Yost just right for the Royals

Ned Yost, center, is not managing that differently from predecessors Bob Boone, left, and Tony Muser. The difference is that Yost has a real bullpen. Getty Images

Managing the Kansas City Royals drives you crazy. That's the first thing you must consider when evaluating their current skipper Ned Yost, a man I refer to with affection and self-deprecation as the Nutty Professor.

The second thing you need to consider is that you have to be crazy to manage the Royals. Seriously. Baseball and its 162-game schedule are challenging enough, but try winning the world series of dugout poker with cards supplied by Royals owner David Glass, the Wal-Mart-trained billionaire.

Managing the Royals is a job for a man playing without a full deck.

Ned Yost won the American League pennant with an average National League roster, with a payroll $140 million less than that of the Dodgers and without a power hitter in a league that requires one. In the regular season, Yost's designated hitter and first baseman evenly split 18 home runs. His postseason hitting star, the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft, did a stint in Triple-A just five months ago.

You're not supposed to win in the American League with speed, defense, pitching and gut feelings. Over the course of six months, the Junior Circuit exposes teams with no thump and makes fools of middle-aged men impersonating Bobby Cox.

Ned Yost has done the impossible, and, not surprisingly, he's been ridiculed every step of the way. The Wall Street Journal labeled him a dunce. Pedro Martinez shredded Yost on TV and Twitter. Royals fans and local talk-show hosts bitch about Yost like he's a busted cheating spouse claiming he was driven into the arms of a conniving harlot. Royals fans invented a verb -- Yosted -- to describe his boneheaded moves.

Seemingly everyone agreed, including this writer, that the Royals won their one-game wild-card series against the Oakland A's despite Yost's decision-making.

With a 3-2 lead in the sixth inning, he pulled his ace pitcher, Big Game James Shields, after 88 pitches, setting off the wildest, 12-inning, postseason roller-coaster ride in major league history and causing seamhead explosions from Cooperstown to Cowtown, Kansas City.

Ned Yost is Nutty. But he's not the first nut to manage the Royals. It's a tradition that stretches 20 years. It's a tradition born of necessity after the 1993 death of free-spending-owner Ewing Kauffman, the retirement of Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett and the 1994 collapse of Major League Baseball.

The Kansas City baseball drought has lasted 20 years, not 29 as everyone says. Baseball died in K.C. -- and other small markets -- in 1994 when Bud Selig and the players' union stopped the season one week after the Hal McRae-led Royals completed a 14-game winning streak. Those Royals were 13 games above .500, deep in the playoff race and the hard-charging reflection of put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it manager Howl McRae.

Acting at the behest of Kauffman right-hand man and team President Mike Herman, general manager (knee-)Herk Robinson canned McRae in September 1994.

Starting with the death of Kauffman in August 1993, the Royals lost their big league financing (Kauffman was a kinder, gentler George Steinbrenner), their star power (Brett) and their mojo (McRae) in a little more than a year.

What was left behind was Kauffman's well-intentioned succession plan that: (1) Handed the Royals over to the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation; (2) Ensured the club would be sold to an owner committed to K.C.; (3) Promised local charities all the profits from the sale; (4) Turned the ballclub into a wishy-washy hot mess for the better part of two decades.

Nice guys who knew very little about running a sophisticated sports operation were left to fill the void created by Kauffman's absence. Herman and Robinson were well beyond their depth. When alive, Kauffman covered their mistakes with roster-fixing payroll increases. Mr. K spent as much money as Mr. Steinbrenner.

Forced to play moneyball before anyone had heard of Billy Beane, the Royals' front office, with an assist from fans and the local media, tortured and lambasted an assembly line of managers.

Bob Boone, the successor to Howl McRae, was the first manager we labeled a nut job. Jeff Flanagan, a colleague of mine at The Kansas City Star, tagged Boone with the nickname Abner Boonieday, a moniker based on Flanagan's belief that Boone wanted to reinvent the game. The Star mocked Boone with a daily Boone-O-Meter, a graphic that tracked Boone's ever-changing lineups.

"Did it affect me? No," Boone said Saturday afternoon. "But it bothered me. It would bother anyone being told every day in the newspaper how stupid you are... You play with what you have. Everybody wanted the perfect lineup every day, and then we got into that crap in the paper every day. No one ever said that I used only six more lineups that year than Joe Torre and the New York Yankees."

The Boone-Robinson marriage was cursed philosophically and historically. Boone loved veterans. Robinson, without the benefit of a developed farm system, wanted to launch a youth movement. The Royals have never had a great power hitter. The team record for home runs is 36. The steroid era skipped Kauffman Stadium, or the Royals had the wrong supplier.

Boone's teams had good starting pitching and could run a little bit and play defense. He wanted to play ball the way Yost's Royals are playing, but Boone's Royals had no bullpen. No power plus no late-game pitching is a recipe for trouble in the AL.

"Every single night, we were outgunned," said Boone, who works in the front office of the Washington Nationals. "We had to use every trick in the book. We would steal second and third base and I'd be looking over in the opposing dugout and Davey Johnson would be saying, 'We let you get there. Now what are you going to do?' We didn't have the bats to get them home."

But those of us in the Kansas City media had stories to write and talk shows to host and Abner Boonieday made for good copy and enjoyable radio. Boone was smug and aloof, the antithesis of Howl McRae, a popular and important player in the Royals glory days and a guy willing to schmooze and booze the media. Boone had no chance.

His first day on the job -- Opening Day 1995 -- and his first big decision were unforgettable. He popped out of the dugout with two outs in the seventh inning and removed Kevin Appier from the game in the midst of a no-hitter. Ape had just struck out Cal Ripken.

"That was really dumb if you're trying to win over the fans and the media," Boone said. "But it was absolutely the correct thing to do. He was done. He'd thrown 120 pitches. You wouldn't even think of keeping a guy in that long now, but back then 120 pitches was about the limit. It was Opening Day. I cared about the guy. We were just sitting in the dugout waiting on him to give up a hit so we could pull him out. Why wait on a hit? So I went and got him."

I remember. It was my very first Kansas City Royals game. True story: In the spring, my first in K.C., I'd written a series of columns in the Star demanding the Royals front office give fans discounted prices at concession stands as an apology for the 1994 strike. The Royals acquiesced. I was the toast of drunken, well-fed Royals fans.

Appier could not be touched that day. Two decades later, Boone's memory is a bit faulty. Appier had thrown 98 pitches when Boone removed him. The second-guessing and ridiculing of Abner Boonieday started on Day 1.

Knee-Herk Robinson fired his "nutty" manager after 2½ seasons. Tony Muser modeled the Kansas City clown suit/manager's uniform next.

Muser joined the Royals at an inopportune time. Kauffman's succession plan was dragging on, and local media and fans started speculating that Herman and then-team chairman David Glass were conspiring to devalue the club so Glass could buy it for a cheaper price.

George Brett and his brother put together a group to buy the team. Their efforts were unceremoniously thwarted.

A smiling New York lawyer, Miles Prentice, appeared in K.C., hijacked the sales process with an unprecedented media blitz and the largest coalition of ownership this side of the Green Bay Packers. If you had an ounce of name recognition in Kansas City, you were a part of the Prentice Ownership Group. I mean, there were rumors Prentice tried to entice rapper Tech N9ne, who at the time was still recording tracks in Don Juan's mama's basement, to join the Prentice group. (It was later revealed that Prentice barely had the money to be in the millionaire's club let alone the billionaire's club of major league ownership.)

But the Royals' credibility and viability were so low in the late 1990s that a New York carpetbagger thought he could finesse some Midwest rubes. Beloved Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt couldn't resist taking a stab at getting something for nothing. He put in a formal offer to buy the Royals for $47 million. Hunt thought the Royals were worth less than a billionaire's home.

In 2000, before buying the team himself for $96 million, Glass rolled the club's payroll back to $16.5 million in 1999 and $23.4 million in 2000. Muser spent a little more than five years managing a poorly financed train wreck.

On the plus side, he took over when the Royals' youth movement started producing fruit. Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran were kids making an impact. The Royals had some pop in their bats, speed in the outfield and on the bases, and a slump-busting pitching staff that was the apple of the eyes of K.C.'s opposition.

Jeff Suppan, who arrived in K.C. at age 23 with a career ERA in the 6s, was the ace of the staff.

"Suppy was probably a 3 or a 4 on most teams," Muser generously said Friday. "But he could get you 200 innings."

I asked Muser whether he remembered the Royals' god-awful bullpen.

"Like it was yesterday," he chuckled.

He also remembered me asking him after a tough stretch of games whether he blamed the players for the losing more than he blamed himself.

"I always blamed myself, Jason," Muser said. "When you go through that much losing, it affects you. Anybody who says otherwise is lying. When you don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, it affects you. We battled with what we had. I was never a guy who was smiling and laughing. That wasn't my personality. The losing didn't help."

In Muser's four full seasons as manager of the Royals, he sat through 89, 97, 85 and 97 losses. The local media hammered Muser for being a downer, for scowling too much and being too old-school. We taunted him for criticizing choir boy Mike Sweeney -- K.C.'s highest-paid player -- for being too soft and too religious to lead the Royals.

"Chewing on cookies and drinking milk and praying is not going to get it done," Muser said after his 2001 team fell to 10-18. "It's going to take a lot of hard work, and it's a mindset. I'd like them to go out and pound tequila [rather] than have cookies and milk because nobody is going to get us out of this but us."

Sweeney wore his religious convictions for all to see. Later that season, in a move K.C. fans interpreted as an attempt to prove his toughness to Muser, Sweeney charged the mound, threw his helmet and punched out pitcher Jeff Weaver for no justifiable reason, setting off a major brawl between the Royals and the Tigers.

"Of course I regret saying it," Muser lamented. "I didn't mean it the way it came out. I was trying to say, 'It's hard to win. It's hard being .500 in the situation we're in.' I can remember taking my family to the airport the next day when [new general manager] Allard Baird called me. 'We've got a problem, Tony. Do you want all of our players to drink tequila and play drunk?'

"I got 500 bottles of tequila sent to me in the mail," Muser added.

Tony Pena, Buddy Bell and Trey Hillman followed Muser. Pena tried to snap a losing streak by showering with his clothes on. Bell, in the midst of a 19-game losing streak, said "I never say it can't get worse." And Hillman lost hundreds of games while joyfully riding a unicycle around the clubhouse.

Royals managers are nuts. They have to be.

Kauffman's affinity for the game, the city and winning and his free $pirit fostered a culture in which the details didn't matter. When he died, the details were all that mattered and the organization had a terrible time adjusting to the new reality, and so did the people watching, writing, talking, analyzing and rooting on the Royals.

Eight years ago, Glass hired Dayton Moore away from the Atlanta Braves to overhaul the organization from bottom to top. The Royals needed a modern farm system, scouting and development in Latin America and an overall strategy that made sense economically in a midsize market.

"We were dead last in spending money in Latin America when I got here," Moore remembered. "We were not as active as we needed to be in Latin America, the place where the best athletes still play baseball."

The Royals weren't a "rebuilding" project. Moore took over a "building" project.

"Our reference point was 2007, our first draft," Moore said. "We just started laying a foundation and establishing a process for success. To be fair, Alex Gordon was here when we got here. Billy Butler was here. So was Zack Greinke. We had to build on that."

Royals fans weren't nearly patient enough. They came into this season ready to run Moore back to Atlanta. His plan was taking too long, and his second manager, Ned Yost, was as nutty as Boone, Muser, Pena, Bell and Hillman. Few people could see the genius in Yost's approach and the ripeness of Moore's long-term vision.

Even in the bad years, Moore always showed a knack for building a bullpen. This year, he unleashed a three-inning monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Yost's small-ball strategy reduces the game to six innings so K.C.'s offensive shortcomings are masked against better-financed lineups. K.C.'s defense frustrates opponents and emboldens Royals pitchers. K.C.'s baserunners spook the opposing pitcher. The Royals irritate, and, by the fifth inning, irritation morphs into pressure as hitters' minds contemplate the final three innings of HDH.

It's a brilliant strategy. All it needs is a catchy nickname -- "Yosted" should no longer be a pejorative.

It's a style Boone and Muser appreciate and envy, a style they never got to implement in Kansas City because they never had a bullpen, a payroll or a mature organizational plan. They had Knee-Herk, Herman, and a fan base and media that wanted things to be the way they were when Kauffman was alive.

Yost has an organization behind him, so his unorthodox approach has taken hold. His players believe in his unconventional strategy and moves. Removing Shields from the wild-card game mattered only to us outsiders.

"Ned has taken what he has," Boone said, "and managed it marvelously other than taking Shields out of the first game."

Abner Boonieday doesn't mind questioning the Nutty Professor.

The second-guessing is pointless because the Royals are all-in on Yost.

"I look at it this way," Moore said of the decision to remove Shields, K.C.'s $13 million ace, "any player on that 25-man roster, I've allowed them to be here. I've signed off on it. Ned should use those players any way he sees fit.

"We've been fearless with the way we have approached this. We've got nothing to lose. We're going to be aggressive. If we're not making mistakes, we're probably not being aggressive enough. Ned has brought that attitude from day one."

So have Yost's players. They believe in their Nutty Professor, too. No one can question that after Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain came to the plate in the first inning of ALCS Game 4 with two men on base, no outs and a blazing bat and chose to bunt. At the time Cain stepped into the batter's box, he was 8-of-13 in the series. He chose to bunt. It worked. It led to two runs. The Royals won the game and advanced to the World Series with a had-to-see-it-to-believe-it 2-1 victory.

"Ned's probably not getting his due for his ability to communicate with his players," Muser observed "You never see that. You never get to experience that. It's an unsaid thing. It's clearly one of Ned's greatest abilities -- getting his players to buy into his philosophy."

Everything else is irrelevant.