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Ranking Royals managers

Who do you love?

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Lists seem to be all the rage right now. As I type this story, my news feed scrolls by and I see no fewer than four list articles:

Oldest candy stores in the US.

Best hole in the wall diner in each state.

Best things to eat and drink if you want to live longer.

That could be helpful. Top 25 cities for foodies. I broke down and read the 25 cities for foodies. And I found reason to disagree. The author had listed San Antonio, Denver and San Diego as spots in the top 25. I’ve eaten extensively in all three cities. According to my waistline, I’ve eaten extensively everywhere I’ve been, but none of those three cities food scenes really moved me. The author left out Cleveland, another city which I’ve grazed through and I felt that was an egregious miss. The food scene in Cleveland was as solid as any I’ve seen and in my humble opinion, heads and tails above Denver, San Diego and San Antonio. Maybe the author has never been to Cleveland. Maybe the author left off Cleveland due to its perceived reputation?

Kansas City didn’t make the list either, though if you love BBQ, and I do, you would take exception to that oversight as well. I’m sure some readers will feel the same about the lists I will bring forth in the coming weeks. They’re not scientific. They’re just my opinion and I expect some people will feel differently and that’s okay.

On the topic of best managers, there may be some recent bias favoring Ned Yost, especially among younger fans. There may be some nostalgic feelings for Whitey Herzog or Dick Howser among older fans. I respect that. There’s a lot of moving parts when looking at the best manager or the best first baseman or the best pitchers. Some of it is numbers, some of it is perception and none of it is probably 100% accurate. For record keeping purposes, I’ve only counted full seasons that were managed.

Honorable Mention: Jim Frey and Jack McKeon

5. (tie) Hal McRae

Tenure as manager: 1991-1994

Record: 286-277, .508 winning percentage, three winning seasons and one losing season.

Number of 90-loss seasons: One.

Number of 90-win seasons: None (the 1994 team was on pace for 90 wins before the strike, however).

Post-seasons: None.

Most people remember McRae’s tenure as Royals manager for the epic meltdown he had with reporters after a game in 1993. Kansas City beat man Alan Eskew took some shrapnel to the face and had to get a tetanus shot. Being a sportswriter can be dangerous. Hal McRae was one of those players who would do anything it took to win. As a manager, he expected the same from his players. I think that’s it’s difficult for the great athletes to be successful managers in any sport. They have something in them, a drive to excel, a fire, that most players do not have. Larry Bird had it. Pete Rose had it. Bob Gibson had it. Ted Williams had it. Williams was often driven to the point of insanity by his ballplayer’s nonchalance.

McRae took over 38 games into the 1991 season with the team at 16-22 and willed that crew to a 66-58 finish. That team didn’t have much. George Brett and Kirk Gibson were near the end. Danny Tartabull was pretty much the entire offense. The team did have some decent arms: Kevin Appier, Bret Saberhagen, Mike Boddiker, Mark Gubicza and Jeff Montgomery. They played well in July and August going 34 and 21 before age caught up with them. The American League West was tough that year, with all seven teams finishing at .500 or better. The team slipped a little in 1992, but came back strong in 1993 and 1994, finishing at 148-129. In the end, I’d always hoped that Mac would have made a longer career of it. After he left, the Royals fell into a dark hole of managers with Boone, Muser, Bell and Hillman.

5. (tie) Ned Yost

Tenure as manager: 2010-2019

Record: 687-736, .483 winning percentage, three winning seasons and five losing seasons with one .500 season.

Number of 90-loss seasons: Two

Number of 90-win seasons: One.

Post-seasons: Two penannts, one championship.

Ned Yost holds the distinction of being the winningest manager in Royals history. He also holds the distinction of being the manager with the most losses in Royals history. Some fans loved him, some fans hated him. He could be caustic with the press. He could also be kind and hilarious. A lot of people didn’t quite know what to make of Ned Yost.

His career win percentage as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers and the Royals was almost identical: .477 with Milwaukee, .471 with Kansas City. His predilection to continue to play light-hitting middle infielders (think Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz, Omar Infante, late career Alcides Escobar and Chris Owings) every day, despite overwhelming evidence that they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat, was at times infuriating. His propensity to bunt the Royals out of potential big innings and run gas can relievers out to the mound repeatedly, birthed the term “Yosted”.

Despite all of that, he did forge close relationships with his players, and he took the team to two World Series appearances and one World Series title. His ten-year tenure gave the organization a measure of stability. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Royals honor Yost with induction into the teams Hall of Fame someday. I think a case can be made that he deserves it.

4. John Wathan

Tenure as manager: 1987-1991

Record: 287-270, .518 winning percentage, two winning seasons and one losing season.

Number of 90-loss seasons: Zero.

Number of 90-win seasons: One.

Post-seasons: None.

John “Duke” Wathan took over from Billy Gardner toward the end of the 1987 season after the team limped off to a 62-64 start. They closed 21-15 under Wathan and went 84-77 in 1988 and 92-70 in 1989 before slipping back to 75-86 in 1990. The Royals fired Wathan after a 15-22 start in 1991, paving the way for his former teammate Hal McRae.

Everyone I have spoken to that was affiliated with the Royals during the Wathan years spoke glowingly about his demeanor and ability to handle players. That 1989 team was one of the best Royals teams to not make the playoffs. The finished with the third-best record in baseball, but finished second to the 99-win World series champion Oakland A’s. Bo Jackson and Bret Saberhagen had monster years. That was a fun team to watch.

3. Bob Lemon

Tenure as manager: 1970-1972

Record: 207-218, .487 winning percentage, one winning season and one losing season.

Number of 90-loss seasons: Zero (took over mid-way through a 90-loss season).

Number of 90-win seasons: Zero.

Post-seasons: None.

Lem was known as a player’s manager, low-key and levelheaded. He’d been an All-Star pitcher with Cleveland, and he knew how to handle a pitching staff. The Royals’ first manager was Joe Gordon, who was hired because Ewing Kauffman and Cedric Tallis could not agree on a hire. Gordon lasted just one season. Next up was Charlie Metro. Metro made it 52 games before being canned. Lemon was promoted from pitching coach to manager and the young Royals closed out the 1970 season at 46-64.

Everything came together quickly in 1971 as Lemon guided his team to an 85-76 season and a second-place finish behind the 101-win Oakland A’s. In today’s game, that 1971 team would have qualified as the second wild card. Under Lemon, the staff ERA dropped from 3.78 in 1970 to 3.24 in 1972. It popped back up to 4.19 in 1973 under Jack McKeon, although the implementation of the designated hitter was a factor.

Lemon was unceremoniously let go after the 1972 season, which caused a rift between Kauffman and Tallis. Tallis (and most players) wanted to stick with Lemon. Kauffman wanted a younger manager and gave the job to 42-year-old Jack McKeon. Lemon was only 51 at the time, which today seems young. Kauffman made the mistake of making his wishes public and later had to pay Lemon a sizable age discrimination settlement. Lemon bounced back in 1977 by taking the division rival Chicago White Sox to a 90-72 record in his first season in the southside and later won a World Series with the Yankees in 1978, the year they famously came from 14 games back to beat the Red Sox in a one game playoff and then the Royals in four games. During his years in Kansas City, Lemon was the right man for the job at the right time.

#2. Whitey Herzog

Tenure as manager: 1975-1979

Record: 410-304, .574 winning percentage, four winning seasons and no losing seasons.

Number of 90-loss seasons: zero

Number of 90-win seasons: Three, plus he took over mid-way through a 91-win season.

Post-seasons: Three division titles.

Born Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog, it’s no wonder he went by Whitey. He also picked up one of the all-time great baseball nicknames, “The White Rat.” Whitey was the first superstar manager that the Royals have employed (Dick Howser being the other). He took over the 1975 Royals from Jack McKeon, who had led them to a 50-46 record before being let go.

The Royals were a young and talented team that chafed under McKeon’s direction. The laid-back Herzog unlocked the team’s potential and they went 41-25 down the stretch, a blistering .621 pace. From 1976 to 1978, Herzog led the Royals to three consecutive American League West titles, including a club record 102-60 mark in 1977. After the Royals “slipped” to 85-77 in 1979, Ewing Kauffman let Herzog go in favor of Jim Frey. Herzog was almost immediately scooped up by the St. Louis Cardinals, where he posted an 822-728 record over 11 seasons, while guiding the Redbirds to three World Series appearances and one World Series Championship. Over his 18-year managerial career, Herzog posted a 1,281 – 1,125 mark, good for a .532-win percentage. He holds the highest win percentage of any Kansas City manager and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010 and remains one of the most popular Royals managers of all time.

#1. Dick Howser

Tenure as manager: 1981-1986

Record: 404-365, .525 winning percentage, three winning seasons and one losing season

Number of 90-loss seasons: zero

Number of 90-win seasons: Two.

Post-seasons: Oone split-season post-season appearance, two division titles, one championship.

Howser guided the Royals to three playoff appearances, 1984, 1985 and the strange split season of 1981. He managed the team to their first World Series championship in 1985. Howser, like Herzog, spent time in Kansas City as a player: Howser from 1961 to 1963 and Herzog from 1958 to 1960. Howser was lifelong friends with actor Burt Reynolds, who called Howser “Peanut” said his friendship with Howser was one of the high spots of his life. Remember, this was Burt Reynolds, Hollywood movie star and sex symbol who played the lead in Smokey and the Bandit, was married to Loni Anderson and squired some of the most beautiful women Hollywood has ever known. Based on that comment alone, I figure Howser must have been a hell of a guy.

After guiding the underdog Royals to the 1985 World Series Championship, he and his wife spent the off season in Tallahassee, Florida, as they always had. During the early stages of the 1986 season, those around Howser started to notice how fatigued he would become. This was noticeable because Howser had always been an energizer bunny. Howser coached the American League All-Star team to a victory in the 1986 mid-summer classic. It would be the last game he would manage. Before the second half of the season resumed, Howser went to the doctor. The diagnosis sent shock waves through the Kansas City sports fraternity: a malignant brain tumor. Howser underwent surgery and treatment. Howser tried to return to the dugout for the 1987 season but was unable to return. He passed away on June 17, 1987. Dick Howser was 51. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame later that year along with Paul Splittorff and Cookie Rojas and his #10 was retired by the club.