March 1, 2014

Royals manager Ned Yost loosens the reins as he adjusts to a new generation of players

At times, Yost must balance competing desires: His ingrained beliefs versus the psyche of the modern player. His need to wrest control of a situation versus the importance of loosening the reins. Still, a light flickered midway through 2013. The players no longer required hand-holding. The meetings decreased. The atmosphere lightened. Yost acts more like a colleague, and less like a teacher.

The reggae rhythms float from a black and red Beats by Dre speaker system into Ned Yost’s office. The noise once bothered him. It still may, but now he tolerates it, even if it clashes with his baseball upbringing. Music, he thought, created tension.

“OK, I like country music,” he said. “You might not. So if I’m playing country music loud, it’s going to be upsetting to you. It’s going to be aggravating to you. And then this guy is playing Latin music over here. Well, that’s going to (tick) me off.”

And so on, and so forth, Yost explained, a boom-box sowing the seeds of clubhouse dissension. He studied the managing trade during a decade on Bobby Cox’s Braves coaching staff. Cox set strict boundaries. No music in the clubhouse. No jeans on the plane. No fraternizing with opposing players.

“He wanted us to come in, play hard, act professional and then get out of town,” Yost said.

Yost spent the better part of four years trying to ingrain these tenets into the Royals clubhouse. The pursuit, he soon realized, was less futile than pointless.

The generation gap revealed itself to him in small slivers, like the diminishing returns of team meetings and raised voices and strict clubhouse rules. His job is to win baseball games, not to teach baseball etiquette. So he told his players they could play music, so long as it wasn’t vulgar, meaning “no F-bombs when the GM walks in,” outfielder Jarrod Dyson said.

At times, Yost must balance competing desires: His ingrained beliefs versus the psyche of the modern player. His need to wrest control of a situation versus the importance of loosening the reins.

The balancing act gnaws at him. He admitted that allowing the players to be themselves is the hardest part of his job. So, at 59, on the verge of his fifth season as Royals manager, Edgar Frederick Yost is trying to change.

He wants to communicate better. He wants to better understand others. He wants all this, even if he knows the public probably will never see him as kinder or gentler.

“I really lead two, weird, different lives,” Yost said. “The people that know me, and then the people that don’t know me. And I guess it’s harder for me to let the people that don’t know me in. And I don’t know why that is. But it is.”

This last offseason, Yost invited his coaches to a retreat near his home in rural Georgia.

During the trip, each member of the group took a personality test.

The test divides people into four types: Blue, Gold, Green and Orange. Yost profiled as a Gold and Green. One day earlier this spring, he left his desk and removed a piece of paper from an attaché. He began to read.

“Green’s assets are analyzing, problem-solving, objective, independent and efficient.”

On the morning of the first workout for pitchers and catchers, pitcher Yordano Ventura stared at the daily schedule. He is 22, in big-league camp for just the second time and still grappling with the English language. His manager spotted him, and wrapped his arm around Ventura’s prized right shoulder.

“Stick with Bruce,” Yost said of veteran pitcher Bruce Chen. “He’ll guide you. He’s


General manager Dayton Moore chose Yost for this job because he understood the scope of the rebuilding effort.

Yost lived something similar during six years shaping a young core in Milwaukee. He possessed the requisite patience. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said, “Ned made the statement that I’ll take losses on my back now for wins in the future.”

The Royals required a similar approach. During the early years, players said, the meetings occurred regularly. Yost felt compelled to coax them through every conceivable situation. Each day presented another teaching moment.

“As a young team, we’d fall in ruts where we’d struggle and couldn’t really snap out of it,” closer Greg Holland said.

“He helped us learn to be able to show up the next day with the same intensity.”

For Yost, a light flickered midway through 2013. The players no longer required hand-holding. The meetings decreased. The atmosphere lightened. Yost acts more like a colleague, and less like a teacher.

“He’s been easier to talk to,” designated hitter Billy Butler said.

Yost said, “I’ve gotten much better results than just coming in and trying to be the tough guy. The authoritarian. Yelling, screaming. That doesn’t work with kids nowadays.”

In August, as the Royals stumbled through a seven-game losing streak, first baseman Eric Hosmer sensed Yost stewing on the bench one night against Washington.

After the team lost again that night, Hosmer expected a team meeting. Instead, a funny thing happened.

“He just walked back in,” Hosmer said. “He was laid-back, cool. Still being loose, hanging with the guys.”

A realization struck Hosmer. The team had “graduated” past the hand-holding stage in this situation, he said. They understood the stakes. They understood what was necessary.

The Royals won eight of their next 10 games and injected life back into their season.

“Every guy in here knows what we’re doing now,” Butler said. “So he can kind of relax.”

“Green’s liabilities are unfeeling, arrogant, sarcastic, critical and indecisive.”

The reporter wore glasses and a shaky smile as he approached. Yost sat on a dais inside the Audi Club at Chase Field in Phoenix, where the managers and general managers of the Cactus League gathered to meet the press. With a television camera operator set up behind him, the reporter asked Yost his biggest concern about the Royals heading into 2014.

“No concerns,” Yost said.

No concerns? The reporter searched for a follow-up.

Yost stared into the camera. After a squirm-inducing standoff, he allowed that every team worries about injuries. In his daily briefings with reporters, the conduit to the ticket-buying public, he often impersonates a linguistic cabinet stocked to the brim with one-word answers. He finds most questions foolish, and he does not suffer fools.

“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t talk to you guys at all,” he said. “Ever. Seriously.”

The paradox is Yost said this during a sit-down with The Star last week, a request he did not have to honor. He says he is trying to be more accommodating. He will grant access, but he won’t open up.

“It’s just my nature, man,” he said. “It’s just who I am. It’s hard to explain.”

The shell built in Milwaukee. The criticism he received there — not pinch-hitting for J.J. Hardy, letting Rickie Weeks make defensive gaffes — sounds similar to the second-guessing he received in Kansas City for paternalism with Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas. Plus, Yost gets second-guessed about his penchant for bunts and lineup configurations and the various other managerial machinations that infuriate fans.

The words wounded him then, he admitted.

Now he insists he neither listens to talk radio nor reads what is written about his team.

He begins interviews in a defensive stance, wary of giving an inch. He projects optimism, even when that emotion looks absurd.

“When I’m coming here and talking in positive terms, fans will say ‘He’s crazy! He’s full of crap! He’s lying!’ 

” Yost said. “And I don’t ever want to do that. But that’s my personality.”

“Gold’s liabilities are insensitive, impatient, critical, complaining, unforgiving.”

On the day he fired Yost — Sept. 16, 2008 — Melvin admitted he wasn’t sure it was the right move.

Years later, the decision still aches.

“He deserved really to finish the season out,” Melvin said. “It’s not one of the things that I feel good about.”

The Brewers fired Yost amid a late-season tailspin. The team had coughed up an 8 1/2-game lead from June in 2007, and went cold at the plate the subsequent September.

As he reflected on the decision, Melvin perceived Yost as “trying to prevent people from getting uptight going down the stretch,” a pursuit that compounded the difficulties.

The organization replaced Yost with Dale Sveum, now the Royals’ third-base coach. Sveum led the Brewers to the playoffs. Yost went home. A year still remained on Yost’s contract. He estimated he turned down “four or five” different offers to become a big-league coach again. Instead, he reflected on what went wrong.

“I always felt like there was something I could do to help them,” he said, adding, “but then the reality is, there’s really not that much you can do as a manager.”

The lesson stuck. He needed it in 2013. When Moore talks about Yost’s leadership, he speaks like a scout. Yost walks with “crispness.” His demeanor is upbeat. His tone is positive.

“There’s never been any panic in him,” Moore said.

That quality remained in Yost last May, Moore said, even amid a disastrous 8-20 spell.

The offense evaporated. The organization fired its hitting coaches, and enlisted George Brett to infuse the players with confidence. The season nearly capsized — and in the end, that month cost the team an opportunity at playing in October.

But here’s the thing, Yost said. The team survived, recovered from the catastrophe and finished with its first winning record in a decade.

“Looking back on the year, the thing I’m most proudest of, for myself, was we never panicked,” Yost said. “We never went crazy in May. Even though it was really tough times.”

“Gold’s assets are organized, consistent, responsible, determined, hard-working, task-oriented.”

The players cannot see him downtrodden. Ned Yost will not let them. He contains his doldrums the hours between leaving the ballpark and returning the next day.

Even now, after 10 years, 1,572 games and more losses than victories as a big-league manager, winning only eases his sleep.

“The feeling of defeat is much worse than the feeling of contentment when you win,” he said. “I wish it would balance out a little better.”

Yet Yost cannot present this face to his club.

For years, he walked into his clubhouse and instructed his players to ignore the truth if necessary. If you think you can’t hit, he told them, lie to yourself. Sometimes he must do the same.

“There’s times when I have to shake myself,” he said. “Knock it off. Let’s go.”

After last year, when the music flowed and the wins followed, the players look different, Yost said.

Those pep talks aren’t necessary. There is no need to lie.

“They believe,” he said.

It’s why 2014 excites him so. He weathered the storms of development for parts of four seasons here. Now the challenges are different.

When he talks to his players, he thinks about the personality tests and how each man might score. He is trying to stop himself from calling the players “kids,” but old habits die hard. He is trying to grow, at least enough to evolve with his team.

“This is a stupid analogy,” Yost said. “It’s almost like when baby birds are born. You feed them. You take care of them. You protect them. But once they get to the point where they grow up and learn to fly, you let them go. And that’s where they are now. These guys all can fly.

“So you’re still watching over them. And you’re still really protective over them in the media. You’re protective over them with the fans. But these guys can handle a lot more than they could back then. So you let them go.”

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