For all the poetic scenes attached to the Royals’ 2014 postseason, the prologue was a jarring spectacle:
In the sixth inning of the American League wild-card game against Oakland at Kauffman Stadium, Ned Yost walked briskly from the mound back to the dugout.
His curious maneuver to insert Yordano Ventura for James Shields had backfired in slapstick fashion, like one of those exploding cigars, only no one was laughing.
In the Royals’ first playoff game since 1985, Brandon Moss’ buzz-killing three-run homer off a rookie who had relieved only once before and had started just two days earlier had given the A’s a 5-3 lead.
Up in the press box, laptops were lathered up with calls to fire Yost, who already was so unpopular that “#yosted” had become a term of derision for his decisions.
The Royals, many fans believed, would never win with Yost, but if they ever did, well, it would be despite him — not with him.
Down below, the crowd of 40,502 jeered him with a fury seldom directed at one’s own. A generation-plus of futility was condensed into one voice and funneled at him as he removed Ventura.
At least that’s how it was reconciled by Yost, who somehow stood tall and rigid as he walked briskly off the field.
“They were booing, but that was 29 years of frustration,” he said, shrugging, the other day. “So I understood it completely. Didn’t bother me.”
This all seems so long ago now, but Yost’s attitude toward that moment remains telling about what’s come to pass since — a scenario that would have seemed an absurd alternate reality less than a year ago.
Yost, 60, now manages the defending AL champions and the best team in baseball so far this season, both in terms of the eye test and record (27-14) entering its game Saturday against St. Louis.
With 400 wins with the Royals as of Friday, in a few days he’ll tie Dick Howser for second place on the club’s career list (404) and another week or so after that he’ll surpass Whitey Herzog’s record (410).
Then he’ll manage the American League in the All-Star Game in Cincinnati on July 14, and one day he likely will be bound for the Royals Hall of Fame and, shoot, maybe someone will commission a statue of him.
So apparently there’s only a marginal difference between being cast in the cap of a dunce, as The Wall Street Journal characterized Yost in a headline last October, and being fitted for one of wizardry.
First saved, then liberated, by the Royals’ rally in the wild-card game, Yost no longer can be seen as a bumbling custodian of Murphy’s Law — anything than can go wrong will go wrong.
Instead, he seems to have morphed into a practitioner of King Midas — everything he touches turns to gold.
The supposed contrast is misleading, though, because Yost isn’t really any different a manager or strategist today than he’s ever been.
He’s evolved, yes, but he hasn’t reinvented himself. He doesn’t see the game any differently now, didn’t have any particular revelation and still is prone to some unorthodoxy (such as the decision to bat Mike Moustakas second in the lineup).
“To me, Ned’s always been the same,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “We have very candid, direct conversations, we have a similar viewpoint of life, and we were raised in the game in a very similar way.”
All that’s really changed is that Yost has equity and credibility now.
Which is perpetuating itself with the Royals’ sustained success.
Which in turn has muted the hyper-scrutiny of every … single … decision Yost makes.
Oh, and there’s one other thing that goes with this: a certain peace and equilibrium in Yost, who in some ways believes his job was completed when the Royals beat Oakland and a young core came of age.
“The job is different, because now the players all of a sudden are playing the way you want them to play,” Yost said. “They’re playing with confidence, they understand their style of play …
“So it’s more just managing the game than it is managing the personalities.”
Managing a game is a lot easier when you are managing for the moment, not to nurture a future, and when you have as many assets as the Royals do now: the best defense in the game, maybe the best bullpen in history and, suddenly, a lineup that is the most complete and deep Yost has ever enjoyed managing.
Asked what his greatest challenge is this season,Yost simply said, “I don’t think I’ve got one.”
“You know,” he added, “it’s like building a house. It’s a lot of work to build. But once you build it, you live in it.”
The deliberate pace of baseball and the fact so many played the game makes managerial decisions particularly ripe for criticism.
Like all managers, Yost has made plenty that didn’t work out.
That was amplified because he was prone to crankiness at times in explaining himself to the media, and because, well, the Royals at times just seemed destined never to turn it around.
So it was easy to blame Yost for holding them back.
But however you feel about his direct impact on games, in-game decision-making is only a fraction of the function of the manager, the tip of an iceberg, really.
The more substantial work is behind the scenes and in bigger-picture matters, and it’s there that Yost did yeoman’s work that took hold and resonates.
“There’s so much more to it than what you see on the field; there are a lot of things during the baseball game you simply cannot control,” Moore said. “But what managers can do is help create the culture and create harmony within the organization.
“Ned does that very well. His interaction with our coaches, our scouts at all levels, our instructors at all levels, breeds that organizational harmony that is so crucial for long-term success.
“And his positivity and optimism are always going to be crucial for us. Because of our market (size) and what we do and how we try to build our team, we’re always going to have young players.
“And he really believes in them.”
Yost has said that all along, that he knew from the time he saw Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura and others that they were destined for stardom.
“They just needed the time to develop,” he said.
So Yost stood tall through it all, absorbing the brunt of criticism that was only gathering momentum to be released his way against Oakland.
“There are a lot of things that went into those decisions that nobody knows about, you know,” he said, “and they’ll never know about it.”
But everyone knew the result — and the remarkable changes in the team’s trajectory and perception of Yost that have come since.
“If they lose that game, they would have run him out of town,” Herzog said, laughing, the other day. “But everything turned out, and now he’s a household name. And he deserves it.”