Yost resides on a curious precipice. If the club makes the playoffs, he could win Manager of the Year. If the team falls short, critics will place the blame on his shoulders.
For the organization, the situation is far more nuanced. Yost is under contract through 2015. He retains a healthy relationship with his front office and ownership group. Both general manager Dayton Moore and owner David Glass have vouched for him during the season’s low moments. Yost diverts credit for the club’s success to the passion of his players and the doggedness of his coaching staff.
Even so, the juxtaposition of Yost between hero and goat is fitting. The man is a study in contradictions. He is remote yet loyal, brusque yet protective. He disdains small talk and “his B.S. meter doesn’t go very high,” Moore said. Yet he projects positivity.
He insists the circumstances of his ouster in Milwaukee, with the playoff-bound Brewers slumping in September 2008, bear no relationship with his current predicament. Yet he carries the lessons of his firing with him.
“I always felt like there was something I could do, something I could say,” Yost said. “Do this. Do that. And it doesn’t work. They’re the ones that have to produce. So what I’ve learned is control what you can control. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. And it makes life so much easier.”
For those pondering how Yost may handle a crisis this September, his behavior during a five-day stretch in July may be instructive. During games in Boston and Chicago, Yost demonstrated both his fallibility as a tactician and his deftness as a leader. Both qualities will be under the microscope this month.
The narrative of the Royals’ second-half revival revolves around a series of extracurricular events. The visit of a South Korean fan coincided with an eight-game winning streak. A clairvoyant ball boy predicted Alex Gordon’s walk-off homer on Tuesday. Within this saga, a players-only meeting on July 22 became the season’s pivotal point.
Yet the events of two days prior carry little weight. On a Sunday afternoon, Ned Yost called a meeting. He addressed the players for about five minutes before they boarded a flight from Boston to Chicago. His speech coincided with the season’s rock bottom.
The opening night of the Red Sox series featured Yost’s signature managerial blunder of the season. Last week he admitted the decision was the lone maneuver he regretted in 2014. The Royals held a 4-3 lead with two outs in the sixth inning, and Yost called upon lefty specialist Scott Downs to replace ace James Shields and face left-handed-hitting Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
Before the series began, members of the coaching staff suggested Yost should only use Downs against David Ortiz. He was the one lefty hitter Red Sox manager John Farrell could not remove from the lineup. But Yost wagered Farrell would not turn to his bench this early in a game. The gamble failed. Jonny Gomes launched a pinch-hit homer for the eventual game-winner.
As a manager, Yost cedes control of the game until the final innings. He does not handle preparation and positioning — he leaves that responsibility to his coaches. He feels he cannot control the effort level of his players — they are grown men, and he trusts the Royals’ scouting staff to provide him with gamers.
So Yost feels his chief responsibility is in-game strategy. He understood the weight of his mistake soon after Gomes’ homer crashed into the center-field stands. He impaled himself on a verbal sword to reporters, and delivered a similar message to his players.
Mike Moustakas had stranded a runner at third base twice that night. When he approached Yost afterward, the manager shushed his apology.
“We had enough runs to win, if I had run the pitching right,” Yost told Moustakas. Later on, Yost found Shields and admitted he erred.
“Everyone’s got to be accountable for your own actions,” Shields said. “That’s the way you create chemistry. That’s the way you create a winning atmosphere.”
Despite the magnanimity from Yost, the team looked listless the next two days. Boston completed a sweep that Sunday when Jon Lester gave up four hits in eight scoreless innings.
Yost witnessed a lethargic effort, and “my whole thing is we’ve got to have energy when we play,” he said.
This is when Yost chose to speak. He did not yell. He dredged his wellspring of optimism.
“We played like crap,” Gordon said. “And we really didn’t have any energy. We didn’t play well at all. He could have easily yelled at us. But it was more of a positive talk to us. It woke us up, and got us going.”
Pitcher Danny Duffy added: “He told us that he loved each and every one of us. And why not succeed with the group that we have?”
In this moment, Yost exhibited poor timing. In Chicago the next night, Chris Sale bested the Royals. They lost for the fourth time in a row, and for the seventh time in eight games. They lagged eight games behind Detroit and two games under .500.
The next afternoon, as Moore flew to the Windy City to visit the team, Raul Ibañez approached Shields. Ibañez suggested a players-only meeting. Shields agreed and went locker-to-locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field, telling his teammates to attend.
Shields referred to it as “an accountability meeting” and a “gut-check,” with Ibañez and fellow veterans such as Downs and Jason Frasor praising their younger teammates.
The Royals won that night. They won the next day, too. They won 16 of their next 19 and snatched first place from the Tigers. The meeting on July 22 became part of this club’s mythology. Yost’s address on July 20 became a footnote.
“Everything that they heard in that meeting, they hear from us,” Yost said. “They hear that from us every single day. And every once in a while, a different voice, especially if it’s a teammate saying it, can make an impact.”
Ned Yost’s office is decorated with memorabilia. Besides the plaques for his milestones, there are photos featuring him with Moore, with Gordon, with his arms wrapped around first-base coach Rusty Kuntz. On a shelf above his desk rests a collection of Royals caps and a bottle of Billy Butler’s barbecue sauce.
Yost says he has never slept on the room’s black leather couch. He can often be found here before games, peering into his iPad or poring over matchup breakdowns.
“We don’t always see him before the game,” Shields said.
Interviews about Yost hit around a common theme. He treats the players like men. He allowed Shields to craft a post-victory ritual involving strobe lights, a fog machine and players drenched in bottles of water. During these celebrations, Yost lingers near the hallway connecting his office to the players’ lockers.
“He just stands over there and has fun and watches,” Gordon said. “Maybe throws up his arms a little bit.”
The credit does not belong with him, Yost said. The players will decide the ending of this story.
One day last week, Yost was asked his greatest challenge for September. He rejected the premise of the question.
“I don’t have a challenge,” Yost said. “I don’t have a challenge. I go out and manage the game. I stay positive with them. It doesn’t matter what happens.”