Ned nervously clutches the placard hanging from his neck, bearing his name, the number 86, and the words "Kansas City Star". It is the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and Ned is one of the only two spellers left remaining.
It has been a whirlwind week for Ned, who has overcome many struggles simply to make it to this moment. The dream began last year, when, after watching the finals, he discovered a loophole in the eligibility rules that would allow him to compete.
"We’re just as surprised as everyone else, but the rules clearly show that Ned Yost is eligible to compete, just like the other 280 students who competed here today," said Paige Kimble, executive director of the National Spelling Bee. "You can be assured that we’ll be changing the rules for next year."
The spelling bee also conflicts with one of Ned’s other jobs: manager of the Kansas City Royals’ Major League Baseball team.
"Once I realized I was eligible, I just couldn’t stop studying," Ned explained, nervously sipping a glass of water while waiting for the competition to resume. "I tried to put it out of my head during the last few months of the season last year, but once we hit the offseason, studying words is literally all I did."
Ned says the studying didn’t stop once this year’s baseball season started. "This might be my one shot at glory; my one shot at having my name recognized as a winner on a national stage. When do you get another chance like that?"
He still has a responsibility to his team, however, despite being in Washington D.C. for the week. "We tried to convince the schedule makers to let us play the Nationals this week, but that didn’t happen, so instead I’m managing the games from here in Washington. The rest of the team has a television tuned to the spelling bee in the clubhouse. They’ll watch me give the appropriate signs from my seat here on the stage, and then relay that to the players on the field."
Ned admitted that due to the strict security at the bee he doesn’t actually have any way to know what’s happening during the Royals’ games, but says that hasn’t stopped him from giving signs over the last few seasons.
Ned cruised through the written test and preliminary rounds on Wednesday to end up in the semifinals. However, he did have to be reprimanded twice in quick succession in the middle of the competition.
First, when speller #170, Bettie Closs, received the word "candiru" (a minute bloodsucking catfish of the Amazon), Ned began to giggle uncontrollably, and couldn’t stop until the next speller, William Elder, asked for a sentence about his word, "sorghum". The sentence described a man who put sorghum on his oatmeal for breakfast, and Ned shouted "Me too!" from the back of the room, causing him to be escorted from the stage.
The audience has become enraptured with Ned, captivated by the story of the grown man competing on stage with the rest of the young students. He always tells a joke before receiving his word, and endearingly refers to pronouncer Jacques Bailly as "Doc Jacques" after Thomas Manning of Shelby, N.C. suggested it to him in the third round.
Once Ned receives a word, he shuts his eyes and covers his ears with his hands, claiming that he doesn’t want anything to "get in his dome" while he’s spelling. His technique clearly works: it helped him spell words such as "acidulous" and "trattoria" correctly.
In the semifinals, Ned struggled with his first word: "sabermetrics". "I’d never heard that word before," Ned admitted. "I had to ask Doc Jacques to use it in a sentence and give me the language of origin before I just took a wild guess and got lucky."
Ned bulldozed through the rest of the semifinals without so much as a stutter to earn a place in the finals. He’s been grateful for the opportunity to get to know some of the other spellers in the competition. Throughout the preliminaries, Ned loudly whooped and cheered whenever a speller got a tough word right.
He began to get more competitive in the semifinals. Upon hearing that Jae Canetti of Fairfax, Va. was a baseball fan, Ned offered to sign him to a Royals contract if he "just missed this one word."
"Come on," Ned said. "You’ll get another shot at this next year. We need a third baseman really bad. Imagine what you could do with a major league contact. You’d be the coolest kid in your school."
Canetti promptly spelled his word, "edaphon", with a q, and will be starting for the Royals against the Blue Jays on Friday.
A loud ding brings us back to the competition at hand. Ned’s opponent has spelled a word incorrectly, and if Ned can spell his word correctly, he will win the spelling bee.
Ned has brought along his team’s closer, Greg Holland, for support. "I really want to win this one," Ned explained. As Ned approaches the microphone, Holland looks on with a look that’s both nervousness for his manager and frustration at being forced to come to Washington instead of remaining with the team.
"Hey Doc Jacques, what has 18 legs and catches flies?" Ned asks.
"Is it a baseball team?" Bailly responds in his typical professional manner.
"No, it’s a baseball team!" Ned roars with laughter. Then, just as suddenly, he becomes serious again. He receives his word. He closes his eyes and covers his ears. He begins to spell. "B-E-R-O-Y-A-L."
There’s a pause that seems to last for an hour. Then, Bailly announces, "We have a winner!" and the confetti begins to fall. A wide grin stretches across Ned’s face as he holds the trophy aloft.
He is a champion.