He drives through the mud in rural Georgia, not far from the Alabama state line, steering with one hand on the wheel and the other wrapped around a coffee cup partially filled with tobacco juice and saliva.
Royals manager Ned Yost is telling a story about the time his old friend, the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, invited him to Daytona to celebrate winning the 500. That was in 1998, and what a time Dale had promised him.
“He goes, ‘Where are you?’” Yost recalls. “I said, ‘I’m in Orlando.’ He said, ‘Get your ass over here. You need to be here!’ I said, ‘Dale, it’s freaking ...’”
Yost stomps the brake on his mud-splattered Chevrolet pickup, the interior covered in the orange dust coughed up by the Southern soil. Something has his attention.
“These little bastards,” he says, sliding out of the oversized truck.
On this day, a group of raccoons has gotten the better of Yost, who is no stranger to a tough job — and one that might lead an outsider to question the man’s sanity. Yost doesn’t just hope to lead the Royals to their first World Series since 1985. He expects to.
In between filling out lineup cards and tutoring the team’s young prospects, Yost spends his offseasons and downtime here, on these 700 unspoiled acres about an hour west of Atlanta. This is where he has made some team-altering decisions; the one that came to him during the 2011 All-Star break led to a second-half turnaround and renewed hope for starting pitcher Luke Hochevar. Out here, he isn’t bogged down with news conferences and batting orders. Driving a tractor is where he does some of his best thinking.
“We call it diesel therapy,” he says.
This is Yost’s sanctuary, amid the pines and the deer, and like the Royals, he’s shaping it to fit his vision. He brings in a biologist each year to study and manipulate his property’s deer population. He’s putting in a 25-acre lake that should be finished sometime this season. He and his wife, Deborah, will build a house overlooking the water soon after that. They’ll retire here someday. Maybe they’ll grow alfalfa or some other crop that makes the farm self-sufficient. Ned Yost likes a project.
The Royals are the biggest project of his life, the one that will define him as a baseball man. Development of young talent and winning a championship were the parameters outlined to Yost when general manager Dayton Moore promoted him to manager in May 2010.
Even when passing time on a tree stand or chipping red clay out of the metal tracks of a bulldozer, the game and this team aren’t far from Yost’s mind. Neither is the failure of the last time he was handed the keys to a team’s future, when he was fired as the talent-rich Milwaukee Brewers’ manager in 2008. Yost has another chance, and he says he isn’t taking that for granted.
“Tremendous opportunity,” he says. “I realized it as soon as I saw those kids in spring training.”
These months aren’t slow for the 56-year-old Yost. He hunts most mornings and solves problems most afternoons. The problem on this day, two weeks before Yost reports to Surprise, Ariz., for his third season as manager, is that raccoons have been eating the eggs of wild turkeys. In Yost’s faraway world, this is a big deal. If there are no eggs, there are no turkeys, and if there are no turkeys, he and his friends cannot shoot them.
Raccoons remember, and this is discouraging to Yost. He is convinced they have associated the traps in this feedlot with danger — and have learned that the secret to scurrying to safety with a full stomach is rattling the metal traps to dislodge tins of cat food aimed at baiting the critters inside. The answer is to move the traps to a different area, a kind of change-up to his nocturnal nemesis.
“I ain’t quitting until I get ‘em,” he says. “I’ll wage war on them.”
He doesn’t smile when he says it. He just spits into the cup and shakes his head.
He’s driving still, this time on a paved road, when his phone rings. He smiles when he sees the face, a broad grin looking back at him from the contact photograph on his iPhone. It’s Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian and Yost’s favorite hunting partner.
Foxworthy owns 3,000 acres about 18 miles from Yost’s Rising Rock Farm, and like boys a quarter their age, he and Yost spend most days this time of year playing in each other’s backyards. Foxworthy has a standup show later on this day, but tomorrow morning, he and Yost will meet to shoot coyotes. Or at least try. They’ve never done it before.
“Shoot,” Yost says into the phone, “even if we don’t kill one, it’ll be worth it.”
They drink beer together, tell stories together, stay up late and talk about life together. Then the next day, they usually rise and head toward a deer stand. This past deer season, they killed 27 on Yost’s property; he estimates they took down about 100 on Foxworthy’s land. They clean, process and butcher the deer themselves, techniques that, in another one of his projects, Yost learned and perfected years ago. They donate most of the meat to food banks and churches.
Sometimes, Yost’s two worlds — baseball and the outdoors — intersect.
“Dayton has an uncanny knack,” Yost says of his boss, “of always calling when you’ve got three or four deer right underneath you.”
Yost and his friends take hunting seriously. Foxworthy converted a grain silo on his property into a cylindrical lodge, with bedrooms and a kitchen and a big-screen television. One week a year, a group gets together for target practice and a few laughs, cooking spaghetti one night, steak the next, and thinking about little more than the behavior, needs and tendencies of deer. Maybe 20 yards from the silo’s front door is “Man Land,” a shed that has been outfitted with lockers and name plates — they call Yost “Steady,” because his mood doesn’t often change — with a giant trophy room in the rear. There’s an alligator a friend killed with a bow, and a stag Foxworthy brought home from New Zealand. There are rows of mounted heads and a case of arrowheads, gathered from both properties. But the prize for this year is near a wall, a 10-point buck, freshly mounted.
“That’s a good deer,” Yost says, admiring it. “We tried to kill Tush Hog for three years before I got an arrow in him.”
Yes, this deer has a name, or had one before it punched his ticket to heaven, as Yost likes to say. The group not only studies and hunts the wildlife on the two farms; the friends create backstories and names for some of their most challenging prey.
“You’ve got to be a special deer,” he says, “to get a name.”
The first one was “Bo,” after Bo Jackson, because Yost says he was “such a stud.” Batman is still out there, and so is Herschel Walker, the broad-shouldered beast they hope to someday vanquish. Spider-Man and Victor are waiting for their tickets to heaven, and Yost and Foxworthy are waiting to punch them. There’s even a deer they call Wil Myers, after the young and yet unproven outfielder in the Royals’ farm system. Yost smiles when he tells you why, proud of his own creativity.
“Because he’s going to be something special in two years,” he says.
Yost was a coach for the Atlanta Braves when he met Foxworthy, a longtime baseball fan who lived in nearby Alpharetta. Yost was part of the Braves’ impressive, but ultimately disappointing, run of 14 consecutive division championships that began in 1991. Atlanta won only one World Series during that time, in 1995, and that didn’t feel like enough for such a talented group.
“There was a lot of failure in those situations early on,” says Moore, who began his career in 1994 as a Braves scout.
Yost talks often about the period after Hank Aaron, the Hall of Fame slugger and Braves executive, called Yost in the mid-1980s and asked him to work with the team’s catching prospects. Yost had been a big-league catcher himself, but after the pilot light went out on his career, he had gone to Mississippi to work as a timber buyer. He measured and marked wood, and he was outside. In his mind, that was a fine way to make a living.
“Then Hank called,” Yost remembers simply. “Took me in a whole different direction.”
Yost was with the Braves, working his way to bullpen coach and later third-base coach, as homegrown stars such as David Justice, Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones reached the majors. He compares this young group of Royals players with those early Braves teams. As it was in Atlanta, the hope isn’t to just win one championship in Kansas City. It is to win several.
Yost understands how that sounds nearly 900 miles from here, that land of impatience and disappointment — the last time the Royals won a World Series, Yost was a 30-year-old catcher contemplating retirement — but he says this time, it’s real. He and Foxworthy talk about it sometimes, when they’re not using night-vision photography to track Batman or Archie or Duke, the eyes bright white in the frames Yost scrolls through on his iPad. In time, Yost believes, he will get them all. He’s an optimist like that. And in time, the Royals’ youngsters will win a championship. If the project goes as planned, maybe more than one.
“They’re just too good,” he says, “for it not to happen eventually.”
Yost finishes his conversation with Foxworthy, whose jet awaits. They agree to see each other the next morning; call it 10:30 or 11. Maybe they’ll snag a coyote or two. Even after decades in big-league hotels and immaculate clubhouses, Yost’s roots run in deer hides and red mud.
“Don’t worry about it!” he says to Foxworthy. “Yeah, just bring your freakin’ dip and come on.”
For three days last summer, Yost chugged along on his bush-hogger, a yellow monstrosity, and did nothing but cut lines in the earth and think about the Royals.
It was the All-Star break, and Yost and Deb headed to the country for a breather. He sat on the tractor, thinking about what he could do to improve on the Royals’ 37-54 record. Inside the baseball monster, it’s not always simple for a manager to stop and think about the big picture.
“You’ve got people pulling on you,” Yost says. “You’ve got your coaches, you’ve got your players; you’re worried about this, you’re worried about that. But out here, you don’t. You’re just in the tractor. With the air conditioning going on, it don’t matter.”
For most of his life, Yost has been at his best when deciding things on his own. When he was 16, he killed a pheasant and took it to a taxidermist to have it stuffed. It would take six months and cost $65, the man told the young hunter, and that didn’t seem right. When Yost looked into it, he learned he could stuff a pheasant himself for less than $2, finishing in a day. So he took up the trade, starting with ducks and other waterfowl, graduating eventually to deer and coyotes, mastering the art of caping and fleshing, tracing the eyes and lips, then stretching the flesh over a mold for the final stitching.
A taxidermy studio in Mississippi hired him during the winter months, and in time, Yost eventually opened his own shop, behind a relative’s bowling alley.
“When we were really rocking, we were doing two in a day,” says Yost, who didn’t give up the hobby until 2003, when Milwaukee hired him as manager.
So last summer, he disappeared from Kansas City and the major-league landscape. He cut trails in his farm and thought about his team, and finally the answer came to him: It was time to get more assertive. Time to stop playing like losers. No more sitting back, being too careful and waiting for things to happen. When the team reconvened, Yost instructed starting pitchers to challenge hitters, doing away with an apprehension to work the inside of the plate.
If that led to more hit batters, so be it. If it led to a few fights, bring it on.
“We needed to be more aggressive,” Yost says, and the expectations increased, too.
In 19 starts before the All-Star break, starting pitcher Luke Hochevar was 5-8 with a 5.46 earned run average. After Yost’s directive, Hochevar made a dozen starts, going 6-3 and trimming nearly two full runs from his ERA. The Royals were three games under .500 in the second half and finished the season with 10 wins in their final 15 contests.
The time away opened Yost’s mind to new possibilities.
“You can really start to break it down, piece by piece by piece, with no distractions,” he says, “to the point that you can’t do that really anywhere else.”
He stuffs a fresh wad of smokeless tobacco into his cheek.
“It just works for me.”
He can see it now, the way Michelangelo could look at a slab of marble and see within it a masterpiece. It’s difficult to understand, perhaps, a man preoccupied with raccoons being such a visionary, but Yost can see completed ideas in their most primitive state.
Parked on a hill, he looks toward a slope. That valley, in the center of this 58-acre hayfield, is where the lake will be. Bulldozers and backhoes move earth on this day, but Yost sees his wife and grandchildren holding a cane pole over the water, smiling as they lift out a bass. Or professional anglers motoring from the dock to the center, tournaments held where there was once nothing but an idea.
“It just kind of fits all of our needs,” he says, the sound of heavy motors humming through the truck’s open windows.
In time, Yost says, his life will no longer be split between two worlds — this one and the one in which he wears baseball pants. During the season, he and Deb rent a condo on the Country Club Plaza, and he arrives early at the stadium and stays late. The most downtime he gets then is stopping for barbecue on the way home and watching television until it’s time to sleep and do it all again. It’s different, but that life has made this one possible. It’s the one that pulled him out of California, stuck him in the minor leagues of Mississippi and turned the son of a football player into a lifetime baseball man.
At some point, though, it will have to end. He says it could be only a few years from now, so that he’s young enough to enjoy the sights he envisions on that lake, which has moved past the digging stage and is now onto the shaping of dams. Similarly, there’s a second phase with the Royals set to begin this season. Yost says the young Royals are so talented, only flukes and mental blunders can get in their way.
He says his job has been, in his first two seasons, to protect them. Yost himself didn’t possess the talent of Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer or Bubba Starling. But instead of accepting his limits and playing smart, Yost was stubborn.
“I always think that I can run through that wall,” he says. “I don’t care who’s on the mound; I’m taking you deep. ... Eight times out of 10, I would hit a nice two-hopper to the shortstop. I was an easy out. I never understood, and everybody kept telling me that: ‘Use the whole field.’ To hell with that. All I needed was left field. I was like that till I quit. I was stupid.”
Yost might not be baseball’s most exciting manager, and he’s occasionally prickly and impatient with reporters. But his skills come in recognizing potential pitfalls, like those that unraveled his own playing career. Yost is older now, less willing to test the limits of common sense, and he says he wants to impart some of that wisdom to the Royals’ youngsters.
“Players have to go out there and manage failure,” Moore says, “because that’s what the game demands. You want a manager, and Ned understands this, Ned understands how to manage failure and keep pushing. ... You just learned the ups and downs of what young players experience. Because of that, as a leader, you are either more patient, more understanding and at times more pushy.”
The Royals’ first chapter involved forced maturation, even if it occasionally defied logic. Yost says it was better, in an odd way, to have a slumping Moustakas strike out to end an inning, stranding a tying or go-ahead runner in scoring position, than to pinch hit for him. Because Moustakas needed to learn how it felt to strike out and what it took to respond. Unlike when Yost failed three decades ago, the Royals’ failure is mostly controlled.
“I can tell you exactly where the potholes, where the mudholes, where the deep holes — I can tell you exactly where they are,” he says. “But you have to listen.”
Out here on the farm, this has been Yost’s latest epiphany: The Royals’ second phase, which Yost says will begin this season, will be more about strategy. A struggling player won’t be forced into a difficult spot if the game is on the line. This season, barring more bad luck — like catcher Salvy Perez’s knee-ligament injury or closer Joakim Soria’s injured elbow — will be about winning each day. The team’s strong finish in 2011 signaled to Yost, and the organization, that the young group not only possessed talent but a rare kind of mental toughness.
“They made their mind up that they wanted to finish strong, to take momentum into this year, and that was no joke,” Yost says. “... That tells me they’re ready to win now.”
This stage of the project, though, is where Yost found himself in another mudhole. As the Brewers’ manager in 2008, Yost’s lineup again featured homegrown talent he compared with what he saw in Atlanta. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy. But with a dozen games left in the ’08 regular season and the Brewers tied for the NL wild-card lead, owner Mark Attanasio opted to fire Yost.
General manager Doug Melvin said at the time that Yost “didn’t have all the answers” after the team lost seven of its previous eight games, relinquishing the division lead.
“I got a call and said they were making a change. So I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’” Yost recalls.
Yost’s replacement, Dale Sveum, helped curb the losing enough to win the wild card, but the Brewers lost in four games to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. Three seasons and zero World Series appearances later, one of the most talent-rich teams in baseball has seen its championship window close. Fielder signed with Detroit this past offseason, Hardy now plays for Baltimore and Sveum manages the Chicago Cubs. Milwaukee is seen less as a contender now than a cautionary tale for small-market upstarts like the Royals: There’s a finite amount of time to complete the job, so years and months and weeks cannot be wasted.
Moore has promised patience. But with any project, no matter what masterpiece might exist, there comes a deadline — the time the lake must be completed and the time a baseball team stops talking about the future and shows results.
This season, Yost says, will be about seeing a payoff. About offering guidance, but not becoming a hindrance. After all, Yost is the young Royals’ own cautionary tale.
“I don’t want to see guys making the same mistakes I made,” he says.
A moment later, Yost stops his pickup, looking across the hood. There’s a wrinkle in the earth, another mudhole ahead. A younger, less experienced man might take it on, testing the truck’s four-wheel drive.
Yost shifts into reverse, then steers safely to the obstacle’s left.
Here’s the thing about a man who likes a project: It’s not the completion he’s after; it’s the job itself. And so the work is never complete.
Last year, Yost put in a sprawling workshop and garage on the farm. After the lake and the house are finished, there will be another task, another upgrade.
“There’s always something that you can do,” Yost says. “You’re always building.”
The job in Kansas City is the one he’ll be remembered for, whether as the manager who led the Royals to a championship or as the latest man with a grandiose but ultimately empty vision. Yost says the only way he’ll be able to retire happily, all the itches scratched, is by guiding this group to several World Series — by helping it become self-sufficient, the same way he hopes this farm will someday be.
Maybe someday, after two or three championships, before the talk turns to expiring contracts and closing championship windows, Yost will retire and retreat for good to western Georgia.
He’ll sit on the porch, after a day of deer hunting and picking up arrowheads, and watch the sun set over the neighboring town of Pine Mountain. Maybe he’ll think about what he and those talented youngsters completed in a place they said it couldn’t be done.
Yes, he says, that would be all right.
“You see a lot of players that, when they’re done, they don’t know they’re done,” he says. “Or they can’t get over it. I never had that problem. When I was done, I never looked back. I knew that I gave everything that I had to offer.
“I think I can do that as a coach, too. But I still have a lot to accomplish before I can do that.”
If the project fails, maybe Yost will keep churning, keep bouncing from team to team, from project to project, trying to finish what he started in Milwaukee, what he witnessed in Atlanta, what he’s so confident about in Kansas City. Baseball, like 700 acres of untouched land, offers so many possibilities.
The sun is setting in western Georgia. Two weeks from now, Yost will stop dividing his attention and focus only on baseball. With the All-Star Game in Kansas City this summer, he won’t see the property again until the fall.
“Once I leave here,” he says, “I won’t think about this place.”
This day isn’t finished yet, though. There’s still something on his mind, and he’s uncertain it can wait until tomorrow, when he and Foxworthy will be chasing coyotes. It’s those damn raccoons.
“They’re busting my ass,” Yost says.
Before nightfall, he’s planning to move the traps and hope they fall for it. If they don’t, he’ll keep tinkering with it until he gets it right. That’s what a good manager does. He stays focused on the next project that needs his attention.
“I’ll get ‘em,” he says. “I won’t let them suckers outsmart me.”