Relaxed Yost enjoying ride with Royals
Empowerment of staff feeds change in personality
KANSAS CITY -- The Ned Yost that players, coaches, family and friends see now isn't the same Ned Yost they saw five years ago, or two years ago, or even one year ago.
Not even close.
They've all noticed a change from a tense, worried, gotta-do-it-my-way type of man to the relaxed, funny, enjoy-the-moment manager of the Royals, who are about to embark on their second straight trek to the World Series.
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, a close friend of Yost's, said he first noticed the change after the Wild Card win last season.
"We were sitting in his office one day a week or two after that," Foxworthy said by phone Monday, "and he was over there laughing and grinning about something, and I just said, 'Dude, it looks like you're having fun. The managers on the other side are all nervous and tense every series, but look at you. Who are you?'"
Yost's son, Ned IV, has noticed the same thing.
"The last year or so, I've noticed that whatever we're doing," Ned IV said, "it's all about just enjoying the moment. Enjoy the ride, whether it's hunting or working or just having breakfast."
Yost himself can't quite explain the transformation.
"I think that there was some satisfaction for this group of guys and for them to get to the postseason and experience it," Yost said. "I was so happy for them. And it's so rare and unpredictable to get this far, you have to enjoy it."
Yost preaches that philosophy to his players almost daily.
"Oh yeah, enjoy the moment," center fielder Lorenzo Cain said. "You never know when you'll get back, so take it all in. We've tried to do that."
Of course, that wasn't Yost's view years ago when he was managing the Brewers, his first managerial gig that ended in bizarre fashion when general manager Doug Melvin dismissed him with just 12 games left in the season in a postseason push.
The Royals' present hitting coach, Dale Sveum, was on Yost's staff back then and replaced him as the Brewers' manager.
"I think what he went through is what a lot of managers go through, myself included," Sveum said. "You try to do everything yourself. You get so wound up in the wins and losses. The truth is, good players make good managers.
"But he is way more laid back now than he was back then. Winning does that."
First-base coach Rusty Kuntz also has noticed a change in Yost the last two seasons.
"He is much more willing to let his coaches coach," Kuntz said. "Not all managers are like that. He lets us coach. All he asks from us is to be informed why we do the things we do. And if it goes wrong, you'll never see him throw a coach under the bus. You see him in the press conferences talking about how he messed up. We know he has our back."
Yost admits it took a while to understand the value of a coaching staff. His leadership is far more democratic than it used to be. He even implemented the 3-on-1 rule last year.
"If we have a decision to make," Yost said of the rule, "and three of my coaches have a different opinion than mine, then I'll go with their opinion. I think if you hire good coaches, you have to let them do their jobs. I didn't used to think that way. I do now."
Much of Yost's education on how to manage came from his mentor, Atlanta's Bobby Cox. Yost served as a coach under Cox from 1991-2002.
"I was always taught that if you want to be the best at something," Yost said, "surround yourself with the smartest guys in that profession. I had that with Bobby and that staff."
But Yost has strayed from Cox's managerial approach when he feels a different approach is necessary. Unlike Cox, Yost gives his players the freedom to express themselves, during the game and after the game.
"Bobby wasn't big on the celebration stuff," Yost said. "But I've come to learn that I'm managing a different generation. These guys look at things differently. They express themselves differently. It's not wrong, it's just different. It doesn't mean they disrespect the game. They are just a different generation.
"So if they want to have a little excitement in the dugout, then great. If they want postgame celebration parties -- and they don't last long -- then great. As a manager, you have to adjust."
Yost also has tried to adapt to changing times in baseball, a sport that pays far more attention to analytics than Yost's playing generation ever did.
Even Yost paid heed in September when he removed shortstop Alcides Escobar from the leadoff spot because of a horrific slump. Yost made Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist his Nos. 1-2 hitters in the lineup. Sabermetric-inclined Royals fans rejoiced.
"I wanted that lineup to work because I had two on-base guys at the top," Yost said. "I really did want it to work."
But it didn't, and the Royals' September swoon got worse -- they lost nine of 15 with Yost's "saber lineup."
With five games to go in the regular season, Yost switched back to Escobar -- he of the low on-base percentage -- at the top spot. The Royals won all five games, and then won the American League Division Series and the AL Championship Series.
"It's a mystery and I can't explain it," Yost said. "I wish one of the smart numbers guys would tell me why, but we were like 48 games over .500 with Esky leading off. It doesn't make sense.
"I wanted the other lineup to work. But I want to win more."
Foxworthy is amused how Yost in the past had been perceived as "a dunce," as the Wall Street Journal called him last postseason.
"The Esky thing is the perfect example," Foxworthy said. "It doesn't matter why it works, it just works. A good manager recognizes that.
"Look, it's not a fluke when you get to the World Series twice. You can look at all the 'Moneyball' stuff you want, but that's two straight trips to the Series. They're doing something right."
Actually, Yost's ability to adapt is one of his most underrated qualities.
How else can one explain how a native of just outside the Bay Area in California can wind up owning a farm in Georgia, enjoy a seat on a tractor, and spend most of his offseason hunting?
"He sure picked up on the southern lifestyle," Ned IV said. "It's suited for him."
No one thought Yost would ever rise to the ranks of Major League Baseball player, either, when he was a struggling catcher at Dublin High School in California.
"I went my whole sophomore year without getting a hit, like 0-for-36," Yost recalled.
But Yost remembers the turning point -- he got a job that following summer at Kentucky Fried Chicken as a pot scrubber.
"Man, I came back the next year and I was much stronger and I had this cannon for an arm," Yost said. "I hit like .420 that year and maybe .350 the next."
But no scholarship offers came forth, so Yost walked on at Chabot Junior College in Hayward, Calif.
Yost's defense there impressed scouts and he was drafted by both the Expos and the Mets. He signed with the Mets. Later, he was a Rule 5 pickup by the Brewers and played a total of six years with the Brewers, Rangers and Expos.
After retiring, Yost wandered a bit before deciding on a career in coaching, performing coaching stints in the Minors before hooking on with Cox and the Braves. The Brewers hired him as their manager in 2003.
"Even then, the one thing he really proved was he had patience for younger players," Sveum said. "We saw it there and we saw it here."
Royals general manager Dayton Moore saw it, too, and not long after Yost was let go in Milwaukee, Yost was hired by Moore as a special assistant to the general manager. Yost regularly visited and kept tabs on some of the organization's budding prospects, such as Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer.
When Moore dismissed manager Trey Hillman in 2010, Yost was the natural replacement.
"To this day, people ask me what my No. 1 acquisition has been," Moore said, "and I always say it was Ned Yost."
Yost has rewarded Moore's faith in him by steering the Royals to their second straight World Series.
And as soon as it is over, Yost will head back to his farm in Georgia, and he will hunt on his land with Foxworthy, who has a neighboring farm and whom Yost met while in a Bible study class in the early 1990s.
"I know how much he loves baseball and he loves Kansas City and the fans and his team," Foxworthy said. "But I know he can't wait to get back to his farm and just be himself again.
"I tell people that when we leave our farms, it's like we belong to other people -- him with baseball and me with comedy. But when we get back to our farms, it's just Ned and Jeff, driving our tractors."