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Humor helps Royals manager Ned Yost battle pain, age and a changing game

Humor helps Royals manager Ned Yost battle pain, age and a changing game
Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost watches batting practice before a game against the Angels on April 26. (Orlin Wagner / Associated Press)

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost shuffled toward two coffee pots. He read the labels before he reached.

“I think I need decaf,” he said as he poured himself a cup inside the visitors clubhouse at Angel Stadium on Friday afternoon. “I’ve already had enough of the other stuff.”

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Yost was hobbling because of a bout with plantar fasciitis in each foot. He held the decaf pot with his right arm because the other day he tweaked a muscle in his left. This is his 16th season as a big league manager, and his team dwells in last place in the American League Central. He will turn 65 in August; only Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is older. Yost has reached an age at which his contemporaries either have retired or are being retired by the industry.

A realization struck Yost as he prepared for this weekend: It would be the first time he managed a game in Anaheim without Mike Scioscia eyeing him from the opposing dugout. Yost often viewed those games through the prism of individual conflict, one manager versus another. Those days are gone.

“It was very weird, driving here, knowing he was not going to be here,” Yost said. He chuckled at the thought. He and Scioscia were never particularly close, but they came from the same generation. They preferred teams that put the ball in play and ran the bases with aggression. They watched the sport tilt toward a flirtation with openers, a reliance on defensive shifts and an obsession with launch angles, the sort of pursuits that cause Yost to roll his eyes.

“The way the game is played now, I find it very . . . boring,” Yost told The Times during spring training. “OK, let’s sit back, rip and see if we can hit homers. If we strike out, who cares? Let’s shift everybody, so now the single has diminished. And if the single has diminished, offensive strategy has diminished, because nobody is bunting, nobody is stealing, nobody is hitting and running.”

The shift particularly galls Yost. He called it “a scourge.” He believes it might destroy the sport. He scoffed at the idea that hitters could adjust in the majors, and shrugged when told that younger players would learn to defeat it. Yost projected only gloom.

“Between now and 15 years from now, when they’re 10 years old, where is the game going to be?” Yost said. “They’re going to be back to a 65-foot mound, or a 70-foot mound. And it’s going to be flat ground, because that’s all the pitchers throw anyway, is flat ground on the side. They’re going to eliminate the curveball to create offense. And it’s going to be a three-inning game, because they want the game to speed up.”

It is hard to tell when Yost is serious. But it is important to remember that he has been right before.

Has Ned Yost done it all? He’s done most of it.

He once chauffeured Andre The Giant from Jackson, Miss., to New Orleans (he was doing a favor for a wrestling promoter while playing in the minors). He snagged a friendly peck from Christie Brinkley (as an Atlanta Braves coach he prevented one of Brinkley’s children from getting clipped during batting practice). He hunts every winter with Jeff Foxworthy (more on the hunting escapades in a moment). He binge-watched “Breaking Bad” while walking on a treadmill (don’t ask).

His longevity is remarkable. The Milwaukee Brewers hired him in 2003, back when the Houston Astros played in the National League and the Washington Nationals didn’t exist. When Yost took over in Milwaukee, Joe Torre was the manager of the New York Yankees, Barry Bonds was the most feared slugger in the land and Cody Bellinger was seven years old.

After being hired by the Royals in 2010, Yost survived the slings and arrows flung during a lengthy rebuilding process. The Wall Street Journal called him a “dunce” in 2014. A year after that, he won the World Series. And a couple years after that, he fell out of a tree, shattered his pelvis and nearly died. And a year after that, he appeared in a Verizon commercial, explaining how his phone saved his life after the fall.

Early in their partnership, Royals general manager Dayton Moore noticed a quirk of winter conversations with Yost. When Moore called, Yost answered in a whisper and stayed sotto voce. After a while, the general manager realized why his manager was always so quiet: Yost was perched in trees and didn’t want to spook the deer he was hunting.

Every winter, Yost managed his 550 acres of farm about an hour south of Atlanta. He hunted with a bow, grew rows of corn and combated the armadillos who terrorized his property. On the morning of Nov. 4, 2017, he climbed a 20-foot tree stand. When the bottom of the structure collapsed, Yost plummeted. Unable to move, he pawed his phone and contacted his wife, Deborah, who dialed 911.

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Later that day, Moore received a call from Royals trainer Nick Kenney, who also had heard from Deborah. Moore asked if Yost would be OK. “I don’t know,” Kenney said. Moore put down the phone and started to pray. He feared Yost would be paralyzed.

Yost spent two months in a wheelchair. He could have retired; he chose to limp to opening day. His body ached during frigid games in Boston and Detroit. “I could barely walk back to the bus,” Yost said.

His condition improved enough that by the end of the season, he had been cleared to perform his daily cardio routine: walking five or six miles on the treadmill while watching Netflix.

“Baseball is probably something that helped him to be so motivated to get through the rehabilitation and all that,” Royals veteran Danny Duffy said. “He loves us, man. And we love him back.”

Duffy added, “This is his sanctuary. That and hunting, obviously, but, the deer stand . . .”

Duffy is one of the few remaining links to Kansas City’s championship roster. Almost all of the other stars departed in free agency. Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain credited Yost for giving him an opportunity to overcome leg injuries early in his career. San Diego Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer recalled Yost coaxing him through slumps. Colorado Rockies closer Wade Davis remembered how former teammate David Price reacted to Yost’s speech before managing the American League in the All-Star Game.

“That,” Price told Davis, “was awesome.”

The All-Star Game carries weight for Yost. Every year when the rosters are assembled, he will gather his team together and reveal which Royal will represent the team. By the end of the address, he usually will be weeping.

“He cared so much for his players,” Cain said. “He would tear up on us. Because that just showed how much he cared.”

And so Yost remains in the dugout, even as his organization begins another rebuilding process. The Royals lost 104 games last season. They will lose a bunch again this year. And Yost will spend more and more games, as he did this weekend, gazing into the opposing dugout and wondering where his peers like Scioscia have gone.

Does Yost still drive to the ballpark each day and prepare to duel with the other manager?

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“No, not really,” he said. “I’m just trying to match my own wits.”

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