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The complicated legacy of Ned Yost

Ned ain’t dead baby

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

One of the hardest things I find about writing, is writing about someone you don’t know. Sometimes that analysis is interpreted as you like or dislike the person you are writing about. The reality is usually neither. Nearly all of the people I, and others, write about, we really don’t know them. And if you don’t know someone, how do you know if you’d like them or not? Now I’ll admit, Ned Yost seems like someone that I could be friends with. Like me, he’s a bit of a country boy. He likes to hunt. The late Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Foxworthy were counted among his friends. And he likes baseball. That seems like someone I could enjoy having a beer with.

A few weeks ago, I was reading the fan replies on a Kansas City sport site and one fan posited that Yost would soon be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame AND have a statue built outside of Kauffman Stadium. The certainty of that comment tweaked my interest. Going off the idea that you don’t have to attend every argument that you’re invited to, I didn’t reply to the poster. But the comment did spark my interest in finding out more about Ned. For younger Royal fans, Ned is one of the only manager’s they’ve ever known. He took over the Royals job on May 13, 2010, and accrued ten seasons at the helm, before retiring after the completion of the 2019 season. Thanks primarily to longevity, he ended his tenure as the winningest manager in Royal’s history, with 687 victories. He also lost 736 games, the most of any manager in club history. His win percentage of .483 ranks him 8th on the club’s managerial list behind Bob Lemon (.487) and just ahead of Bob Boone (.468). The Royals appeared in two World Series under his watch, winning one. He was alternately beloved, mocked and exasperating. His often-questioned game decisions, primarily centered around who would bat leadoff, managing the bullpen (pre HGH) and bunting in late game situations birthed the term #Yosted. There were many times when the TV cameras would catch Ned sitting in the dugout, looking a bit clueless, watching the Royals cough up a late lead. It seemed he was playing checkers while many other American League managers were playing chess. He also was at the controls when from the 2013 All-Star break to the end of the 2015 season, the Royals had the most wins in the American League (227) and the third highest total in all of baseball, trailing only the Dodgers (231) and the Cardinals (230).

Ned Yost has lived a complicated and interesting baseball life. Yost was hardly what you would call a baseball prodigy. He said that he went oh for 36 at the plate during his sophomore season at Dublin, California high. Through hard work, he eventually made all-league his senior season, but recruiters were not knocking down his door. In fact, they weren’t knocking at all, so Yost walked on at Chabot Junior College in Hayward, California. He played well enough that the New York Mets took him in the 1st round of the June 1974 Secondary Phase Draft. After signing, the Mets sent him to Low A Batavia, where he hit .252 in 44 games. From Batavia, he began the slow, grinding climb through the Mets minor league system. That ended when the Milwaukee Brewers took Yost in the 1977 Rule 5 draft. He spent most of the next three seasons with the Brewers AAA affiliates in Spokane and later Vancouver. He made his major league debut on April 12th, 1980, in a game against Boston. He played in three early season games before being sent back to Vancouver. He was recalled in early September and on September 9th, collected his first major league hit with an 8th inning single off Minnesota’s Albert Williams. His first major league home run came on April 20, 1981, a solo shot off the Blue Jays Jackson Todd.

Yost got into 40 games as a backup to Ted Simmons in 1982 as the Brew Crew made their first World Series. Yost only hit one home run in 1982, but it was a huge one. In a September 29th game against Boston, Yost came to the plate with two outs in the 9th inning with two runners aboard. He put a Mark Clear fastball over the Green Monster to give the Brewers a 6 to 3 win and more importantly, a four-game division lead with only five games to play. Milwaukee lost their next four games to fall into a first-place tie with Baltimore, before besting the Birds on the last day of the season for the division title.

The Brewers then beat the Angels in five games to advance to the World Series against Whitey Herzog and the St. Louis Cardinals. That Cardinal team was loaded with past and future Royals. Besides Herzog, you had Darrel Porter, who won the World Series MVP, Lonnie Smith, Dane Iorg, Steve Braun, Orlando Sanchez, Eric Rasmussen and Mark Littell. The series was a bit of a classic, with the Cardinals prevailing in seven exciting games. Yost got into one game, drawing a Game Six 9th inning walk.

Texas Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

In December of 1983, the Brewers traded Yost to the Texas Rangers for another future Royal, catcher Jim Sundberg. Yost played one season in Texas before the Rangers released him. He signed with the Montreal Expos, but only appeared in five games during the 1985 season. He hooked on with Atlanta and spent two more seasons in their minor league system before calling it a career.

His playing days behind him, Yost began coaching the Braves Class A team. He moved to the big-league club for the 1991 season as bullpen coach. For the Braves, it was the start of one of the more remarkable runs I’ve ever witnessed in major league history. They won the National League East crown in 13 of the next 14 seasons. Their General Manager during that historic run? Former Royal GM John Schuerholz. Guess who else was part of that Atlanta organization? Future Royal GM Dayton Moore, who joined the Braves in 1994 as a scout. Sometimes baseball seems like a very small, tight fraternity.

Yost picked up his first World Series ring when the Braves won the 1995 fall classic. In October of 2002, Yost interviewed for and got the job as the manager of the Brewers. Yost remained at the Brewers helm until his abrupt firing on September 15th, 2008. The canning came with just 15 games left in the season and the Brewers fighting for a playoff spot. The major criticisms of Yost at that time were his bullpen management, lineup strategies and management of his bench. Sound familiar? Yost finished his Brewer’s career with 457 wins and 502 losses, a .476-win percentage.

Milwaukee Brewers v Philadelphia Phillies

Yost repaired to his farm in Georgia until Moore called in early 2010. Yost was hired as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations, a position very similar to what his eventual replacement, Mike Matheny, held with Kansas City. Yost took over the Royals helm on May 12, 2010, when Moore fired Trey Hillman. The Royals didn’t have much in 2010. Billy Butler hit .318, as did David DeJesus. A 26-year-old Alex Gordon only hit .215 in 74 games. The pitching staff had Zach Greinke and Joakim Soria. Greg Holland and Jarrod Dyson made their debuts in 2010. They spent their first two picks in the draft on Christian Colon and Brett Eibner. They did select Whit Merrifield in the 9th round, so there’s that.

The Royals finally turned a positive record in 2013, Yost’s fourth season on the job. A strong second half boosted them to an 86 and 76 mark, which was great but not good enough to make the wildcard, which went to division rival Cleveland who had a 92 and 70 mark. 2013 officially opened the Royals window. I’ve always felt that the Royals should have gotten that wildcard spot. When I compared their lineup and pitching staff to the Indians, it looked like Cleveland only had the edge in two positions: 2nd base and right field. Yet somehow Cleveland beat them out. I have no statistical proof to back this idea, but I’ve always felt like the Royals let a handful of early season games get away thanks to poor starter and bullpen management and questionable late game decisions. You know, the stuff you pay a manager for. Bottom line, I think Cleveland got the wildcard because Terry Francona did a better job at squeezing wins out of his team than Ned did. It’s a long season but every game counts.

In 2014, the Royals responded by going 89 and 73, earning the wildcard which of course was capped by the improbable win over Oakland and the magical run through the Angels and Orioles. The magic ended during Game seven of the World Series, thanks to the left arm of Madison Bumgarner, but what a ride it was.

The Royals looked like a team on a mission in 2015, rolling to a 95 and 76 record and a Central division title. They rode a bit of baseball luck to a series win over the Astros before dispatching the Blue Jays to advance to their second consecutive World Series. They left nothing to chance in the Series, dismantling the New York Mets in five games to give Kansas City fans their first World Series title in thirty years.

The organization tried to keep the window open longer, but a series of ill-advised trades and several years of poor drafting led to a disappointing 81 and 81 finish in 2016. None of that was Yost’s fault. He can only manage what Dayton Moore and his staff give him. For more on Moore, read Matthew LaMar’s recent piece:

The 2017 team hung around a bit, finishing at 80 and 82, but you got the idea that they were never in contention. The team had been rocked during the off-season when Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident. Moore spent a lot of money signing Ian Kennedy as a replacement for Ventura. All world closer Wade Davis had been traded to the Chicago Cubs in the off-season for Jorge Soler. Soler played in 35 games and crapped the bed, looking completely overmatched while hitting just .144. Alex Gordon, fresh off a big contract started showing his age as he hit .208. Eric Hosmer had the best season of his career with a .318/.385/.498 slash, good for 4.3 WAR. He would soon be leaving in free agency. Same for Lorenzo Cain. With their departures, the cupboard was now bare, and the window slammed shut.

On November 4th, 2017, while deer hunting, Yost fell out of his tree stand, fracturing his pelvis. He was lucky to survive. In a typical year, upwards of 6,000 hunters will be injured in falls from tree stands. Yost credits his cell phone for saving his life.

Yost fortunately recovered and stayed on for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, rough years where the team lost 104 and 103 games respectively. Matheny had been brought on as a “special assistant” and everyone could see the writing on the wall. Yost announced his retirement on September 23rd, 2019.

In retirement, Ned and his wife Deborah, continue to live on their Georgia farm. Not a bad place to be after a lifetime of work.

Back to the original question: Should New Yost be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame? Should he get a statue outside of the K? I’m on the fence about the Hall of Fame. I’d probably vote no, if I had a vote, but I wouldn’t be distressed if he was inducted. He was popular with his players, respected by management and he did win a World Series, so he has some credentials. I understand the argument made by the big hall fans. There are certainly a couple of inductees who were borderline, Cookie Rojas and Joe Burke in my book. Everyone loved Cookie. His contributions went past the playing field. He was the gritty, hardnosed veteran that the young Royals needed at that time. Burke, in my opinion, rode the coattails of what Cedric Tallis built. Tallis, not Burke, is the one who should be in the Hall of Fame.

As for the statue, I’m a hard no. I’m old school on statues and believe they should be erected only for the titans. Ned was solid, but he wasn’t a titan. George Brett was a titan. Stan Musial and Willie Mays were titans.

What about those World Series teams? Could they have won the 2015 series with Trey Hillman at the helm? How about Bob Boone or Hal McRae? My gut says yes. That was a unique collection of talent. Barring injury, most of the positions were set. The managers role essentially came down to game management: bullpen usage, pinch hitting, late game strategy, batting order. The very things that his critics dogged him about. I get the feeling that Ned is very polarizing among Royal fans. There are probably some who would fight me to defend his honor. There are probably some who don’t like the guy. At the end of the day though, Ned was the right person at the right time for the Royals job.