Sam Mellinger

How Ned Yost and the Royals brought out the best in each other

The Ned Yost story that sticks in the mind came from the playoff runs. Of course that’s when it happened. Nobody’s career in Kansas City sports turned quicker or with more force than Yost’s during those two magical years.

The postseasons began with that 2014 Wild Card game, and by now we all remember it for Salvador Perez somehow pulling a pitch from the left handed batter’s box down the third base line. That moment changed the Royals. Changed baseball in Kansas City.

It also may have saved Yost’s job.

His decision to use Yordano Ventura in the sixth inning just two days after a 72-pitch outing in the season finale, with two runners on and the Royals up one, blew up. Ventura had never before pitched in a high-leverage situation as a reliever. He gave up a three-run homer, then a single, and threw a wild pitch. Yost was swiftly and overwhelmingly blasted online. The crowd buried Yost in boos.

Three hours later the crowd had Kansas City’s biggest party in years. Yost survived, and then celebrated. But that’s not the story that sticks out. That’s merely the story that sets up the story that sticks out.

The 2015 American League Championship Series. Game 6. The Wade Davis game. Davis pitched 1 2/3 innings with a rain delay in the middle, and the Royals won on a breathtaking marriage of preparation and athleticism when Lorenzo Cain scored from first base on a single. Those were wild times.

Afterward, I was walking back through the dugout tunnel to write. Two players a few feet ahead of me walked toward the clubhouse.

“Guess we bailed him out again,” one said to the other, and they both laughed.

It was a joke. Yost’s reputation as a strategic boob had become exaggerated. The Wall Street Journal labeled him “The Dunce” in a headline. The players noticed. Yost noticed. It’s hard to say they used it as motivation. They already had plenty, in the time of their professional lives. But it did spice the celebrations.

Then again, in private moments, some players allowed that some of Yost’s moves were, well, unproductive. I never heard that sentiment expressed as criticism, necessarily. But it did come as part of the description.

So I can’t swear that the line I overheard was a joke. I think it was.

The point remains either way: through parts of 10 seasons and 1,580 games as the Royals’ manager, Yost had his players’ backs, and they had his.

He announced he will retire after this season. Time for a new voice for the Royals, and finally to the post-baseball life Yost has always wanted.

Yost and the Royals went through some of their worst times together. They also brought out the best in each other.

From the bottom up

Ned Yost is stubborn and proud and has no patience for fools. It’s also part of his job description to answer questions from reporters at least four times per day: a beat writers-only meeting followed by a bigger group followed by a one-on-one radio interview before the game, and then a postgame interview.

Add in spring training and the playoffs and Yost has sat to answer reporters’ questions well over 10,000 times. Just with the Royals, the number is close to 7,000.

Perhaps it’s simply a self-coping mechanism, then, but Yost developed something of a signature in these settings: Yost begins by totally rejecting the question’s premise before beginning his answer which, as many times as not, included agreeing with the premise.

My favorite example might be from this spring, when Yost was talking about no-hitters and someone mentioned it sounded like he was superstitious.

“I don’t believe in superstition,” he said. “I really don’t. But ... again, I don’t believe in it. So I’m not going to talk about it. Guys will be throwing a no-hitter in the seventh inning, I’ll look up and see he’s throwing a no-hitter and I’ll think about it for two pitches, boom, base hit.”

It’s performance art.

It’s also a bit of a lie. Or, at least, the perception some take from how he answers questions is a lie.

He can come across as gruff, uninterested, or arrogant. The truth is something else entirely.

His greatest strength as the Royals’ manager has been belief. He overwhelms players with belief. He defends them without fail publicly, and the basic question he asks himself before making strategic decisions has always been what will instill the most belief.

That’s why he somewhat famously refused to pinch hit for Alcides Escobar, why he let Escobar play everyday even as a day of rest may have helped, and why he made Escobar a leadoff hitter when it made not even a crumb of logical sense.

It’s why he prefers defined bullpen roles, why he’d often remove a starting pitcher before the statistical possibility of him taking a loss existed, and why he dumped the old-school idea that players shouldn’t blast music in the clubhouse or celebrate big plays or even routine wins.

Yost’s decision-making chart is plain: Will this create more confidence for the players? If yes, do it. If no, start over.

Yost became the best version of his professional self once he trusted his coaches more. This is just speculation, but the way it ended in Milwaukee must have been devastating. He lived and bled with that group from the bottom up, and then was fired with his team holding a playoff spot just two weeks before the end of the season.

The general manager who was forced by ownership to make the move has publicly regretted it, but for years that was fan shorthand anytime Yost made a questionable move: That’s why the Brewers fired him in a playoff chase!

Put yourself in that situation, and it can be easy to imagine losing trust in others, and being obsessed with the idea of proving your own worth.

Eventually, Yost brought those walls down and everyone flourished. He took direction on bullpen usage, and lineup construction, and obsessed in both the micro and macro on everything from pitch selection to personality management.

After years of dysfunction and locker rooms sometimes splitting into individual agendas, the Royals built themselves up largely on cohesion and playing their best when it was needed most.

They did that with Yost as their manager, and most public face.

Moving on

Another Ned story. This is three offseasons ago, when I’d invited myself to his farm in Georgia. Yost was kind enough to spend the day with me, showing all of the 550 acres he owns an hour south of Atlanta.

The place is gorgeous. He has a lake he keeps stocked, deer he keeps stalking, and a dream house that has been recently completed within a short drive of his five best friends.

“People will say, ‘You going to be OK after you retire?’” Ned said in a high pitch, making sure to scrunch up his face to show you how absurd he finds the question.

He then laughed, and spit some brown juice into a plastic water bottle.

“I’ll be OK.”

Most managers who have careers like Yost’s stay involved. Yost could become a special assistant to the GM if he wanted, and maybe he will. He’ll be asked what’s next at a news conference on Tuesday.

My hunch is that this will be a true retirement. He’s won the most games of any manager in Royals history, and is the only one to make consecutive World Series. He will step away as baseball’s career leader in playoff win percentage. He is a walking symbol of their success, and those are worth keeping around.

But Yost has more than baseball. He and his wife still have the kind of marriage where they tell each other I love you at the end of conversations. Baseball is great, but baseball also keeps a man away from his family and his friends.

From the time he was drafted in 1974, Yost has spent virtually his entire adult life in professional baseball as a player, coach, or manager. That’s 45 years. He’s 65. He’s earned a break.

This is a chance for Yost and Royals to both move on, then. He will forever be an important part of many of their best moments. The only other Royals manager to win a World Series had his number retired.

The Royals need a new voice, too. Yost far outlived the typical life expectancy of a big league manager. These last two teams should not have lost 100 games. That’s not all or even mostly on the manager, but maybe a new dugout leader can help.

Mike Matheny figures to be that man. The Royals hired him as a special adviser last November, which is similar to the way they brought in Yost before he replaced Trey Hillman in May 2010.

But there are so many moving parts. Dale Sveum and Pedro Grifol have earned consideration. John Sherman can’t officially take over as owner until November but he should be involved in the process.

It’s a chance to move forward, then. But whoever replaces Yost can only hope to match his greatest achievement.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.