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SAM MELLINGER Why Ned Yost tries to stay positive through Royals’ struggles

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, May 25, 2013, at 4:58 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, May 28, 2013, at 9:39 a.m.

Moments to remember ... and to forget

Barely a quarter of the way through the season, Royals skipper Ned Yost has made some fans irate by ... :

• Pulling ace James Shields with Royals ahead of White Sox 1-0 after eight innings on May 6. Greg Holland proceeds to blow the save, and Kelvin Herrera serves up Chicago’s deciding homer in the 11th.

• Refusing to replace Holland with Herrera as closer early in the season. Holland struggles, but Herrera does too ... so much so that he’s sent down to Class AAA Omaha on Thursday.

• Countering fans’ displeasure over Mike Moustakas’ anemic average with assurance that replacement third basemen don’t just grow on trees. Also chides fans in May 18 rant for seeking “instant gratification.”

• Continuing to play Jeff Francoeur despite the right fielder’s struggles, which date back to last season. “Frenchy” entered the weekend hitting an anemic .221.

• Having second basemen Chris Getz bat leadoff despite struggles that, like Francoeur’s, date to the 2012 season. Getz is hitting .208 with a .259 on-base percentage after Saturday’s game.

The least popular man in Kansas City sports is explaining the unexplainable. Ned Yost knows this. The Royals manager must see, on some level, that there is nothing he can say that will convince a portion of fans that he isn’t stupid, incompetent, overmatched, clueless or worse.

He is in charge of a team in free fall, and this is the way of the world. There are no good answers.

“There’s nothing I can do personally to turn it around except stay positive and stay supportive,” he says to the microphones and cameras.

The Royals are in free fall, a promising season leaning more toward disaster with each loss — 14 in the last 18 — and Yost is paying for it public opinion. Three weeks of losing have turned a first-place start into an impotent fall, and you’ve probably heard someone wonder if the Royals can find something ripe on “the manager tree.”

Yost is the one taking the most blame, even if he can’t be the reason Mike Moustakas turns into a productive hitter any more than he’s the reason Alex Gordon turned into one of baseball’s best players.

The players are the ones who do it or don’t, in other words, so the manager finds his place in the margins. He can flip the lineup around. Send a middle reliever to Omaha.

In some ways, Yost is in charge of the clubhouse culture. As long as that remains positive — and there are no indications otherwise — he will remain the Royals manager.

This is what Yost’s life experience has shown him he should do. That’s frustrating to hear when the losses pile up — especially if you don’t understand why Yost sees this as his only option.

He tried it the other way, once. That was five years ago, and Yost didn’t know any better. It led to his greatest professional failure. Cost him his job.

In a moment, away from the other microphones and cameras, he will help explain where he’s coming from.

Ned Yost literally walked into one of the most bizarre firings in baseball history. This was in Chicago. An off day in September 2008. Yost was the Brewers’ manager, and they’d just been swept in Philadelphia. They had lost 11 of 14. Two weeks earlier, they led the wild-card race by 5 1/2 games. Now, they were tied. The ground beneath them trembled.

General manager Doug Melvin called Yost to his hotel room. Yost knocked on the door expecting to talk about what needed to happen to turn the team around. He loved his players, and felt particular ownership after seeing them from 106 losses the year before he arrived to the brink of the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 26 years.

When he walked into that room and saw owner Mark Attanasio on the couch, Yost knew he wasn’t there to talk about what needed to change. He knew the bosses had decided Yost would be that change.

As best anyone can tell, no manager on a playoff contender had ever been fired this late in the season. Every indication is that Attanasio forced Melvin’s hand. The baseball world was stunned. Braves manager Bobby Cox — a mentor to Yost — was furious, saying that no manager at any time could ever feel safe again.

The Brewers closed the season 7-5, into the playoffs on fumes. They quickly lost to eventual World Series champion Philadelphia in the first round. Yost spent much of the next year on a tractor working his land in Georgia, thinking about what happened.

When the Royals gave him a chance to manage another team built around another group of young prospects, I met with Yost in his office and asked if he’d learned anything from the experience in Milwaukee.

“Yeah,” he said, “don’t lose a bunch of games in September.”

Those words are flippant, because Yost is often flippant and he doesn’t like to get into this. He watched that group grow up. Stuck with them when nobody else believed, or cared, or both.

Part of Yost’s baseball soul will never get over that rejection. He went from a leading Manager of the Year candidate to fired, all because of a brutal two-week stretch. Many around the team aren’t sure the firing made much of an impact except to keep Yost from seeing the project through.

But that experience helped shape the Royals of today, for better or worse. People who were part of that Brewers team five years ago — even the ones who believe Yost was railroaded by a meddling and overly emotional owner — think he changed once the losses came in September.

Yost admits this, to a point. The man who spent his previous 945 games as manager complimenting and encouraging and smiling spent too much of his final 14 games with the Brewers cursing and yelling and frowning.

Yost became the fall guy in an unprecedented baseball move, in other words, but he wasn’t blameless. If his tenseness seeped into the clubhouse, he wasn’t doing his best job. If his cursing after a double play weighed on the mind of the next batter, Yost wasn’t helping.

These are the realizations Yost came to on his tractor, the year after being fired. He is a confident man, stubborn and ornery. He is tough enough that he had gall bladder surgery and didn’t miss a day of work, saying it hurt when he breathed, but “besides that I feel pretty good.”

So this is not a man who easily accepts disappointment, or dwells much on the bad. But he does like to recognize his own weaknesses. Here was a mistake he made. So he identified it, and worked on it. For better or worse, the result of the most important lesson he learned in Milwaukee is how you see him acting today in Kansas City.

“I pushed too hard,” he says now, away from the other microphones and cameras. “Instead of remaining calm, staying positive, I showed my frustration at times. It bleeds through to them. I’ve worked real hard at not doing that here. Nothing, Not even, ‘Damn, how’d you miss that pitch?’ That doesn’t do any good.

“I learned that.”

It’s worth remembering that baseball people are, generally, much less panicked than fans. Losing a series to the terrible Astros is a sign of trouble, but you want panic? The Angels have a $146 million payroll and are five games under .500. The Dodgers ($216 million) and Blue Jays ($116 million) remade their rosters and payrolls with win-now moves and both are in last place.

The Royals are four under .500 in a season many expected them to finish a few games over.

“This is nowhere near time to panic,” starting pitcher James Shields says.

Shields was on the 2011 Rays team that made up a nine-game deficit in September to make the playoffs. That’s an extreme case — the biggest last-month comeback in major-league history, actually — but an example of why the players aren’t freaking out. The history in Milwaukee that none of them experienced is why Yost is working so hard to keep it that way.

Miguel Tejada has made six All-Star teams and won an MVP award in his 16 big-league seasons. He played for a 103-game winner in Oakland, and a 93-game loser in Baltimore. He’s answered to 11 different managers, through good times and bad, hitting streaks and losing streaks, blown ninth innings and walk-off wins.

“For me,” Tejada says, “the most important thing a manager can do is give you confidence. That’s the most important thing. And my manager is doing a good job with that.”

These words have a different meaning once you better understand Yost’s background, and his motivations. He and general manager Dayton Moore talked about the Milwaukee experience before Yost was hired. Each man knows the expectations, and Moore is complimenting Yost’s work with maintaining “that clubhouse culture.”

This is what Yost is focused on now, to not let the same mistakes that got him fired by the Brewers follow him to Kansas City.

That means right now, as the Royals attempt to climb from what could be a season-defining slide, is Yost’s first real comprehension test. He knows he is seen by many as the guy who didn’t make it all the way through in Milwaukee, the one who can take you to the door but doesn’t have the key.

He’s trying to change that here, and now. Staying calm and positive is the only way he knows how. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But he tried the other way once.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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