To hear Ned Yost tell it, even amid a barren generation of baseball, the Royals lacked only two things when he took over as manager on May 13, 2010:
The seasoning of ripening prospects and the belief to animate their potential.
But it didn’t matter if he believed, and, well, he eventually felt compelled to give up on skeptical outsiders buying in, too.
“How much (guff) did I take over that? Oh, I’m stupid. I’m dumb. I’m this, I’m that. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m an idiot,” Yost said. “You get to the point where it’s, ‘You don’t want to believe it, you don’t want to listen? OK.’”
The place where it was relevant, of course, was in the living, breathing dynamic of the Royals’ clubhouse.
But they were only guessing in there, really, and regressing in a way: In the vortex of the losing mind-set and the vacuum of credible leadership, a young player might be made “to feel like you almost didn’t belong,” as one put it.
If the culture was shifting, it was in fits and starts and so stubbornly as to make the projected promise seem like just another platitude that Royals fans had been groaning over forever.
It needed a jolt.
That as much as anything else was why the Royals gave up young hotshot Wil Myers for veteran pitcher James Shields in 2013 among others (most notably Wade Davis) in the deal.
Shields’ influence radiated throughout the clubhouse, because you could count on 200 powerful innings a year … and he rigged up a goofy postgame celebration … and he’d been where everyone wanted to go with three postseasons and a World Series.
It rippled because he became a big brother figure, the guy who could hold others accountable but would as soon be counseling struggling third baseman Mike Moustakas, or giving pitching tips, or telling everyone all they had to be was the best version of themselves.
And it took.
“It was night and day,” pitcher Danny Duffy said. “The minute the clock struck 2013, we had a completely different mentality.”
Shields is gone now to San Diego, of course, and the Royals also lost influential veteran outfielder Raul Ibañez, who is now an analyst for Fox Sports.
With that comes a fundamental question about the disposition of the team left in their wake: Does their influence remain? And even if so, just who is the Royals’ face of leadership now?
“We don’t need a face,” Yost said. “Our face is the Kansas City Royals logo. That’s our face.”
For that matter, Duffy protests the notion of a “void” to fill.
“I just like to think of it as somebody who left a lot for us to learn from,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to take that.”
Still, Yost acknowledges that leadership and chemistry are “hard to preserve” year to year because even a few personality changes affect all.
For instance, there’s little doubt that key personalities changed the complexion of the clubhouse and the trajectory of the franchise.
Call it coincidental to Shields’ arrival, and obviously there were many factors at play, but the Royals had their best season in 25 years in 2013.
Then came the majestic run to game seven of the 2014 World Series, a feat further enabled by the mid-season acquisition of Ibañez.
At 42, Ibañez had descended from his prime. But his motivational role was palpable.
It was mostly in his charismatic, driven day-to-day way, of course. But his words particularly resonated in a team meeting that preceded 16 wins in 19 games after the Royals were adrift.
In September, players were struck by his “burn the boats” speech, a reference to the legend of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes ordering his own boats burned so as to make escape impossible and desperation the only alternative.
As the topic of leadership is broached, in fact, that’s who reliever Jason Frasor mentioned first.
“Let’s talk about Raul Ibañez for a second,” Frasor said. “I don’t think we would have gotten where we got without Raul Ibañez. For me, top three teammates, maybe No. 1, that I’ve ever had. Just the best. One of the best. That much of an impact. Hard to explain.
“It’s hard to explain chemistry, but I’m a big believer in chemistry. I think everything carries over from the clubhouse to the field.”
Certainly it can, though you can find any number of examples of teams with bad chemistry that win and teams with good chemistry that lose.
But Frasor turned 37 last year, and before the playoffs he had the dubious distinction of having made more pitching appearances than any other active player not to have played in the postseason.
All he knows is that this time it mattered.
“I’m a believer now,” he said. “Who’s this year’s Raul Ibañez? I don’t know, I don’t know. We will find out.”
As essential as those two departed players were to catalyzing last year’s team, a case can be made that their contributions are less necessary now.
If the culture is changed, after all, then it’s changed. And maybe it’s more crucial in bad times than prosperous ones the Royals apparently are in now — at least entering the season.
Besides, the Royals believe the nucleus of young players, particularly first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez, has come of age and will lead by committee.
“These guys before that required leadership,” Yost said, “have now assumed the leadership.”
That assumption makes sense in some ways.
With all but a handful of players back, the core has in its DNA now the very essence of belief: the rally from four runs down in the eighth inning of the AL Wild Card Game.
“Belief is not gray. It’s black or white. You either do or you don’t. And from that point on, it clicked. And they believed, and it was like, ‘OK, boys, go out and play. Have fun and play,’” Yost said. “That was it. I was done. Now they’ve gotten everything they need to be successful.
“My job (instilling belief) is done. Now all I have to do is manage the game.”
Tour the clubhouse, and you’ll hear a variety of names suggested as the budding leaders of this team.
Outfielder Alex Gordon stands out among teammates. He’s the “Kobe (Bryant) of this team,” Duffy says. “He circles the wagons when they need to be circled.”
But Gordon is the strong, silent type. As recently as last season, despite his obvious admiration of him, Yost lamented Gordon wasn’t more vocal.
Under different circumstances now, though, Yost says, “You need voices, but most of it is by example.”
In that way, at least, Yost believes there is no shortage.
During spring training, he relished being up at 4:30 a.m. to get to the clubhouse and see the first faces every day.
Almost unfailingly, those were Gordon and newly acquired veterans Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios. Add Davis to the ranks of those who have admirable work ethics that others notice.
Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie’s name comes up a lot, too. And Guthrie in fact assumed at least a playful part of Shields’ role last season when he orchestrated the wacky postgame victory celebrations involving a smoke machine, a disco ball and a neon sign of a deer’s backside.
And from where Duffy sits, a few lockers from Guthrie, that’s taken hold this spring, too.
“Guthrie’s taken the ball,” Duffy said, “and is still dribbling it up the court.”
At least publicly, though, Guthrie is reluctant to lay claim to that.
“I don’t think leadership is something that you plan and map out,” Guthrie said. “It happens naturally, and there’s a number of guys in here that lead both by example as well as with their energy and their voices.”
The root energy of this team, of course, is in the foundational younger set, the guys who came up through the organization and whose team this really is.
They came to spring training in better shape than ever, Yost says, with attitudes that indicate an accountability that perhaps was questionable as recently as last season.
Most notably, an obsession of a few players with the “Clash of Clans” video game came to symbolize immature indifference before they were coaxed out of it down the stretch.
The difference now shows up in anything from how they go through drills to a lot of “stupid little things,” Yost says.
Like when the coaching staff had a few leftover cheeseburgers from lunch and Yost offered them to a group of players nearby.
Hosmer and Jarrod Dyson, he said, “looked at me like I have a hole in my head, like, ‘Skip, we ain’t going back to the World Series eating cheeseburgers.’ … What they’re saying is, ‘We’re all in. We want to win a World Series.’”
Whether those habits are universal and absolute is another matter, but Yost’s point here is more general: It’s time for that group to lead, and he believes it’s embracing that.
That includes Luke Hochevar, “letting the young dudes know they belong here,” as Duffy put it.
That extends to “even Dice,” as Yost put it, seemingly with a nod to Dyson’s irreverence, and the intense Mike Moustakas and the emerging Lorenzo Cain.
And it’s maybe particularly pegged to Hosmer, who demonstrated the tremendous upside in the postseason that makes him the guy whose voice could carry most.
Each has demonstrated something subtle but important this spring: reaching out to younger players around them. Of course there’s the usual razzing banter in the clubhouse, but it’s not “overboard” as one player described it only a few years ago.
“That’s the main thing of being a teammate, learning who you’re playing with and how you relate to them,” Hosmer said. “We can show these guys the way and not let them feel the pressure’s all on them.”
The danger here, of course, is that if everyone’s a leader then arguably no one is, kind of like an open invitation that never gets clarified.
So all that’s certain is this:
Shields and Ibañez left their marks on the organization.
Whether those become legacies or monumental-but-fleeting contributions is up to those who inherit the mantle — whoever they might be.
“We’re obviously going to miss (Shields), and we’re not going to forget how he opened us up and created this environment,” Hosmer said. “But we’re starting our own journeys now.”