Four years into retirement, Bobby Cox has lots of time to attend birthday parties for his grandchildren and admire the framed Stan Musial photo and other parting gifts from his 2010 farewell tour. When he's not contributing input as a special assistant to Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, he's watching games on TV and keeping an eye on disciples from the Bobby Cox tree.
Cox has a vicarious allegiance with Kansas City, where former Atlanta executive Dayton Moore is trying to get the Royals to the postseason for the first time since 1985. The Royals are managed by Ned Yost, who spent 12 seasons on Cox's coaching staff from 1991 through 2002. Personal affinities aside, Cox finds a lot to admire in the way Yost does his job.
"You can't beat him as a person or a baseball guy," Cox said. "He's not afraid to do things. He runs a great communication clubhouse, and he's strict. He's always been no-nonsense -- let's play the game right and win. I love Ned."
For a guy who hit .212 as a backup catcher in the majors before managing two small-market teams in the heartland, Yost has assembled an intriguing roster of friends through the years. He spent some time on the late Dale Earnhardt's NASCAR pit crew in the 1990s and is good pals and hunting partners with comedian Jeff Foxworthy of "You Might be a Redneck" fame.
Yost is just a good ol' boy with earthy sensibilities, but he's on the verge of embellishing his portfolio. The top three candidates for American League Manager of the Year are Baltimore's Buck Showalter, Seattle's Lloyd McClendon and Yost, who's trying to lead an offensively impaired Kansas City team to the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The Royals whizzed past Detroit with a 19-9 August, and now they're trying to navigate the big-boy portion of their schedule as they complete a three-game series at Comerica Park on Wednesday night.
Kansas City's rise to contention comes against a backdrop of nervous energy and mixed emotions. Royals fans are invested in the 2014 club (even though attendance is likely to fall short of 2 million for the 23rd straight season) and braced for the worst. They haven't seen a lot go right since umpire Don Denkinger bequeathed them with a wonderful gift on Jorge Orta's grounder in Game 6 of the '85 World Series. The manager inadvertently contributes to the unease in Kansas City because of his brief-yet-tortured dalliance with September baseball. In 2007, Yost's Milwaukee team led the National League Central by 8½ games in June only to fade badly and miss the playoffs. Yost exuded tension while being ejected three times in the final week, and even his wife wondered whether he was coming unhinged.
A year later, the Brewers were 83-67 and slumping when general manager Doug Melvin fired Yost and replaced him with bench coach Dale Sveum, who guided the team to a 7-5 record and a postseason berth. Although multiple sources said owner Mark Attanasio played the lead role in the decision, Yost had to live with the perception that he panicked his way out of a job.
So it's no wonder that when USA Today wrote a profile on Yost in August, it included the salient question: "Will Yost find a way to screw this up again?"
If this comes as any comfort to Kansas City fans, Yost has done everything in his power to ensure that doesn't happen. Several teams called with coaching offers after he was fired in Milwaukee, but he stayed home and did an exhaustive postmortem on precisely what went wrong. The lessons stuck.
"When it happens you think, 'It's unfair. They're crazy. It doesn't make any sense. Why did they do this?'" Yost said. "But the more you sit back and look, you can see stuff that happened and say, 'Maybe I need to refocus and think about doing this and that a different way.'
"In my first job, I always strived to make the players more like me. I wanted them focused. I wanted them playing hard. I wanted them disciplined. I wanted them to go out and give their best effort. What I've learned in this job is, players are all individuals, and your job is to let them be them instead of trying to mold them into something that they're not. I think you get the most out of them when you do that."
The Royals provided an opportunity for redemption in May 2010, and Yost went 55-72 with Yuniesky Betancourt, Mike Aviles, Scott Podsednik and Mitch Maier among his lineup staples. Four years later, he's 14 games short of breaking Dick Howser's franchise record of 770 games managed in Kansas City.
"That was the best thing that happened to me," Yost said of his time in Milwaukee, "because it put me in a position to be on this team."
No media maven
In accordance with the Cox doctrine, Yost is also fiercely protective of his players. If a reliever begs off for a night because of a tired arm, Yost will keep the exchange private rather than share the info and subject the pitcher to being called "soft." If a Royal fails to run the ball out to the organization's standards, Yost will air him out in the manager's office rather than chastise him in the media.
Yost also shows faith in players to the point where it makes him appear excessively stubborn or disengaged with reality. Witness his decision to stick with Omar Infante in the second spot in the batting order even though Infante is hitting .228 with a .254 on-base percentage since the All-Star break. When asked about the decision Tuesday, Yost replied that it would be "kind of dumb" to drop Infante down the order because the current lineup helped propel the Royals to their big run in August. Problem is, that same lineup has averaged 2.5 runs per game in the team's past 11 games.
Does Yost make tactical moves that send the blogosphere into orbit? Only by the carload. It happened on April 2, when Yost declined to pinch-hit for Alcides Escobar and the Royals' shortstop flied out against Max Scherzer late in a 2-1 loss to Detroit. The underlying sentiment made perfect sense: It's a long season, and Yost didn't want to wreck Escobar's confidence by showing zero faith in him in the second game of the season. But when Yost explained the decision by saying he didn't want to get into Escobar's "dome," it was an invitation for mockery. Sometimes his perception problems lie more in the presentation than the underlying reasoning.
After the Royals celebrated a thrilling walk-off win over Minnesota two weeks ago, Yost dampened the mood in Kansas City by complaining because only 13,847 fans were in the stands. The motivation for his diatribe wasn't precisely clear. But one team insider suggested he was just verbalizing a sentiment that Kansas City players had been privately "chirping about" at various points this season.
"To me, he was basically pumping the fans up," pitcher James Shields said. "I didn't think he was downgrading them by any means. We want the fans to enjoy the moment just like we are."
Like other Kansas City players, Shields describes Yost as a positive, perpetually upbeat presence in the clubhouse and the dugout. The Royals are tied for first place even though they rank last in the majors with 89 home runs. They're 79-64, but their plus-20 run differential gives them a Pythagorean record of 74-69. Like the Mariners, they're a pitching- and defense-oriented team with little margin for error. The Royals have dropped 11 of 15 to Detroit this season and been outscored 85-55 in those games. But if they can outlast the heavily favored Tigers and win the AL Central, Yost might have the best manager of the year case of anyone.
"There's no doubt," Shields said. "We've been through a lot of ups and downs, and there have been a lot of trials and tribulations over the last couple of years. He should definitely be up there in that category, for sure."
And if the Royals fade down the stretch, you can rest assured who'll assume a fair share of the blame.
Perceptions have a funny way of changing with time. Joe Torre went from damaged goods to Cooperstown because he had the good fortune and timing to land in New York in 1996. Buck Showalter, regarded as a micromanager and turnaround specialist for much of his career, is now perceived as the Oracle of Baltimore. A lot of managers inevitably improve with their second or (if they're really lucky) third jobs.
If the Royals have shown more faith in Yost than some of his critics deem reasonable, it's because they see a consistency and accountability that embodies what they're trying to instill throughout the organization.
"You know how I knew that Ned Yost was a tremendous leader?" Moore said. "Because he's never said one negative word about the Milwaukee Brewers, or their ownership, or Doug Melvin. He's never said, 'They did me wrong' or ripped anybody, or reflected on the past in a negative way. He was all about how we're moving forward. That's what you have to do in this game. That's what you have to do in life."
Managers today are subject to more instant analysis than ever, which can lead to knee-jerk assumptions and a herd mentality that sometimes defies reason. Amid speculation that Yost had lost his grip on the Kansas City clubhouse in early August, one Royals-related blog ran a column with the headline, "It Is Time for Ned Yost to Go." The Royals proceeded to go 24-11 over their next 35 games. When Yost claims he has a "thick skin," it's partly out of self-preservation. On the list of managers who are maligned by their team's fan bases, Yost, Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez and Toronto's John Gibbons probably win the gold, silver and bronze medals. A quick Google search reveals that Don Mattingly, Kirk Gibson, Ron Roenicke and even Mike Matheny are among the others in contention.
"I don't worry about it," Yost said. "When I'm looking for news, I go to CNN and Fox News. I don't go to MLB or read the papers, because you'll see something and it'll piss you off and then you're mad at this guy or that guy. And I don't want to be mad at anybody.
"I just have to be myself. If I try to appeal to everybody, I'm being phony. I try to give everybody respect and do my job. I don't care too much what people say about me or feel about me. I'm just here trying to do my best for these guys in this locker room."
It's a simple formula that served his mentor well for an awfully long time. Bobby Cox is a believer in Ned Yost. The next three weeks will go a long way toward determining whether playoff-deprived Royals fans join the club.