To be a major league baseball manager is to beg for a life of scrutiny and scorn, being doubted and second-guessed. Such has it always been, so will it always be.
Royals manager Ned Yost knew this long before he came to Kansas City in 2010. He knew it firsthand as a manager in Milwaukee. And mostly he knew it, and knows it, from the needling he’s gotten from his mother, Lee Moffitt.
“All the time,” he said, smiling but not joking. “I tell her to quit.”
Yost chuckles when he considers how he can go out to hook a pitcher who has been “lit up a little bit,” get booed as he walks to the mound and then hear that same pitcher cheered as he trudges off.
“It’s always me,” he said, laughing. “Everybody gets it. It’s just part of the business, but you learn through experience it’s something that you stay away from.”
That's easier said than done. This paradoxical phenomenon clings to Yost, no matter how he tries to avoid it and, apparently, no matter how he has steered his team this season.
With just one week to go until the playoffs and the Royals entering Sunday’s home finale against Texas with the best record in the American League since the All-Star break, KC fans have embraced the team.
But they remain lukewarm on Yost.
It’s a fascinating and puzzling dynamic that seems to ignore a major part of Yost’s job — the human elements of his influence on the team — and is informed by the notion that Yost is a dunce in his decision-making and the Royals almost win despite him.
It also begs the question how much it matters whether fans trust his leadership if the players do.
In a season in which he might be appreciated for guiding a remarkable breakthrough, especially after the Royals won just four of 23 games during a particularly dismal May, Yost instead is a public piñata.
At least the quantum leap in results appeased his most meaningful critic.
His mother’s emphysema had been worsened by a cold, leaving her struggling to breathe, and those conditions at her age (81) “could kill her,” Yost said.
But even from her hospital bed (she is now home in stable condition), she watched every Royals game on her cellphone.
“And when I walk in after every one of these wins, she says (by phone), ‘You’re helping me feel better,’” Yost said in Cleveland on Sept. 11 after the Royals took two of three from the Indians.
A sizable portion of the Royals’ fan base is less convinced.
Amid this revival after decades of irrelevance and rudderless leadership, the 58-year-old manager remains a divisive figure.
Consider a recent KansasCity.com poll. On the day late last week that Royals owner David Glass said that he was “pleased” with Yost and general manager Dayton Moore — but that Yost’s future in KC would be Moore’s call — 1,135 respondents voted to keep Moore and dump Yost, 670 voted to keep both Yost and Moore, and 417 voted to get rid of both.
Granted, such polls are about as unscientific as it gets, but that’s bizarre, really. In the first season in 10 years and second in 20 in which the Royals have won 80 or more games — a season that has generated record-breaking TV ratings and buzz — almost 70 percent of the poll’s respondents wanted the manager dumped.
Now Yost makes his share of curious decisions — and some inexplicable ones, such as trotting wobbly Jeremy Guthrie back out to pitch the eighth inning of last Sunday’s loss at Detroit with the Royals’ terrific bullpen ready to go.
As it happens, even Yost would do that one differently, if he had it to do over again. One of his staunchest critics resides in his own head; he replays the should-haves long after things go awry.
But perhaps illustrating the bind in perception he faces, it’s worth remembering another decision that Yost was vilified for: removing an in-command James Shields after eight innings on May 6 against the White Sox, only to see closer Greg Holland blow the save in the ninth and the Royals go on to lose 2-1 in 11 innings.
Holland, of course, went on to make good on his next 31 save appearances.
While the circumstances were somewhat different — Guthrie already had surrendered 12 hits before giving up the game-winning home run — they also have a connection.
Whether you go by gut or the book, head or heart, whether you do the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons, what resonates is only this: Did it work or not?
Managers at best can only play percentages, not guarantees, and nothing works every time.
This doesn’t make a genius of Yost. But the notion that Yost is a lunkhead or reckless wrecker of games simply isn’t true either.
He’s just wrong sometimes. Like everybody else in his line of work.
The preoccupation with what fails and the fixation on strategy and numbers almost by definition ignore what has worked. Moreover, it doesn’t account for something less tangible but arguably more substantial: Yost’s leadership, presence and influence on the clubhouse.
By all indications, Royals players and coaches have bought into Yost. And that has a lot to do with where this season came from.
They will tell you that little was more crucial than how Yost remained remarkably upbeat this spring when the team faltered so badly that George Brett had to return as a temporary hitting coach.
The season might have been lost then and there.
“It kind of was at that point,” left fielder Alex Gordon said.
But it wasn’t in the end, in large part because of Yost, said Gordon and several others emphatically.
“He never wavered in his consistency of just handling things emotionally and also keeping the expectations remaining very high,” said Moore, the Royals’ GM. “He always came through that clubhouse door with his head held high and a lot of energy.”
Yost established that example in February when he returned to spring training at 6:30 the morning after his gallbladder was removed.
Following a few years of occasionally feeling like he had knives in his stomach, the pains were coming too frequently to be ignored any longer.
“Just yanked it out,” he said, chuckling about the arthroscopic treatment and later lifting his shirt to flash his microscopic scars. “I don’t know how they yanked that thing through there. (But) it was easy.”
Not much else was easy about the first third of the Royals’ season. But if Yost ever had doubts about the team’s trajectory, he restrained himself from venting over its frustrating lapses — as was his calling card in Milwaukee.
To pitcher Bruce Chen, Yost’s exuberance was particularly striking because it reflected poise under pressure.
“It’s human nature: His job is on the line. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen,” Chen said. “And he stayed calm. And he’s telling us, ‘I appreciate you guys working hard.’ He always kept encouraging us
“We’re the players. After you lose and lose, you start doubting. But if the people who are leading you start doubting too and are having second thoughts, then, yeah, things go bad.”
Perhaps no one benefited more from Yost’s optimism than third baseman Mike Moustakas, who had a rotten early season.
“We can break it down as far as you want to go, but it just wasn’t a good first half,” Moustakas said. “And when he kept putting my name in the lineup you start believing in yourself.
“And you start wanting it not just for you but for him too because he’s putting his neck on the line every night that he does it.”
As Moustakas speaks of Yost, he offers another thought.
“I think (Yost) was a little more high-strung when he was with Milwaukee a couple years back,” he said.
Indeed, during one stretch in 2007, Yost was so volatile he was ejected from three games in four days, leaving his wife, Debbie, to ask him if he’d lost his mind.
Yost, too, suggests he has reinvented himself, perhaps not so much this season as during his time away from the game after what he considered a surprising firing in Milwaukee.
The way he saw it, he had nurtured that young group of Brewers to maturity, then got the ax.
“A little bewildering,” he says now, adding, “It was a weird time. But I didn’t go into depression or anything like that.”
To the contrary, Yost believes he ultimately prospered by it.
“Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Looking back on it, it wasn’t a bad thing, you know,” he said. “I got to spend a year at home with my family. I’ve never done that before. And I actually was thrust into a better situation. We have a better team (here) than we had in Milwaukee.”
His assessment of the club's burgeoning young talent made the Royals job irresistible to Yost, who says he won’t be happy until he sees his current players spraying champagne in a World Series celebration.
He probably felt that way in Milwaukee too, but Yost believes he has a better approach now.
“You know, I used to argue with the umpire a lot more than I do now. But the reason I don’t now — because it gets me worked up,” he said. “And when I get worked up, you’re so mad at the umpire, it takes away from your in-game thinking.
“So now, in all aspects of the game, I’ve got to make sure that I’m staying even-keeled, steady, calm and always thinking through every situation that I can think through.”
Toward that end, Yost practices habits that enhance his focus, including a self-imposed media blackout.
Those #yosted and #yosting hashtags that trend locally on Twitter after one of his questionable moves? Yost has decided there’s nothing to be gained and only distressing distractions to be had by allowing his antenna to crank up.
“There’s a lot of people out there that aren’t here with us every day that will write articles that make no sense to me,” he said. “But mostly the comments after the articles are (what) just get you so mad.
“But you’ve got to realize, and this is what I’ve done, that it’s such a small minority of people who are on there, that it’s not reflective of the mass view. But still it (hacks) you off, and I don’t need that mad energy from somebody sitting in their basement writing a comment on the story.”
The final signature on the story of this Royals season remains a mystery.
Will they roll to the finish and seize a playoff berth? Might they plummet?
They have shown the capacity for both this season.
However this chase ends up, Moore calls the 2013 season “a year of tremendous growth” and raves about how this team plays “the right way” and competes hard every night — comments that sound like an endorsement of Yost.
But Moore defers any discussion of Yost’s future to the end of the season, after which Yost’s contract expires.
For his part, Yost would like to remain in Kansas City and believes he has “a great, open, honest relationship” with Moore.
“You have to be able to communicate, you have to be able to trust, and you have to be able to respect each other to an extremely high degree,” Yost said.
Especially since the job means that almost no matter what, there won’t be a lot of that coming from the outside looking in.