The education of a manager took place in the quiet solitude of the nighttime, after the reporters had left and teammates had showered and after a home clubhouse at Milwaukee County Stadium turned into a private classroom.
They would sit together for hours, two catchers with adjacent lockers and shag haircuts sitting on shag carpets, the whole scene feeling quintessentially 80s.
Ted Simmons, the All-Star catcher and Brewers starter, would do most of the talking. Ned Yost would sit and listen. And then, after enough time and enough teaching, Simmons would ask the same question:
“OK Ned, what happened tonight?”
It was the early 1980s, and Yost was in the midst of a four-year run as the backup catcher in Milwaukee. As a player, his physical gifts were limited. As a reserve playing behind an All-Star, so was his playing time.
In four seasons from 1980 to 1983, Yost would start just 101 games, spending most nights on the bench. In the winter, he would return to his offseason home in Jackson, Miss., and ponder his future. In those days, Yost says, he had little idea what he wanted to do when his playing days were over. He had never thought about coaching. He viewed baseball as a game to be played.
Then came an offer from Simmons, a veteran who had arrived in Milwaukee in 1981. Every night, they would sit together and talk about baseball. Every night, they would sift through the minutiae and search for the pivotal moments that decided the outcome. Every night, without knowing it, Yost prepared for his next career.
“It just got me thinking about the game in a much broader direction than I ever had before,” Yost says. “I just always went out and played the game. I never really thought about it much.”
From that beginning, a chain of events was set into motion, a non-linear, sometimes perilous path that ended up here, in a Hyatt hotel ballroom in San Diego on Monday, where Yost was introduced as the manager of the American League All-Star team.
Thirty-one years after his playing career ended, Yost is set to manage his second straight All-Star Game on Tuesday night at Petco Park, this time as the skipper of the defending World Series champions. Thirty-one years after his final major-league at-bat, his place in the game is secure. He is no longer defined by his firing in Milwaukee, a sacking in the final stretches of a pennant race. He is no longer regarded, as the Wall Street Journal tabbed him in 2014, as the “dunce” in the pilot’s seat.
“Nobody could understand what we were doing,” Yost says. “So they just made fun of it.”
Yost, 60, is now the manager who brought a championship to Kansas City, the resolute and cantankerous face of the Royals. Entering the second half of 2016, he is already the winningest manager in franchise history. He ranks third among all active managers in postseason victories. With 30 more wins during the second half of the season, Yost will hit 1,000 victories for his career.
“Ned is so consistent,” says Ben Zobrist, the Cubs second baseman who finished last year in Kansas City. “He had an ease about him. There was such an ease about the way he went about his business and an ease in which he talked about things.”
All of which makes his origins worth exploring. On most nights, Yost projects the classic archetype of a baseball manager. He is grizzled. He is unyielding. He is, on the whole, appreciated by his players.
“He’s very emotionally involved,” Royals closer Wade Davis says. “He’s very poetic about the game.”
And yet, he was also not always like that. Yost remembers a young catcher, stubborn and confident, a player who thought he knew plenty about the game. Simmons remembers a young teammate, sincere and open, and sometimes frustrated by a lack of playing time.
“I played all the time,” says Simmons, now a scout for the Atlanta Braves. “He never got to. And that’s a tough situation to be in, especially when the guy who is doing all the playing is lockering right next to you. So with that reality, he wanted to learn baseball. And he knew by not playing, it would not be as easy for him. So I took it upon myself to essentially teach him what I saw and what I knew.”
The conversations, Yost says, were varied and diverse. It was, in some sense, like two co-workers talking shop at the bar, breaking down their craft over beers. Except in this case, the bar was a clubhouse, the craft was the game. And, yes, there was still beer.
They would discuss infield defenses and cut-off plays. They would delve into hit-and-run counts and how to strike guys out — both specific players and with the right pitch sequencing. They would talk about pitching changes and strategy.
“Everything that happened that day,” Yost says, “we would talk about it.”
One night, Simmons handed Yost a piece of paper with a baseball diamond on it. Simmons told him to make 200 copies, then diagram every single outfield relay throw he could think of.
“You don’t just get it over time,” Simmons says. “You got to have someone teach you. You have to have the opportunity to play 3,000 games, like I did, or you got to think it up yourself. And the first two are a whole lot easier than the last one.
“So I did the best I could to help him along. He wasn’t going to play 3,000 games, and unless I told him, he wasn’t going to get it.”
Yost’s final season in Milwaukee came in 1984. The influence of Simmons, the intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of baseball knowledge, remained. On Oct. 6, 1985, Yost had his final major-league at-bat at New York’s Shea Stadium. Playing for the Montreal Expos, he struck out against the Mets’ Randy Myers. A few months later, Hank Aaron called, wondering if he would be interested in taking on a player-coach role in the Braves’ minor-league system.
Yost accepted. He headed to Class AA Greenville, and for the next two seasons, he mentored a crop of young players that included Tom Glavine, Ron Gant and Jeff Blauser. Occasionally, they would sit in front of their lockers after games, breaking down the pivotal moments. This time, Yost was the teacher.
“I played more than I wanted to,” Yost says.
From there, the path is familiar. Yost would take a coaching job under Bobby Cox in Atlanta. He would manage in Milwaukee. He would accept a rebuilding job in Kansas City, an organization that hadn’t won in nearly three decades. His skill set fit the mission.
On an afternoon last September, Yost called his team together for a brief meeting. For weeks, the Royals had been struggling, losing the edge that had pushed them to the brink of the playoffs. For weeks, Yost had preached calm.
“I remember him just being like, ‘We’re going to be fine, we’re going to be fine,’ ” Zobrist says. “ ‘It’ll turn around; it’ll turn around.’ ”
Finally, Yost delivered a different message. The Royals had wrapped up the American League Central, but the carrot of home-field advantage remained. The postseason would begin in a week, Yost said. Let’s kick into gear right now.
It was just one meeting of many, one message that, in some respects, might seem obvious. But one season later, playing for a new team in a new city, Zobrist says the words still resonate.
“His timing was perfect,” Zobrist says. “And a lightbulb came on.”
Three decades after his playing career ended, after an education in Milwaukee and the years in Atlanta, after weathering a sudden firing and a multitude of skeptics, a manager found his voice.