Despite his detractors, Ned Yost takes Royals to unexpected heights
Kansas City Royals fans, the kindly people of the heartland, took the occasion of their first postseason game in 29 years to boo their own manager. Such was the familiar lot of the aggrieved, Ned Yost, who once went 0-for-36 as a high school player, who hit .212 in a brief career as a backup catcher in the big leagues, who once was fired with 12 games left and his team tied for a wild-card spot, and who, until that angry night in Kansas City, was one of only five men to manage more than 1,700 games and never make the postseason.
Yost, in other words, is unfamiliar with the easy road. It is no surprise that he is likely the first manager to be in the World Series while declaring, "I'm not a dope." The best story of the difficulty of Yost's baseball career is how he became a decent high school player in Dublin, Calif. — after not playing at all as a freshman, enduring the hitless year as a sophomore and playing part time as a junior. Let Yost tell it:
"After my junior year, I went to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken as a pot scrubber," he said. "When I came back for my senior year, I had a cannon for an arm. It was all from scrubbing pots all summer long. You scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. It's how I developed arm strength."
There was more adversity, of course. There always is with Yost. He had to walk on just to play baseball in junior college. The Mets drafted the former KFC pot scrubber with the seventh-overall pick of the 1974 draft, and the next year, at age 20, Yost was playing for the Class A Wausau Mets.
The team was on a trip to Waterloo, Iowa, when Yost and a few players were horsing around in the hallway of their hotel one night. One of the players grabbed a fire extinguisher and began to discharge it. At that moment, an elderly, white-haired man with a distinctive beard just happened to walk by and right into the spewed dry chemicals. He fell to the floor, dazed from the noxious fumes. Only when the smoke cleared, and an ambulance was called, did they recognize the man.
"We almost killed Colonel Sanders," Yost said. "He was there for some meeting or convention, and we were scared we would be known as the guys who killed the colonel."
At 60, Yost reached the greatest height of his colorful if rocky baseball life as the manager of the American League champion Kansas City Royals. This being Yost, though, he nearly didn't survive his first day in the postseason. In the sixth inning of the Wild-Card Game against Oakland, with his team holding a 3-2 lead, Yost brought in Yordano Ventura from the bullpen with two runners on, even though Ventura is a starting pitcher who had one day of rest after throwing 73 pitches. Ventura promptly gave up a three-run homer to Brandon Moss. When Yost reappeared to remove Ventura, the fans at Kauffman Stadium gave him the full-on Bronx cheer.
Kansas City came back twice more to win the game in 12 innings, 9-8. It's not a stretch to think the comeback saved Yost from getting fired a second time from a playoff team. TBS analyst Pedro Martinez said Yost made a "panic move" and would have been the "ugly goat" of the game if not for the Royals' rally.
"Listen," Yost said, "anybody who was sitting in my seat and had a kid ready who throws 98 [mph], they would have done the same thing."
Yost didn't have the kind of prior sparkling playing, coaching or managing career that would provide insulation against criticism. After his modest playing career — and a brief foray into taxidermy — Yost served on Hall of Famer Bobby Cox's Atlanta staff from 1991 through 2002. That offseason, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was looking for a manager. He decided to interview Yost upon the recommendations of others in the organization.
"We were at a point where we were going with kids," Melvin said. "Guys like J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks. You have to live with young players' mistakes. Other guys I interviewed had ideas about bringing in players they liked, more experienced players. Ned said, 'I'm perfectly O.K. with the kids. I'll live with their mistakes. I'm O.K. taking the losses now if it'll make us better in the future.' Believe me, that's not usual for a first-time manager to say that, to not worry about his record."
Melvin hired him. It took five seasons for Yost to lead Milwaukee to a winning record, but even that success was checkered. His 2007 team blew an 8 1/2-game lead and played tight down the stretch as Yost was ejected three times in the final week.
Yost guided the Brewers into another September pennant race the following year. They held a four-game lead with 20 games to play. But then they lost seven of their next eight games. Led by owner Mark Attanasio, the front office was concerned that the team again was playing tight under Yost. "We weren't hitting and we weren't loose," Melvin said. So with 12 games remaining in the season, the Brewers fired Yost and replaced him with Dale Sveum. The team won seven of the 12 to win the wild card.
In January 2010, Royals manager Trey Hillman recommended Yost for an advisory role under general manager Dayton Moore. Five months later, Moore fired Hillman and installed Yost as manager. This time, it took four seasons for Yost to post a winning record; the 86-76 Royals of '13 were only the franchise's second winning team among the previous 19. This season the Royals improved by three wins — just enough to grab the first wild-card spot and give Yost his first crack at the postseason. Only Clark Griffith (1903-20), Jimmy Dykes (1934-61), Paul Richards (1951-76) and Frank Robinson (1975-2006) had managed more games in the World Series era without guiding his team into the postseason.
"Here's the way I look at it," Melvin said. "When Ned was here with the Brewers, I have to give him credit for 2008 and the playoffs. He missed only 12 games. The balance of the work was his. And now he brought the Royals into the postseason.
"Now think about this: Seven managers could not get the Brewers into the postseason since 1982, and  managers could not get the Royals into the postseason since 1985, and Ned Yost did it in both places. I know there are many critics of his, but you have to give him credit."
Among those critics is Yost himself. He is honest enough to admit his own mistakes, particularly from his days in Milwaukee and in his first three seasons in Kansas City, when he gained a reputation for being aloof at best and crusty at worst.
"I think I've learned to allow my players to be themselves," he said. "Early on in my career, I tried to mold them to be just like me. The last two years, I've let the free-spirit guys be themselves, and we have a lot of them. And I have great coaches. I listen a lot more to them than I did in years past."
Yost learned at the side of Cox, who was loyal to players but was strict about keeping a professional, cool vibe around the team. Cox, for instance, did not allow the Braves to play music on the clubhouse stereo; players were told they had to use headphones. Yost believed in the same type of atmosphere, but he has relented in the past two years. Taking the lead from pitcher James Shields, the Royals now celebrate wins with a clubhouse smoke machine and loud music. "Everybody loves Ned here," Shields said. "He lets us have our fun. He doesn't hold us back. He's allowed the personality of this team to come through."
Yost's best decision was to formulate the endgame bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. As Yost said of the three, "It's a huge luxury for me. After the sixth inning, my thinking is done. I don't have to mix and match." The Royals became the first team ever with three relievers who each threw at least 60 innings and had an ERA of less than 1.50 in the regular season; no team ever had even two such relievers. Yost also made a key batting order switch in the final two weeks of the regular season, moving Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, who had been hitting down in the order, to the first and third spots to stack more speed at the top.
By the time Kansas City reached the World Series, something very odd began to happen to Yost: He finally was getting credit for his decision making. The Royals reached a crossroads in Game 2. Already down one game in the series, they were tied at two with San Francisco when trouble arose in the sixth. It was a dicey spot reminiscent of the sixth inning of the Wild-Card Game. This time, Yost handed the ball to Herrera, two outs sooner than he prefers. Herrera dispatched the Giants without trouble.
The Royals scored five runs in the bottom of the inning, and with Herrera, Davis and Holland eating up the final 11 outs with no runs and one hit, cruised to a 7–2 win to get back into the series. It took a while, but the "goat" got it right, at least when it came to turning around his many critics.
"I don't really pay attention to when people say I'm stupid," Yost said. "And I don't really pay attention to when people say I'm smart, because I'm neither. I'm not a dope, but I'm not the smartest guy on the face of the earth, either. So I just let all that go. I just want our team to win, and that is the only satisfaction that I get out of anything."