Ned Yost is calling the man in the seed truck a dumbass, and there are at least two things you need to know about this.
First, this is a term of endearment down here, like redneck. We’re all dumbasses in some ways, right? Ned knows more about baseball and hunting than anyone you are likely to meet in a month, but he’s still in awe of how those guys framed his hunting shack in three hours. When it comes to framing a hunting shack, Ned is an admitted dumbass.
Second, he’s kind of hoping the dumbass does this dumbass thing Ned thinks he’s about to do, because we’re standing near the lake on the 550 acres he owns an hour south of Atlanta, and if that big truck gets stuck in that deep mud, Ned gets to grab his tractor and pull him out and ... perfect.
The dumbass is stuck.
“Let’s go,” Ned says.
The Royals manager drives his white Ford pickup a few hundred yards to his barn, turns the key on a Cat tractor, chugs back to the mud and tows the dumbass a short distance to drier land. The whole thing takes five minutes, 10 tops. His lips curl at the ends. This is the smile of a 62-year-old man living a teen-aged boy’s fantasy.
Ned owns anything you can see at this moment, other than the sun and the clouds. The lake, stocked with enough bass he and his daughter caught 50 in an hour and a half the other day. The barn, with his guns and bows and farm equipment kept in obsessive order. The house, still under construction and sprawling in the distance, positioned perfectly for views of the lake, trees, sunrises and sunsets. Six years of planning, and it should be done next summer.
The home is going to be perfect, too. Enough bedrooms and a pool table room for the kids. Outdoor cooking area. Deborah, Ned’s wife, even put a half-bath off the back deck so her husband would stop peeing outside (though she’s likely to be disappointed).
The story behind this land is classic Ned: part smarts, part ambition, part famous friends, part stubbornness, part serendipity ... and, now, exactly what he wants.
Well, except for the blasted armadillos. They dig up everything. They dig where Ned is trying to grow grass by the lake, where he’s trying to grow corn in a distant field. It’d be one thing if the deer liked them. Ned will do anything to attract more deer to kill. But these bastards don’t even do that. He drives his truck around the property and sees a second armadillo in a span of three minutes. He curses.
“This is his lucky day,” Ned says. “I took my gun out of the truck to go to the airport the other day.”
Ned calls this place Rising Rock Farm. Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian and one of Ned’s closest friends, came up with the name. This is the America where even your closest neighbors are a drive away; Foxworthy’s place is 20 minutes down the road.
They are five best buddies — Foxworthy’s brother, his manager and a guy Ned met on a TV hunt are the others — who all live within a moment’s idea of each other. They hunt, fish, watch ballgames and races and crack on each other the way best friends do.
Ned’s last three baseball seasons have ended with a loss in Game 7 of the World Series, a parade in Kansas City, and a bummer of an 81-win follow-up. Every year, no matter what, someone asks Ned what he’ll do now that it’s over. And every year, no matter what, he tells them he will come here and lock the gate behind him — leave the real world out on Ogletree Road.
In here, behind that steel gate, Ned lives a fantasy life of his own creation.
“People will say, ‘You going to be OK after you retire?’” Ned says in a high pitch, his face scrunched up. He wants you to know this is about the most dumbass question anyone could ever ask.
Then he laughs and spits brown juice into a mostly empty plastic water bottle.
“I’ll be OK.”
You probably have to hunt to not think Ned is plain out of his mind for saying this, but bow hunting makes him more nervous than anything in life — baseball included, even the playoffs.
He can admit this now. He used to wonder if it meant he wasn’t up to the job. He’d wait out a deer, watch it get close, and draw his bow. With his heart pounding, he’d look through the scope with his wrong eye, sending his shot wide by about 3 feet.
“If you get nervous shooting a doe,” he’d think, “how are you going to manage Game 7 of the World Series?”
Then he actually did manage Game 7 of the World Series. It didn’t end the way he expected, but he doesn’t remember feeling nervous — not when San Francisco Giants ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner entered the game, not when Alex Gordon hit that ball into left field for a triple, and not when Sal Perez came up in the bottom of the ninth, one swing from a world championship.
After that, Ned figured he’d done it all. How could he be nervous about anything now? Well, a few days after Perez popped out to end the 2014 World Series, Ned is sitting in his deer stand when he sees the property’s prize deer walk up — an animal so impressive that he and his buddies had named him Chief.
Ned went to draw his bow, Chief looked up, and wouldn’t you know it? Ned opened the wrong eye. The arrow went straight into a tree.
“So I guess deer hunting still makes me more nervous than Game 7 of the World Series,” he says.
Maybe Ned should be past those nerves. He’s hunted his whole life, and by now he knows a missed shot or lost game probably won’t define anything. But that’s also the fun of it. Without nerves, where’s the fun?
Managing is still fun for Ned. Especially managing this team.
Other than Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar, every player on the 2016 Royals roster joined the team or made his big-league debut with Ned as the manager. And even those two guys come with an asterisk. Gordon transitioned to left field, and Hochevar to the bullpen, with Ned in charge.
He knows his guys in ways few big-league managers are able to nowadays. Only Joe Girardi, Mike Scioscia and Bruce Bochy have been with their teams longer than Ned’s been with the Royals.
These players have grown up together. Ned saw them as minor-leaguers before he took the manager’s job. By the end of his first full season in Kansas City, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Danny Duffy and Jarrod Dyson had joined the major-league team.
Ned knows their quirks, and they know his. He knows Gordon needs no motivation, Moustakas’ edge is contagious, Escobar responds best to love and that Hosmer will take a chewing-out if it’s deserved and he’s given space afterward.
They’ve been through some mud, too. He’s been mocked and booed. The loudest criticism might have occurred during that now-famous 2014 American League Wild Card Game, when he summoned Yordano Ventura for a sixth-inning relief appearance against Oakland that backfired. The Royals eventually won the game thanks to a most improbable comeback, but the fans’ angst was not lost on Ned. “I understood,” he said. “That was 29 years of frustration coming out.”
Ned used to give a fake name at Starbucks to avoid confrontation with angry Royals fans. Now his son, Josh, is a car salesman in town and sometimes closes deals by pointing at the picture on his desk of the old man and the World Series trophy.
Ned had forgotten how much fun champagne celebrations were until he saw his guys making a mess of the visitors’ clubhouse in Chicago after clinching a playoff spot in 2014. When they earned baseball’s ultimate party after Hosmer’s dash home in New York in fall 2015, he stayed in his office and listened to the corks pop and the music blare.
Kansas City has been good to him. He and general manager Dayton Moore talk all the time, and mostly let each other do their job. Owner David Glass keeps a tight payroll, but Ned knew that coming in, and Glass never micromanages lineup decisions like Ned’s owner in Milwaukee did.
That first celebration in Chicago feels like a long time ago, sometimes. The Royals lost four All-Stars to the disabled list last season, and gave up too much production to guys having bad years. Ned wishes they’d have won one more game in 2016, because having a winning season is important to him. But he’s at peace.
“Disappointed isn’t the word,” he said. “You can only do with what you’ve got. If I felt at any time over the year that our guys quit, or lost focus, or weren’t intent on playing as hard as they could that day, yeah. I’d be disappointed. But I never felt like that happened.”
There’s a pause.
“We were just too beat up to win.”
Baseball is a game of routine, perhaps more than any other sport. Day after day after day. You find a way to deal with that, a rhythm, or you don’t make it. Ned’s rhythm extends to the offseason, when he takes until Thanksgiving to recoup. No baseball.
Then, at some point after the turkey is put away, he finds himself a little more excited to get back to baseball than the day before. That’s where he is at this moment.
But the farm has its pull, too. This is the second plot of land he’s owned in the area. He bought the first from Foxworthy, at a price so good his financial guy didn’t believe it. He upgraded to this land at another steal of a price, negotiating hard because at the time he didn’t really want it.
He’s worked this land into something better, and he can’t resist the analogy of developing a baseball team. You see where you need to improve, what you need to do, and what might not be right at the moment but will grow in time. Nothing comes easy, or quick, but if you’re patient enough and care enough and are smart enough, you might look up in seven years and see a gorgeous farm with your dream house being built across the way.
Chief will probably stay in the barn. Remember Chief, the deer Ned missed because he got nervous?
Ned fired again a few moments later, aimed for the chest, and hit him in the backside. Chief ran off, and Ned cursed. Those can sometimes be kill shots, but Ned thought the beast got away. He gave it two hours, found a trail of blood going into the woods, and not 20 yards in saw Chief lifeless on the ground.
Chief’s head is now on a wall in Ned’s barn, along with two dozen or so other deer, elk and bobcats. Ned and Jeff Foxworthy give most of what they kill to friends, families that do work for them and a few local organizations that feed the meat to the hungry. But Ned does keep some trophies on that wall, too.
“All but three of them I got with my bow,” Ned says.
The truth is Ned is building Rising Rock as more than just a sort of bow-and-arrow amusement park.
This is a social place. A family place. That’s why there will be so many bedrooms in the new house. They built the lake because Deborah’s favorite memories as a kid are fishing with her grandpa. The Yosts have one grandson now, a 3-year-old, and a new grand-baby born last week. Hopefully more on the way.
Ned will not admit to even thinking about retirement. His contract goes through 2018, and he says he’ll want to keep working as long as it’s still fun. But you don’t have to stretch the imagination much to see 2017 as his last year in uniform.
He and Deborah’s 40th anniversary is next year. They met at a minor-league game when Ned was playing. He says it took him a month to know she was the one. For her, it was love at first sight.
He says the biggest regret he has is moving Deborah and the kids to Milwaukee when he took the manager’s job there. The kids were in school, and happy, and they should’ve stayed in Atlanta. Baseball has come first too often. Ned’s oldest son was a good ballplayer, and Ned thinks he saw fewer than five of his games between high school and college.
“I was never around,” he says. “You don’t want to make the same mistake with the grandkids.”
It’s not just what’s at this farm, either. Ned fit the Royals, and they fit him. He believed in their talent from the start. The organization never wavered on him, even when it could have.
So many things had to go right, and even then, it took nine years from Moore’s hiring and five and a half from Yost’s to host a championship parade. He wouldn’t be the first baseball man to say one rebuild is enough.
“A rebuild is hard,” he says. “You have to have all the right pieces in place. We had all the right pieces in place.”
The first dose of reality was the recent free-agent departures of Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez. The hardest hit came with the even more recent trade of Wade Davis. More pieces are about to scatter, and Ned knows it.
If he chooses, he has a great place to scatter.
Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Duffy, Escobar and Dyson are all scheduled for free agency after next season. Maybe the Royals can sign one or two long-term, but this is the last year of this particular collection of Royals.
Baseball has been good to Ned, and he’s tried his best to be the same in return. He has a dream life to walk into whenever he retires, but for now, at least, he has one more year with a dream group of players. They’ve been through so much already, all of them, together.
“You know how this game is,” Ned says. “Good players leave. They do. They go to other teams. It’s such a special chemistry we have. So, yeah, this is going to be a big year for us, I think.”