Ned Yost is stalking me, or: Reliving the agony of rebuilding

Santayana was right, but only sort of: while those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, those who survive the present eventually live long enough to experience echoes of the former present.

Prior to the 2010 season, the Kansas City Royals brought Ned Yost into their front office as a consultant. Prior to that, Yost was manager for the Milwaukee Brewers from 2003-2008, during–and enduring–some painful rebuilding years. As a self-confessed backer of the Brew Crew, I saw Yost get the most from some less-than-outstanding talent, trucking out the corpse of Victor Santos every five days (he who my brother called a vampire because he was ‘best’, using the word loosely, in sunlight; I replied by saying that he couldn’t be a vampire because he sucks during the day), watching in grimaced amusement of the sit and spin wonder that was Geoff Jenkins swinging at everything that was thrown at him, waiting for Bill Hall’s immense talent to translate to consistent on-field success (somewhere, someone is still waiting) and watching any number of closers meltdown in front of our very eyes.

(Speaking of which, the aforementioned elder Brother Sirvio took wife and me to a Brewers/Braves game at Miller Park courtesy his place of employ several years ago, which garnered us seats about ten rows from the Brewers dugout. The Brewers closer at the time, Derrick Turnbow, was melting down and reassigned to set-up duty. So, when the Braves chipped away at the lead with Turnbow on the hill, Yost came out and gave him the hook. As Turnblow was sulking back toward the dugout, I encouraged him: “It’s OK, it’s not your fault yet!” He looked up and glared at me all the way back to the dugout. And lo!, it did end up being his fault. The Brewers lost the game, Turnbow was hung with the L, and my winless streak at Brewers games was extended to 20 years–and still counting, dating back to the days Glenn Braggs was stinking up the County Stadium outfield, Rob Deer altering the jet stream with his swings-and-misses and Dan Plesac rocking the v-neck polyester pinstripes. I digress.)

Yost, though, was a breath of fresh air: he demanded the best from mediocre talent, helped foster an atmosphere of competition and was an initial beneficiary of the wealth of farm talent that began to crop up at the major league level. For a long-suffering city like Milwaukee, where competitive baseball was banished from the region for about 20 years and fans still wax poetic about 1982–over a championship we didn’t even win!–Yost heralded a new attitude. And the team responded with being pesky, interesting and stealing wins until 2008, when they finally broke through and backed into a wild card berth.

The only thing was that Yost didn’t make it to October with them: he was dismissed from the organization three weeks prior, when it was clear that the team had quit listening to him and started squandering their positioning in the standings. Bench coach Dale Sveum helmed the club for those final weeks and that fateful series against the Phillies, while mid-season acquisition CC Sabathia threw roughly 934 innings in the final two months of the season.

Moses went to the mountaintop and saw the promised land, but he never entered.

If anything, Yost proved that he has a knack for maximizing results with marginal talent, working well with youthful, promising prospects and gets them to the top of the hill, only to leave them there.

I watched with interest when the Royals dismissed Trey Hillman last season, and dusted off Ned Yost’s baseball resume, giving him another job. For the past year and a half, I lived about a mile-and-a-half from Kauffman Stadium; on a good day, I could hear the roar of the crowd, my dog, in terror of the Friday night fireworks.

And I saw Ned do his thing all over again.

The Royals, for several seasons now, have looked eerily reminiscent of the Brewers seven and eight years ago: a once-proud franchise with a championship caliber organization in the early and mid 1980s was lost in a sea of feckless management, poor baseball decisions and a crappy on-field product. Both pimped the virtues of a new stadium: the Brewers moving from County Stadium to their present digs at Miller Park; the Royals opting to completely renovate Royals/Kauffman Stadium, all while leaving those gorgeous sightlines intact. Both drafted and developed fairly well, while rummaging through the scrapheap to find diamonds in the rough–and, in fairness, a considerable share of zirconium, too. Now, both have had Ned Yost oversee their major league renovations.

We liked Ned, but he drove us nuts: he’d stubbornly stand by his players, even as they completely imploded. He’d leave pitchers in too long, while using the same relievers over and over. He’d maximize talent, but make baffling managerial decisions. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

And, with following the Royals, I get to see those fans experience it all over again. Sports talk radio here goes histrionic over everything his decisions. You can almost read the columnists/reporters eyebrows raise and furl when Tim Collins gets trucked out again and again and again, when a starting pitcher gets 120 pitches, when the Royals blow a late-game lead. It’s all so familiar, which is comforting.

Yost is nothing if he isn’t stubborn, a clone of his professional mentor, former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. He’s not as vocal as Cox was, but almost certainly more intense. People blasted his stern stoicism in the dugout in Milwaukee, they wondered if he was asleep behind his sunglasses. They complain about the same thing here.

And now, we notice even more echoes of the past in the present, right down to one first baseman supplanting another, when Prince Fielder assumed Lyle Overbay’s position then, Eric Hosmer just did it to Billy Butler. And at third, where Mike Moustakas just took over at third for a platoon, no different than Ryan Braun taking over for the erstwhile, concussed Corey Koskie and the erstwhile and just-plain-sucked-on-any-day-that-wasn’t-Mother’s-Day Hall.

Yes, indeed, the past is repeating itself: the Royals are underwhelming but feisty, the tide of talent is just beginning to come onto major league shores while the window of opportunity for several other clubs in the AL Central is closing, just in time for the potential ascendancy of the Royals and their long-suffering fans. It’s fun to see Yost do it again, but now I wonder what will happen when the team becomes truly competitive: will they quit on Nedly like the Crew did? Will he push them too far? Will he learn from his mistakes in Milwaukee and take this squad over the top? (My guesses: probably, probably and probably not. Call me a sucker for good mythos: I think he’ll be both hero and goat. Again.)

These are frustrating years, and not everyone is cut out to lead during these transitional periods. (See also: Rhodes, Ray; Rambis, Kurt; and Obama, Barack.) Ned Yost is one of these rare few who can help turn an organization around, start washing off that losing stink and renew a fan base’s faith in the object of its fanaticism.

One way or another, eventually, Yost will leave, the Royals will be interesting and the stands (and the bandwagon) will be regularly full once more. Most people will enjoy the success of the on-field product, the team may even win a pennant or two, but no one will remember the guy whose gifting was to stop the organizational bleeding and get things straightened out. Sure, there’s much more to a baseball team than its manager–credit for the Brewers’ and Royals’ success also belongs to general management, scouting and a host of faceless coaches and instructors in the farm system, not to mention the players themselves. But to really renew a stagnated or moribund system, that system needs a dogged, stubborn person to no longer tolerate or accept failure or mediocrity and get people believing again, first within an organization, then in a community, then in a nation.

I know this because I’ve seen it before, and it’s trending out much in the same way. He’s perplexing and frustrating and rigid. No, Yost isn’t taking a siesta behind those sunglasses, and no, he’s not clueless. He’s doing the job so many cannot or will not do, be it on the diamond, in the workplace or in the halls of power.

Ned Yost is resuscitating baseball in Kansas City.


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