Vahe Gregorian

Ned Yost has been making ‘most of what he has’ since growing up a Giants fan

Ned Yost has been grinding his whole life, as a kid growing up near San Francisco, through junior college, then as a player and ultimately as manager of the Royals.
Ned Yost has been grinding his whole life, as a kid growing up near San Francisco, through junior college, then as a player and ultimately as manager of the Royals. The Kansas City Star

The Oakland Coliseum was only about 30 miles from where Ned Yost grew up in Dublin, Calif., so he went to plenty of Athletics games.

Enough that he knew how to sneak in.

“You had to jump the fence and hide in the bathroom, and when they started hitting, they kind of forgot about it,” he said. “Then we’d go out and shag balls in the stands. Even though the gates weren’t open yet, nobody ever kicked us out.”

But it was the San Francisco Giants that made Yost swoon.

In a field near the cul-de-sac where he lived, the youngster would put on one of about 15 Giants hats he went through as a youth, grab a bat and smack rocks by himself for hours, pretending to be Willie Mays or Orlando Cepeda or Tom Haller.

His fondest childhood memory, at least from the first 10 years of his life, was in the outfield in Candlestick Park — back before it truly hadn’t occurred to him that the baseball players also were humans and ate and wore street clothes away from the park.

For his birthday, his father had taken him to a game there. Around the eighth inning, he figured they’d best get out to beat traffic.

But before he left, Yost spontaneously stood and screamed “See you later, Willie!”

“And Willie Mays turned around to see who’s screaming at him,” said Yost, still incredulous.

So here Yost’s Royals are, playing the Giants in the World Series commencing Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.

This is a pinnacle of his career, and in many ways his life.

His feelings for the Giants, of course, are reduced to subdued sentimentality in this context.

But he feels a pang and some yearning to be able to share this with his father, with whom he learned to hunt and fish and camp, and who has missed so much now.

“Right after you get drafted, and then you work your way up, the first day you make it in the big leagues, you’re thinking, ‘Man, I wish he could have seen this,’ ” Yost said. “And then in ’82, when we made it to the World Series (as a player with Milwaukee), it was, ‘Man, I wish he could have seen this.’

“Then in ’95, world champs (as a coach with Atlanta) …

“He didn’t get to see any of it. I just wish he could have seen some of it, you know?”

Ned Yost Jr., a truck driver for ARCO, died when Yost was a junior in high school. As Yost knows the story, someone pulled in front of his tanker truck.

“It flipped him and killed him instantly,” Yost said. “It was really hard, because it was so unexpected. Something like that, it’s hard to believe. It’s like, ‘Well, maybe they got the wrong guy?’ ”

Instead, his father’s body was so “mangled up,” Yost said, that the casket was closed at the funeral.

Yost tries to shrug some about this, saying it was “a long, long time ago.”

His parents had been divorced a few years by then, after all. And Yost had a “phenomenal” relationship with his late step-father. He also has a thriving relationship with his mother, Lee Moffitt, who in her 80s remains his biggest champion and most frequent second-guesser watching every game from Georgia.

But no doubt he’ll forever be acutely conscious of abruptly never getting to see his father again …

And all that his father never could have expected and would love to have seen since it sprung forward from there.

In contrast to his father, a “little All-American” football player at Santa Rosa Junior College, Yost showed little promise as an athlete into high school.

By his recollection, he was about 5-foot-6, 140 pounds, was struggling in football and track and, for that matter, school.

“Probably my student career was a lot like my manager career: wasn’t real smart — according to my teachers and all the sports writers,” said Yost, the oldest of four children, smiling.

But he also was determined to find something he could excel at.

So he decided to dedicate himself to baseball despite a halting start and all sorts of resistance along the way.

On the junior varsity as a sophomore, Yost went hitless in 36 at-bats. He was still on the JV as a junior, he added, “which is unheard of.”

Then the summer between his junior and seniors years, he hit a growth spurt and worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken. To hear him tell it, each contributed equally to a radical change in his body composition.

Not because he was eating the profits, but because he was a pot-scrubber, a job he apparently did with such intensity that his strength increased dramatically.

“All of a sudden, I had a cannon for an arm and I was much stronger,” Yost said.

He became an all-league player as a senior, which sounds good but seemed to mean little and promise less. He was left to walking on at Chabot Junior College in Hayward, Calif.

But Yost had a few things going for him beneath the surface that paved the way to this moment.

One was a relentless spirit, one that sometimes entangled him in pride as much as it liberated him to keep on keeping on.

Another was circumstantial from his childhood.

As the neighborhood filled in and kids played baseball in the street, nobody wanted to be a catcher.

“So I say, ‘I’ll do it,’ right?” he said. “Then when we first went out for Little League, they say, ‘Has anybody every caught?’

“‘I have.’

“Boom, you’re the catcher. So I’ve been a catcher ever since.”

It’s not a stretch to say that led to him becoming a manager, a career trajectory for many former catchers, including Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

And his case is no coincidence, as Yost illustrated when he spoke of the influence of teammate Ted Simmons on him in Milwaukee.

Soon after they met, Simmons told Yost he’d enjoyed the fortune of having a lot of good baseball people teach him the game and that he felt it was his turn to pass it on.

“‘If you want, I can help you learn this game’ ” Yost recalled Simmons saying.

With some skepticism, Yost said, “Yeah, sure.”

Simmons said, “I’ll have something for you every day.”

Still skeptical, Yost thought, “OK, right.”

“And then for the next two and a half years,” Yost said, “Simmons had something for me every single day.”

One example was Simmons schooling and grilling him on the nuances of cutoffs and relays.

At one point, he gave Yost a sheet of paper with a baseball diamond on it and instructed him to make 200 copies.

“‘I want you to write out every cutoff and relay you can think of, starting with nobody on, base hit to left field: Where does every player on the field go?’ ” Yost said. “We’d talk about that, we’d talk about running counts, we’d talk about pitch selection, we’d talk about bullpen use. It was something for an hour or two every day.”

But Yost never would have gotten that time with Simmons, or gotten to the big leagues at all, without a little something to compensate for his absence of natural athleticism.

Something that wasn’t necessarily visible.

That’s why Gene Wellman, his coach at Chabot, ridiculed Yost for signing with the New York Mets after one year of junior-college ball.

Wellman, now 84, chuckled about it over the phone on Monday, but he was irate with Yost at the time.

Yost had made his decision to sign against the wishes of Wellman, whom Yost described as “an intimidating guy” with “just crystal blue eyes” that he’d seen “grab you by the shirt and smack you.”

“We really respected Gene,” Yost said, “but we were scared of him.”

So Yost was full of dread when Wellman tapped him on the shoulder that day and asked him to come to his office before he left school.

Then Wellman told him, “‘Hey, look, for the next week, just make sure you take care of yourself. Make sure you eat right. Just take care of yourself for the next week.’ ”

Wondering where Wellman was going with this, Yost said, “OK.”

Wellman reiterated, “‘You heard what I said — for the next week?’ ”

Still puzzled, Yost said, “Yeah.”

Then Wellman came to his point:

“‘Because that’s how long you’re going to last, son. You’re going to be back on the first bus. You think you’re a professional player? You ain’t going to make it. Good luck. See you later.’ ”

Days later, in Yost’s first at-bat for the Class A Batavia (N.Y.) Trojans, Yost barely even saw a 96 mph fastball zoom by for strike one. He struck out on a curve that he remembered breaking “like 19 feet.”

As he walked back to the dugout, he instantly thought, “Maybe Gene was right.”

But Yost endured and kept grinding, as he likes to say.

Six years later, he made his major-league debut with Milwaukee.

Three years later, Yost hit home runs on back-to-back days at Oakland Coliseum.

Afterward, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

It was Wellman, who had had no contact with Yost since he left but came to the game to watch him.

“‘I was dead wrong about you,’ ” Yost recalled him saying. “‘The one thing I didn’t take into account is that you can’t keep a good man down.’ ”

Yost was wearing sunglasses as he told the story, but if you didn’t know better you might have thought he was welling up some behind them.

As Wellman thinks of Yost, he says something simple but quite revealing: “He’s good at working with what he has.”

That speaks on multiple levels to how Yost got here, influenced most by Simmons, Bobby Cox (“how to manage games and how to treat people”) and late friend Dale Earnhardt (“how to compete”).

But something profound has happened with Yost in the last year or so, too, something that’s remarkable for an admittedly stubborn man.

He’s working with what he has in an entirely different way,

He’s let go of assuming he can control all … and even that he always knows best.

He’s put a premium on listening, really listening, to his staff, so much so that he tends to take their advice against his.

“If you’re really going to be honest with yourself, you have to be able to identify and understand your limitations,” he said. “And then whatever your limitations are, you try to strengthen them with the people around you. And I think I’ve done a really good job of that.

“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’ve learned a lot and I’ve learned to trust my coaches in a lot of different areas. And it’s made me a better manager.

“And you know what? All’s I can do every day is just give my best effort. And whatever comes with that comes with that, you know?”

No matter what anyone else has to say about it, like the way Yost supposedly matched up with Baltimore’s Buck Showalter.

“All that ‘dunce and the chess-master’ stuff, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. You have to accept it.”

And you have to evolve, he says.

Even when it feels like something is missing.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to