Sam Mellinger

How a gruff Royals manager came to win with the funnest team in major-league baseball

The Royals might be the loosest, most fun-loving club in baseball. And that starts at the top of their pecking order, with stars like Salvador Perez, left, and Eric Hosmer.
The Royals might be the loosest, most fun-loving club in baseball. And that starts at the top of their pecking order, with stars like Salvador Perez, left, and Eric Hosmer. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

Sal Perez is stumped. The move is premeditated, planned, by definition a man-made and non-spontaneous expression of joy but, even so, he is stumped.

The Royals catcher looks down at his hand and tries to go through the whole thing. Tries to count the steps of a handshake he has done with teammate Eric Hosmer hundreds of times.

“One, two, three … ” his voice trails off. “I don’t know. I need to find Hos.”

Baseball is an increasingly showy game. Act like you’ve been there is going the way of standard-definition TV. The lines between emotion and showboating blur every day now, it seems, and the best example of that yet might be this American League Division Series between the Royals and Astros, tied going into Game 3 here on Sunday. The evolution of baseball is here, in this series.

These teams lead the league in show. The other day, after Colby Rasmus homered off Johnny Cueto (who shimmied during his delivery) he celebrated with a side-headbutt of the man in the on-deck circle, and then the Astros’ dugout turned into something like a dance video.

After the game, a reporter asked some of the Royals if they were offended by that and, to their credit, they mostly laughed at the question. Of course not. How could they be? This would be like an air horn taking offense to a car horn blaring too loud.

Actually, later that night, Royals manager Ned Yost would see the highlights on TV in his hotel room and smile. That’s how his guys play. Or, at least, it is now. More on that in a second.

Perez stands in front of his locker. He is something like the DJ of the Royals’ frat party. Nobody smiles more. Nobody yells more. Nobody does anything without eventually making their way to Perez for some elaborate high-five-slash-handshake, all of them different, nearly all of them created back in spring training.

“Sal’s got fancy handshakes with everyone in here,” Hosmer, the Royals’ first baseman, says. “Inside jokes, just messing with each other.”

In the moment, those handshakes are as natural to Perez as breathing. But right now? Right now is tough. He plays it back and forth in his mind.

The Star's Andy McCullough and Blair Kerkhoff preview Game 3 of the AL Division Series between the Royals and Astros at 3 p.m. Sunday in Houston (TV: MLB Network). The series is tied 1-1.

He’s still stumped.

“I can’t do it,” Perez says. “Hos, I need you!”

There was a time when Yost would sooner do a six-hour press conference sitting on Buck Showalter’s lap than watch a guy flip his bat after a home run, or go through some elaborate eight-step handshake after scoring.

Yost came by that honestly.

“I grew up under Bobby Cox,” he says.

[ Royals hope to hand Astros ace Dallas Keuchel his first home loss ]

Cox is famous as a Hall of Fame manager, and for being ejected from more games than anyone in baseball history. But in certain circles of the game, he is perhaps best-known as baseball’s last hard-ass.

Cox ran his clubhouse like a boarding school. Fans of a certain age remember him pulling Andruw Jones from a game in the middle of an inning — the mother of all insults — for not hustling after a ball, but Cox had more demands than that. Many more.

No jeans on the road. No music in the clubhouse. No Oakleys over the eyes; only flip-downs. Cox got the important guys on those Braves teams to buy in, and once the success came, it was part of their culture.

This is how Yost decided he would be as a manager. Someone once told him that to be successful, you should pick the best person in your field and do what they do. To Yost, that person will always be Cox. Even now, after 12 seasons and 1,913 games as a manager (including the playoffs), Yost references Cox all the time.

But he has also become his own manager. His willingness to let his players loosen up is perhaps the most significant departure for student from mentor.

This started as a trickle. Yost now admits to being wound waaaay too tight in Milwaukee and, if he’s being honest, the same is true about his first few years in Kansas City. Old habits die hard. But smart people evolve.

At some point — depending on the moment, Yost will say he began to change on this somewhere between 2012 and 2014 — he loosened. When he played, Yost was nasty. Tough as concrete. Intense. But not everyone is like that, especially not the guys who now make the game go.

“They’re from a different generation than when I grew up,” Yost says. “That doesn’t mean it’s right or it’s wrong. But it’s who they are. To have success, you have to allow them to be who they are.”

[ Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez had to face identity crises to become who he is today ]

So Yost began to adapt. He stopped fighting the wind. This required a deliberate shift in his worldview. So he started to smile more. He laughed with his players. Played jokes on them. Let them crank the music in the clubhouse, let them turn each win into a five-minute rage with smoke machines and disco balls and speeches.

“Then you find out,” Yost says, “man, these guys are starting to do pretty good when you let them be who they are.”

As it turns out, Yost likes the emotion. Smiles at the celebrations. Even when they come from the other team. There is a line here, somewhere, and that line seems to be changing all the time as baseball wages something like a civil war between exuberance and tradition.

The Royals are fully on the side of exuberance. The Astros are, too. It’s helping make for a particularly fun series. Now, if Perez could only remember how he does that handshake with Hosmer.

Walking the hallways that connect the dugouts and clubhouses and everything else on the field level here at Minute Maid park can make you feel like you’re playing a weird and particularly boring game of Pac-Man.

Game 3 of the AL Division Series is 3:10 p.m. Sunday (MLB Network) and will pit Houston ace Dallas Keuchel, 15-0 at home, against KC's Edinson Volquez, 3-0 lifetime at Minute Maid Park.

Everything’s a turn, sometimes left when you think you should be going right, but if the timing is right you will run into Perez. And if the timing is really right, you will run into Perez and Hosmer on their way to the team bus.

“Mira, mira!” Perez says, shuffling his feet in front of Hosmer.

He and Hosmer both smile, and here it comes, the choreography Perez could not remember just a few minutes earlier without his buddy.

“Mira!” Perez says one more time, and now: a high-five, a windmill down low, then back up top — but this time it’s the back of the hands that slap — then one more high-five and finally the finish, a quick thumb out, both guys making a weeeesshhhh sound to sell it.

Hosmer laughs. Perez puts his arm around his friend. They walk toward the bus, two pals having fun. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to do it in the game the next day, this time for real.

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