The longest-tenured manager in Kansas City Royals history wound through the terrain of Georgia on Tuesday afternoon, headed for a familiar destination. Earlier in the day, the Royals solidified his standing in the organization in the form of a contract extension through 2016. Now he was bound for his friend Jeff Foxworthy’s property to indulge in the final days of deer-hunting season.
In the weeks and months since the Royals snapped the longest postseason drought in North American sports, a heady run all the way to the seventh game of the World Series, Yost has tried to treat the offseason like most any other. He headed to his home outside of Atlanta. He filled his days with hunting, farming and phone calls with general manager Dayton Moore.
The duo opened contract negotiations before Christmas, postponed the talks during the holidays, and finalized them this week. To hear Yost tell it, the brevity of his new deal stems from their relationship. Yost sought a one-year extension because Moore is only under contract through 2016.
“Dayton’s got this year and next year, and that’s all I wanted,” Yost told The Star in a telephone conversation. He added, “One extra year, I’m happy with that. And we’ll just play it out, and see what happens after that.”
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Moore hired Yost to replace Trey Hillman, the ill-fated first manager of Moore’s regime, midway through the 2010 season. Yost survived three losing seasons as he nurtured the development of the team’s core, players such as Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar who return in 2015 as a group that is still youthful but now playoff-tested.
Along the way, he has vexed observers with his affinity for bunting, his curious lineup construction and his penchant for obstinance in the face of failure. But team officials value his optimism and consistency. The players rewarded his faith, and the faith of Moore, with their display last October. Now, with 38 more victories, Yost will surpass Whitey Herzog’s 410 wins for the most by a manager in franchise history.
“He came to our organization at a point in time when I think we needed to be re-energized,” Moore said. “And Ned brought a lot of hope and optimism. Ned is one of the very best leaders that I’ve ever worked with.”
Asked if Yost could have received a longer deal, Moore said “Of course.” Yost turns 61 in August. He has spent more than two decades inside big-league dugouts, first as a coach in Atlanta, then as a manager in Milwaukee and Kansas City. He has indicated he will consider retirement after 2016.
“You want to be able to give your very best each and every day,” Moore said. “Which requires a focus and an intensity and a sense of urgency. It’s a long, long year. And you want to be able to re-evaluate things in stages and phases.”
The Royals never intended for Yost to enter 2015 as a lame duck. Moore postponed the negotiations until the team repaired the holes in their roster.
The overwhelming majority of that work is now complete. Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios will supplant Billy Butler and Nori Aoki in the lineup. Edinson Volquez inherits some of James Shields’ workload in the rotation. Looming in the wings is Kris Medlen, who Moore hopes can return from Tommy John surgery by midseason. The bullpen remains intact.
With the pieces in place, the talks with Yost were relatively painless, both Yost and Moore said.
“We’re always striving for organizational harmony,” Moore said. “When we have our key leaders, in this case, the manager, signed through the next two years, it helps create that organizational harmony.”
Yost had received a two-year extension after 2013, the team’s first winning season since 2003. The pressure to surpass that barrier, to snap the 29-year streak without a playoff appearance, proved immense. The Royals survived swoons in May and July to secure a spot in the Wild Card game. They rallied from four runs down in the eighth inning of that game to best Jon Lester and the Athletics, opening the door for an enchanted October run.
Yost cemented his permanence in the Royals’ plans with his team’s performance that month. Moore has long raved about Yost’s qualities as a leader, and proved unwilling to criticize him for his occasional in-game missteps. During the playoffs, at last, Yost impressed rival officials with his deftness as a tactician.
Yost managed with an aggression unseen during his Royals tenure. He learned from his mistakes earlier in the year, and capitalized on the ferociousness of his bullpen. He deployed Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis in multiple-inning stints, clearing the way for All-Star closer Greg Holland. The club responded with an eight-game winning streak into the World Series, before ultimately falling to San Francisco.
“I can’t say enough about how he managed the team and just related to our fanbase, how he interacted with everyone in the organization throughout the playoffs,” Moore said. “I thought it was done really well. I think a lot of you guys saw the real Ned during that time.”
After he arrived at Foxworthy’s property, Yost settled in for the hunt. He interrupted his reverie to conduct a conference call from a deer blind. He had confessed earlier in the day that he had exhausted himself chasing deer during the winter. “I’m about burned out,” he said.
But the chase for a World Series, the title that was so close last year, still leaves him invigorated.
“We’ve got a young group that I’m real pleased to be around, and they’re a lot of fun,” Yost said. “And they can compete. As long as we have those components, it’s fun going to the ballpark.”