Vahe Gregorian

Even following 104-loss season, Ned Yost still loves his job with Royals. Here’s why

Yost celebrates pitchers and catchers at Royals spring training

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost deflected questions about position players on Friday February 15, 2019 and directed the media to celebrate the pitcher-catcher relationship during the first week of spring training in Surprise, Arizona.
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Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost deflected questions about position players on Friday February 15, 2019 and directed the media to celebrate the pitcher-catcher relationship during the first week of spring training in Surprise, Arizona.

Ever fixated on the present, Ned Yost doesn’t linger on his near-death experience before last season when he fell some 20 feet from a tree stand in a freak accident.

So when the moment creeps into his sleep and Yost hears that ssssst sound that preceded the plunge that left him with a broken pelvis and internal bleeding and being helicoptered to trauma doctors who saved his life, he simply tells himself, “OK, stop,” to scold it out of his mind.

To further put it behind him, he also thought it worth having his son, also named Ned, cut down the dangling safety straps — which had failed — on the tree at his Georgia farm.

“‘No,’” he said, as if talking to the equipment directly, “‘you ain’t going to sit there and remind me every day.’”

This epitomizes a mindset that focuses forward, not back, and constantly is on scan to perceive everything in a positive frame.

He might not always come off as Norman Vincent Peale with the curmudgeonly façade he employs with the media, for instance, but the truth is almost all of that is the jest of a happy man with a considerable sense of humor.

Like he flashed Friday when he deflected questions about position players until they report next week and said now is the time to “celebrate the pitcher-catcher relationship.” Asked just how best that might be celebrated, he said, “I mean, you’re not out looking at other women on Valentine’s Day, are you? ... Focus on what we have right here. Enjoy it. They’re here. Celebrate it.”

Spoken by a man who celebrates his fortune to have everything he ever would have wanted in life and says he’s more excited than he’s been in years — something he seems to say with sincerity every year — to be managing a Royals team that went 58-104 last year.

Between the returnees who finished the season 20-14 and additions such as Billy Hamilton, Yost can see only the makings of a group that will “take the light bulb from a 60 (watt) to a 90 then to 150. It will just keep getting brighter and brighter and brighter.”

And he wanted to be there for that, even as he will turn 65 in this 10th season managing the Royals.

With two American League titles and a World Series championship and the distinction of being the winningest manager in club history on his resume, he might well have said that’s enough after the horrific mishap.

For that matter, he might have found it preferable to stay home in Georgia now and continue basking in the joy his four grandchildren — ages 5 years to six months — brought him in the offseason.

Consider just his time spent with the elder of the group, Jordan: “He’s one of those Tasmanian devils. He hits the ground, and he’s gone,” Yost said, laughing. “‘Let’s go fishing. Let’s go look for arrowheads. Let’s go to the barn and have a Coke.’”

Yost, who proudly shared pictures and video of them on his Ipad, said his feet still hurt from walking “28 or 29 miles” at Disneyworld a few weeks ago. But his body clock still kicked in.

“The best way I can explain it is I had all the fun I could stand,” he said, smiling and adding, “You know how you get that, and then you’re ready to move on?”

To the other great love of his life: baseball and the process of nurturing and building.

“People might think I’m nuts, but it’s because I love working with (general manager Dayton Moore),” he said. “It’s because I love working with my coaches. Because I love working with these players. …

“I love being with these guys. I love the relationships. I love to watch them grow.”

So much so that, akin to Moore, he will tell you “I care more about the people on our team than I do about winning.”

But don’t stop at that sound bite. The point is that investing in the lives of players is both fulfilling in itself and the best way to coax the most out of them -- and it’s been the most essential and effective part of Yost’s work.

And it helps explain why by way of example Yost brought up unsigned former Royal Mike Moustakas.

“He’s got a special place in my heart,” he said. “But I’m unsettled in my spirit right now because he’s not (signed). Why should I be? I don’t know. Because I’m invested. You know what I’m saying?”

He’s also back because Moore continues to feels the same sort of shared journey and trust in Yost, well-symbolized in the moment they shared after the Royals beat the Mets at CitiField in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series.

With champagne popping and flowing in the clubhouse, Yost retired to his office and plopped down in his chair. Moore soon joined him, and for several moments they just sat silently looking at each other.

“That was all the celebration that I needed,” Yost said. “We had accomplished something special together, and we had done it our way.”

In part because Yost was willing to change some of his ways.

Even with the Royals improving every year from 2010 to 2013, from 67 wins to 86, his strategies were frequently criticized and at times his old-school ways didn’t seem to connect with some young players.

Yost proved right with such maneuvers as continuing to play the overmatched young Alcides Escobar to prime the pump for the future, as affirmed by Escobar being named MVP of the 2015 American League Championship Series.

But the Royals still believed he needed more support around him, and that initially was uncomfortable for Yost, who was fired by Milwaukee late in 2008.

When Moore’s special advisor Donnie Williams approached him after the 2013 season and proposed that he needed a good bench coach, Yost’s initial thought was, “What are you trying to tell me?”

Letting go of the reins, as he put it, was unnatural for the proud and stubborn Yost. And the transition hardly was instant when the Royals hired former Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu for the role. They butted heads some, Yost said, mostly because Yost kept insisting, “I want to do it this way.”

Over time in 2014, though, Yost both softened his demeanor with players and came to what he called “the three-on-one rule:” If Yost was dead-set on something, he’d still consider the voices and votes of Wakamatsu, hitting coach Pedro Grifol and pitching coach Dave Eiland.

“If they thought I should do it one way, and I thought we should do it another way, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to trust you and let’s do it that way,’” he said. “I found out that, hey, you know, their way works. And it got to the point where my eyes really, really opened up.”

Now, Yost might walk into the coaches’ office and tell them his door is open if they have any problems to solve … and they’ll just laugh.

That’s not the only way Yost evolved to become secure enough to acknowledge his own limitations: He knows he can be harsh when he believes players aren’t giving their best or being respectful and might drag others down with their attitude, and he realizes he’s capable of wounding feelings when he cuts loose.

So if someone has it coming, he tends to make sure a coach is with him to contain him. More often, he prefers to have coaches deliver the message, like the other day when he sent Grifol to reel in a player who had his hat turned sideways and was goofing around.

“‘You tell him that I’m fixing to snatch his butt off the field and send him into the locker room: This ain’t dance time, this ain’t Hollywood time,’” Yost remembered saying. “And Pedro handled it.”

If that fire seems at odds with the mentoring presence Yost wants to be, it’s not.

“I want what’s best for you; I know what’s best for you,” he said, punctuating his words by poking his finger on his desk. “Listen to me. And if you don’t listen to me, it upsets me. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. You will never have a better opportunity than you have right now. Never.”

All these years later, amid all the ups and downs of the last few years and his attachment to family, Yost can say the same for how he views this job.

So why wouldn’t he keep on at least for the foreseeable future, including at least tentatively thinking he’ll want to return in 2020, or until Moore thinks, as Yost put it, “We need a new voice.”

Especially since maybe Yost doesn’t feel he has everything he ever wanted after all. Shortly after he said that in an interview in his office, Yost made his way to an auxiliary media work room to offer an amendment.

“I’ve got one more thing I want — just one more thing,” he said, smiling. “One more world championship.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.