Ned Yost smiles. Honestly, it happens. And not just sarcastically, either. We’re talking about legitimate, genuine, smiles. You know, like people do when they’re happy. So that’s one big change.
The man seems content. Comfortable. Or, at least, less annoyed. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, but here he is, the manager of the American League champion Royals, and that has a nice ring to it, right?
So, yes. You’re darn right he’s in a good place. Success has its perks.
“I don’t have to fight all the bull (expletive), to be honest with you,” he says. “Trying to say, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got a really, really good team.’ And then you hear all the other (negative) stuff. We fought that for the first four years. That’s out of the way.
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“Now, everything we talked about during those years has proven true. So you don’t have to deal with that. For me, that bull (expletive) is the stuff that makes me uncomfortable. You see what I’m saying?”
Here we should confirm that, yes, in this instance, “bull (expletive)” is being used as a synonym for “skepticism.” It is something to be stomped out now, buried under the memories and highlights of past success and the energy and hope of chasing future success.
Pull up a chair. He’ll tell you all about it. This is the new Ned — same as the old Ned, just more with even less filter. More confidence. More comfort. Success looks good on him. This will be fun.
Over the last decade, there can’t be more than a handful of baseball men who’ve taken more criticism from the fans and media he deals with every day than Ned Yost. The list becomes even shorter if you limit it to men who still have jobs.
He has managed 11 years with the Royals and Brewers and lost 904 games. Only four of his teams had winning seasons, and he was fired before one of those ended. In any baseball city, there is no more inviting target for fan frustration than the manager. In Kansas City, Yost — the daily face of a massive rebuilding project that took longer than even the believers expected — made for a convenient pinata.
Even during the greatest accomplishment of his professional career, the shots kept coming. Before last year’s American League Division Series against the Angels, the Orange County Register wrote about Yost being inept as fact — the way you might write that Lorenzo Cain is good at defense. Most notably, the Wall Street Journal called Yost a dunce in a headline.
Yost says he does not care about any of that. Since the day he was hired to succeed Trey Hillman in Kansas City — it’ll be five years in May — Yost has said that one of his biggest lessons from his time with the Brewers was to not pay attention to criticism from fans or media.
For the most part, he makes a credible case of living that lesson, but there are moments — completely understandable, natural, human moments — where he gives a different impression.
Part of his job means daily interaction with reporters, and he will occasionally mention the criticism unprompted — in group interviews, and a half-hour-or-so conversation in his office for this column. Then again, he sure hasn’t changed his ways much over the years, which is the real test for how much of a damn he gives.
Ignoring criticism is easier said than done for any of us, and for Yost, it can only go so far. But now, whether he’ll ever say it out loud or not, Yost has the best response possible: scoreboard.
So, yeah. You’re darn right he’s in a good place. This is what he’s been working toward his entire baseball life. There are a lot of reasons he likes his new place in the baseball world. One of them is dealing with far less bull (expletive).
“I don’t read the paper, I don’t care what you write, and I don’t care what anybody else writes,” he says. “When I did, it wouldn’t make it worse, but it would (tick) you off. Because you knew what direction this club was going. Everything you know in your heart and in your mind is that it’s going to get there, and then everything that would occur is like trying to knock that down.
“So in a sense, it’s like, I’m trying to keep these guys positive. I’m trying to keep these guys going forward. But these guys do read the paper, and they do listen to that stuff, and they do take it to heart. So while we’re trying to build them up, in the paper and press they’re getting knocked down. So you’re always fighting that battle, to get them over the hump.”
Here he pauses, and, was that a smile?
“Now they’re over that hump. They know they don’t have to deal with it anymore.”
Same can be said for the manager. Like we say, success has its perks.
Wasn’t always like this for Yost. The day he changed was the same day the franchise for which he’s now managed more games than anyone changed. Sept. 30. The AL Wild Card Game.
That the Royals were even in that game represented something of a breakthrough. If nothing else, “29 years” was no longer the playoff drought, no longer the anvil hanging over the heads of everyone who worked for the Royals. Now, finally, “29 years” was a thing to accentuate an accomplishment in the works far longer than Yost had been in town.
It’s just that to a lot of folks, it all felt a bit like winning a contest on a technicality. The Wild Card Game is a very different thing than a playoff series, sort of like being invited to a party but then turned away at the door.
“If we lost that game,” Yost says now, “it felt like that year was a total waste for me.”
That’s how it looked for a long time, of course, after Brandon Moss’ bat and Yost’s bizarre decision to use Yordano Ventura as a relief pitcher in the sixth conspired to give Oakland a four-run lead in the eighth inning. Yost had told the world that day that he was sure the Royals would win this game, but by this point some in the organization were literally on their phones booking flights to start their offseasons the next day.
Yost describes what happened next the way Barry Levinson would make it look on film. His players — the ones he had believed in, defended, promoted and stuck behind — came into the dugout like a high school football team. They walked up and down the dugout floor, slapping each other’s gloves, screaming about how they would not lose this game, on this night, against this team.
Four years of positivity and optimism and gruff defenses of those players in the media bubbled into a beautiful and fierce comeback that ended with Salvador Perez somehow pulling that pitch down the third-base line for the game-winner. Yost has no idea why it happened at that specific moment, but he says this is when those guys truly believed. In each other. In their abilities.
There is no way to describe in words the joy and pride Yost must feel from that moment, a lifestyle he adopted to push a group of players he believed in and a franchise that’s so often been impossible to believe in through the playoffs.
“That’s why from that point on, I was a different guy,” Yost says. “I was relaxed. I knew there was nothing more I could do, other than let them go out and play and accomplish greatness.
“When I came here … I knew this city hadn’t been to the playoffs in a long time and that was a huge goal for me. Get this team to the playoffs and back to the World Series. So now, it’s like, OK, get back to the playoffs — check. Win (a) Division Series — check. Win the American League championship — check. Those things are all checked and out of the way, but the big one’s still not.
“So you’re more relaxed knowing you’ve accomplished something. But you haven’t accomplished your main goal. So that’s what your whole focus goes to now. That’s a much better feeling. My sole goal is to win the World Series, not to fight 29 years of frustration.”
Have you ever watched one of those shows on the History Channel, or maybe Discovery, the ones about climbing Mt. Everest?
Getting to the top of the world’s tallest and most grueling mountains takes some combination of guts, strength, resources, luck, imagination and realism. Those climbs change lives, some for the better and some for the worse. The stakes in a baseball season are certainly not life-threatening, like with the most ambitious mountain climbing, but there are more than a few similarities.
That’s the way Yost has come to think of it, anyway.
“You start the season and you’ve got 30 teams trying to climb Mt. Everest,” he says. “Then you get to the end of the season, and, boom, you’ve got eight teams left (after the Wild Card games). Everybody else gets knocked to the bottom, you just roll down the hill.
“Then in the playoffs, four more get knocked off in the Division Series. Down the hill. Then in the League Championship Series, two more knocked down to the bottom. Then it’s the World Series, and you’ve got two teams 20 feet from the peak, and in game seven it’s two teams that are two steps from the peak of Mt. Everest. You’re as close as you can be.
“That’s what the baseball season’s like. If you get blown out in four or five or six games, you’re not there. But to go to game seven, to lose that game 3-2 and have the tying run at third base in the ninth inning, the winning run at the plate, and have it end like that, you’re just two steps away and then get your (behind) knocked back.
“That leaves a hole, man. That leaves a hole. That leaves a pit in your stomach, and now look at us, we’re all the way back to the bottom, and damn, we have to climb that back up again. It’s really hard to get there.”
That’s the other side of success. It is tempestuous, and temporary. The chase is addicting. And Yost wants to keep chasing.
Ned Yost doesn’t need this. The early mornings. The long days. The stress. People don’t always see this, but at the highest level of baseball nobody works harder than the coaches.
The extra batting practice, extra ground balls, extra looks at the scouting reports. Those types of things are usually framed as a player putting in extra work, but it’s also true that virtually any time a player is doing extra work there’s a coach alongside. A player’s extra work is a coach’s normal work.
So, no, Yost does not need this. He has enough money. He could go back to Georgia and hunt and work on his farm for the rest of his life, relaxing and telling old stories from the frontline of a remarkable baseball achievement. He has a financial and growing emotional interest in a massive youth sports complex outside of Atlanta.
But you don’t last 11 years as a manager and 12 more years before that as a coach without loving it all. The grind, the work, the decisions, even the stress.
This is the final chapter of a life in baseball. Yost knows that, and talks of it openly. He probably could have leveraged last October’s run into a contract of as many years as he wanted. He asked for a one-year extension, through 2016, a bare minimum deal that only means the manager of the American League champion is not in the last year of his contract.
The reasons for this are both complicated and simple. He’ll turn 61 in August, and scoffs at the thought of doing this until he’s 70. He talks about managers like Tony LaRussa and Jim Leyland working the ends of their careers on year-to-year deals to make sure the contact in the clubhouse, motivation, and desire remained.
Besides, general manager Dayton Moore’s contract only has two more years on it and Yost is following the old-school baseball code that a manager shouldn’t have a longer contract than his GM. It’s also true that baseball’s economics mean a lot of the players Yost has believed in and won with probably won’t be in Kansas City beyond the next two seasons.
There is another reason Yost sometimes gives for not wanting a longer deal. He has a life outside of baseball, too, and says he doesn’t think he’ll want to do this more than two more years.
But that’s not necessary true. Maybe it’s the revival of spring or the energy of the World Series run or the comfort of an historic accomplishment, but now that Yost gets going he thinks it’s entirely possible he’ll ask for another contract someday.
“I’m doing it to be with these kids, and to be a world champion,” he says. “If we get into next year, and we’re doing good, I might do another year. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
It took more than a decade’s worth of broken hopes and disappointments, and more criticisms of his work and competence than he can count. But he’s here now, accomplished, comfortable, and finally. There has been no way to know until now.
After all those years, success looks good on him, so why stop now?