A few weeks ago, on a quiet morning drive to the ballpark, Royals manager Ned Yost reached for his cell phone. The move was instinctive, an act of muscle memory that had yet to fade. He had, after all, been making this call for years.
He would call on a cloudless morning in Arizona. He would call on an afternoon back in Kansas City. He would call on late nights in Milwaukee, after a walk-off victory had roused the locals and the adrenalin was still pumping. Usually, his mother was still awake, too.
For years, the routine persisted, through cities and jobs, winning and losing. If Yost was driving to a baseball stadium, and there were a few minutes to spare, he would reach for his phone and call his mom.
But on a morning last month, as another season beckoned, his hand stopped. All winter, he had done this, he said. He couldn’t shake the habit.
“I must have reached for my phone 30 times to call her,” Yost said. “And you realize: ‘Well … ’ ”
On a Wednesday in November, Yost’s mother, Lael “Lee” Moffitt, died at home in Georgia. She was 83 and had battled a form of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. The condition severely limited her breathing and ravaged her quality of life. The end provided both heartache and relief, Yost said.
“She was just miserable,” Yost said. “So it was just something that, ‘OK, it’s over now. It’s good. She can breathe again.’ ”
Just four months removed from the death of his mother, Yost still vacillates between the two emotions. He misses his mom and the bond they shared. His faith tells him she is in a better place. In his eighth year at the helm in Kansas City, he has prepared himself for his first baseball season without her voice.
“I called her every day,” he said.
So on a morning here in late February, Yost sat inside his office and reflected on their relationship in an interview with The Star. In the months since her passing, he has tried to look at things in a rational way. His mother lived a long and good life. There was no need for her to suffer any longer. Yet a sense of grief remains, the universal feeling of watching a parent grow old.
“It was tough,” he said.
On most days, Lee Moffitt was her son’s most passionate supporter, planning her summer days around the Royals baseball schedule. On others, she was his fiercest defender, fretting over negative articles in the media.
She could also be his most ardent managerial critic. In his early days as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, Yost says, his mother would call and ask why he called upon a certain reliever in a close game — not unlike a frustrated fan at home. The names would change, of course, but one day Moffitt questioned his use of closer Derrick Turnbow.
“Why did you put that guy in the game?” Yost remembers his mom saying. “Why did you put Turnbow in the game right there? He gave it up the night before.
“I’d tell her: ‘Look, dumb old lady, if you keep this up I’m going to hang up on you right now.’ So she learned how to handle it all with me managing.”
Yost laughs as he finishes the story. It’s a happy one. There are others like it, too. For his 61 years on this earth, his mother was a constant source of love and support. As the years passed, he came to realize how similar they were.
A native of Eureka, Calif., Moffitt ran a collection of pharmacies in the Bay Area with Yost’s stepfather. Later in life, she became a successful real estate agent in nearby Pleasanton. She cherished days on the golf course. She adored her family. She grew to love her son’s favorite sport. When Yost’s father died in a trucking accident when he was a junior in high school, Moffitt was there, following and encouraging her son’s baseball career.
“She was one of those moms that was at just about every game,” Yost said.
As the years passed, her interest only swelled. When Yost debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1980, his mother was elated. When Yost coached for the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s and early 2000s, his mother and stepdad, William, relished the trips to the World Series. For every appearance, he would buy a commemorative pendant and give it to his mom. The tradition continued when the Royals made the World Series in 2014.
“She got to the point where she couldn’t get up and down the stairs at all, so she stayed in Georgia for ’14 and ’15,” Yost said. “But she really got excited, because every time we would go to the World Series, I would buy her the little pendant.
“She was so excited in ’14 that she was going to get a pendant. And then in ’15 … she was going to get another.”
In 2015, the pendant accompanied a championship trophy. In the final days of the World Series, as the Royals finished off the New York Mets, Moffitt watched back at home, staying up late into the night.
“She’d have four or five friends come over,” Yost said. “And they’d sit there and watch each game and the World Series.”
The final months were the toughest. As Yost finished out the 2016 season, he could sense his mother beginning to slip. His sister Karen lived down the street and kept a close eye as a care-giver. But as Yost arrived back in Georgia, his mother’s condition had worsened. She had difficulty pushing the carbon monoxide out of her lungs, which caused her to become disoriented. One doctor described it as trying to “breathe through a stirring straw,” Yost said. The family elected to move her to an assisted living facility. The experiment lasted just a week.
“When I got home at the end of the year, she had got to the point where she could hardly talk,” Yost said. “I’d drive into Atlanta on Sunday and just sit with her for six hours. She couldn’t say much, because it was just a fight to breathe.”
In November, the family moved Moffitt to another assisted living setup. Days later, there were more complications. Moffitt was rushed to the hospital. The doctors told the family to prepare for the end.
“My mom opened her eyes at one point and looked over, and the nurse asked her really quick: ‘Honey, do you want that tube out?’ ” Yost said. “And she just nodded her head like this.”
Yost and his family took Moffitt home that night. She passed away peacefully at just past 1:30 a.m. She was buried in the family plot back in Eureka, Calif.
A few months later, Yost departed for spring training. As he prepared for another season, the memories lingered.
“There would be a great game that we’d play and win late with like a walk-off homer,” Yost said. “I’d call her on the way home, and she’d still be so fired up because we’d won. I’d say: ‘You see that win?’
“ ‘You bet I saw that one.’ ”
Moments later, Yost finished the story. His mother never met his players, he says. She didn’t know them or their families. But she cared for them anyway. She talked of them like she did her grandkids.
She watched from home, and she cherished the victories, and she waited for the phone calls that followed. As another season begins, Yost can still her voice.
“She loved the boys,” he said. “She loved rooting for them. She knew them all, even though she never really met any of them.”
“She loved Salvy. She loved Hos. She loved Dyson. She loved them all.”