Vahe Gregorian

After near-death fall, Ned Yost's gusto is what the Royals need in time of flux

Between a widely anticipated Royals plummet as they transition into rebuild mode and his own plunge into a near-death experience in November, the offseason might have been a tempting farewell phase for manager Ned Yost.

At 62, Yost’s legacy includes a key role in the revival of a dormant franchise into World Series champions and the prestige of being the most victorious manager in club history.

He has nothing to prove to anyone, least of all to those who dismissed him as a dunce and maybe still do. And this restart will be marked by sporadic gains with absolutely no assurance of similar rewards ahead this time around.

But the reason Yost is still here essentially is the same reason the Royals still want him here amid so much flux, both in the players around him and a coaching staff that had grown stale and maybe even cynical.

There are many ways to try to get at the enthusiasm and energy that define Yost’s appeal as a manager and that general manager Dayton Moore most values.

But here is a fine example from a February morning in his office at the Royals spring training complex.

We got started with an obligatory wise-crack from Yost, who said “why don’t you just sit in my lap?” when I pulled a chair up to his desk (which made me laugh and picture Danny Noonan sitting before Judge Smails in his office at Bushwood Country Club in "Caddyshack." Alas, he didn’t offer me a Fresca at the end.).

Once through Yost's default media force-field, which mostly is playful even if it sounds cranky, we meandered through many topics before getting to how he feels physically and mentally with all that’s happened.

Yost suddenly thought back to his time in Atlanta.

“This sounds so stupid, but I just remember Greg Maddux looking in the mirror (one day) during those years he was winning all those Cy Youngs (and saying), ‘I’m so glad I’m me,’” Yost said, laughing. “Well, that’s exactly the way I feel right now.

“I’m sitting here thinking I’m so glad I’m me.”

Because he is blessed to have a wonderful family and terrific friends and work for a phenomenal organization in a great city with amazing people, he’d add, in as many words, and somehow every day he’s kind of like a kid on Christmas morning.

“When I go to bed, I can hardly wait to get up the next day, because I love working with Dayton and love working with these coaches,” he said. “These players are so much fun to be around because they’ve got energy and they’ve got life and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get better.”

Yost has had several major influences and pivotal figures in what became his calling, like all of us people without whom your life would have gone much differently and became part of your own unique blend.

Most often, he’ll make reference to manager Bobby Cox teaching him as a coach how to manage games and treat people, his late friend Dale Earnhardt schooling him in how to compete and even Ted Simmons teaching him the game in dimensions he’d never considered before when they were teammates in Milwaukee.

Yost will credit then-Braves executive Hank Aaron calling him about being a minor-league player-coach, just as Yost had no idea what he wanted to do with his life after his last major-league game in 1985 with Montreal.

That stint in Class AA Greenville enticed Yost enough to keep going and morphed into three years managing Class A Sumter.

Through both experiences, he worked with “a fantastic group of young players” like Ron Gant and Tom Glavine and David Justice and realized something about himself.

Yost relished teaching and development — enough so that he actually paid heed when his agent told him that if he “kept your nose clean” he could manage in the big leagues one day.

“That made me think about everything I did,” Yost said, laughing. “We all do stupid things.”

But there was another reason Yost gravitated to being a nurturing presence: his own experiences.

For openers, he understood what it was to be less gifted athletically than others, relegated to playing junior varsity even as a junior in high school, and largely willed himself into pro baseball.

“He’s good at working with what he has,” Gene Wellman, his coach at Chabot Junior College in Hayward, Calif., said in a 2014 phone interview.

Wellman was one of those who counted out Yost, who to Wellman’s ridicule left junior college after one year to sign with the Mets.

He told Yost he wouldn’t last a week, and sometimes Yost wondered himself as he scratched together a modest career that nonetheless had some memorable highlights.

About a decade after losing all contact with Wellman, Yost hit two home runs in a game at the Oakland Coliseum, near where he grew up.

As he spoke with friends and family afterward, Yost got a tap on his shoulder.

It was Wellman, part of a story that may or may not have made Yost tear up behind his sunglasses in the retelling but certainly was deeply emotional for him.

“‘I was dead wrong about you,’” Yost recalled him saying when we talked about his return to the Bay Area just before the 2014 World Series. “‘The one thing I didn’t take into account is that you can’t keep a good man down.’”

Poignant breakthrough moment that it was, it also reinforced Yost’s refusal to let others define his own possibilities — something that translated deftly into a coaching mindset.

Part of being good at working with what he has is that Yost’s own experiences make him empathetic to what players are going through.

In fact, his past as a player (reinforced by some of Cox’s counsel) accounts for that certain patience with struggling players that can exasperate fans.

“I always thought if you let me work through it (as a player), I’ll be fine,” he said with an animation that made it seem his career had ended just weeks ago. “But back in those days, they never left you alone or let you work through it.”

Meanwhile, the Royals' rise to a championship was in some ways defined by sticking with the likes of Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas as they struggled for various reasons.

“I think it’s proven (my way) right, too,” Yost said.

That’s why you’ll hear Yost say things like “I just believe in Alex Gordon, even when he’s struggling.”

And “I liked more than you thought I liked about that” after a 13-5 Cactus League loss.

Cue the jokes about hallucinations in the wake of him sharing that the drugs he was on during his recovery from a broken pelvis led to such imaginings as “a blue chair, like a taco” throwing him forward every time he leaned back.

Indeed, sometimes his optimism seems unfounded or ill-conceived.

But it’s always well-received where it matters most: in the clubhouse.

That’s part of why Moore saw Yost as an ideal point of stability with so much else fluid.

Moore never wonders whether he and Yost are on the same page, and he believes that same critical sense of trust is shared between Yost and his players.

By way of illustration, Moore spoke to the old-school premise that there are three kinds of players — those who need a kick in the rear, a pat on the butt or just to be left alone.

It requires an X-factor today.

“Unless you have a relationship and a trust level with the players, none of those philosophies work,” Moore said. “Because the player that you’re kicking on the butt says, ‘Well, you’re just picking on me.’

“The player that you’re patting on the butt says, ‘Well, he’s patronizing me; he doesn’t really care, he doesn’t know my kids’ names or my wife’s name.’

“And the player you leave alone says, ‘Coach doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t know anything about me. He doesn’t even pay attention to me. He must not like me.’”

That all looks and feels different with a trusting relationship — one that enables not only the manager to know where the player is coming from but vice versa.

All fundamental to what this organization is trying to do, especially right now as it reboots with development at a premium.

“It’s what’s in your heart and what’s in your head,” Moore said, pointing to each part as he spoke. “That’s what allows you to be successful playing this game. Jump high, run fast, real strong? I get it, it helps.

“But it doesn’t have the final say.”

Yost’s ability to help create an affirmative final say has evolved over the years, including since being fired in Milwaukee in 2008.

By some trial and error, he’s become a much better listener and come to have a better idea of his own limitations and trust his staff accordingly.

Still, a common denominator runs through it all and most distinguishes him: the irrepressible will and exuberant spirit that inform what he sees in the mirror and why he’s still at this.

“I’ve got so much to live for, and for a split second on November 4 that almost came to an end, so I’m just really glad I’m where I’m at,” Yost said. “It’s really fulfilling and really special to be 62 years old and still love what you do. Not a whole lot of people can say that.”

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