Monday, November 2, 2015

How 'the dumbest manager in baseball' got to the World Series via Vancouver

Ned Yost with Vancouver Canadians in 1979.

Royals manager Ned Yost and two of his coaches
learned baseball while playing in Vancouver

By Tom Hawthorn

On the field in New York, jubilant players in the uniforms of the Kansas City Royals jumped about and mock wrestled like a Little League team that had eaten too much Halloween candy. One of them, a giant and good-natured catcher from Venezuela named Salvador Perez, pulled away from the hijinx in search of his boss, skipper Ned Yost.

The cagey manager knew what Perez was up to and, for several minutes, managed to stay out of sight. At last, though, he decided he would take what was coming. He doffed his ball cap and ran headlong towards Perez, who gleefully baptized him by pouring a large container of ice water on his head.

The Royals knocked off the New York Mets to win the World Series in much the same fashion as they dispatched the Toronto Blue Jays last month. They bided their time, did not panic when trailing, and when the opposing second baseman made a mistake — Toronto's Ryan Goins inexplicably allowing an easy pop up to land on the grass, and New York's Daniel Murphy twice treating a ground ball like a bar of soap bouncing in the shower — they pounced. (Murphy's two devastating errors led to much hilarity on Twitter, where his anti-gay bigotry encouraged schadenfreude. Two of the better jokes went along the lines of “I don't approve of Daniel Murphy's fielding lifestyle” and “It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and E4.”) The wide-eyed Missouri team came to the Big Apple, but it was the rubes who fleeced the sharps.

Mr. Movember
The brains behind the Royals operation was Yost (rhymes with toast), himself widely considered a dim bulb among managers. The baseball writers have ridiculed him. The fans — Royals fans especially — have hated him. His moves have gone against baseball convention without ever seeming to show the genius that in retrospect would be revealed. Seven years ago, Sports Illustrated published a long article about his unpopularity. “He is more than a simple lightning rod for the fans' discontent,” wrote John Donovan. “He is a lightning rod on top of a dartboard on the hottest of hot seats.” Players seemed to like him well enough, but in an age of Sabrmetrics, he came across as an innumerate good ol’ boy. As a tactician, he behaved like an Italian general. Even when one of his seemingly boneheaded moves worked out in the end, he was greeted with blogger headlines such as: “Ned Yost is not the village idiot of managers.”

Yet here he was soaking wet on the grass at Citi Field in Queens, the manager of a World Series champion, an accomplishment that has eluded Buck Showalter, Bobby Valentine, Dusty Baker, Cap Anson, Clark Griffith, Gene Mauch and Joe Cronin.

Yost's long journey to last night's triumph included an important stint in Vancouver with the minor-league Canadians. One of the oddities of the Royals triumph is that three of the team's eight-man coaching staff had played in Vancouver — manager Yost, hitting instructor Dale Sveum and bench coach Don Wakamatsu.

Yost once said he could live with a reputation as “the dumbest manager in baseball” because he hired smart coaches.

Edgar Frederick Yost III first arrived in Vancouver in 1979. He had been drafted in the second round five years earlier by the Montreal Expos, only to become a Mets prospect and then the property of the Milwaukee Brewers. The 24-year-old catcher had already had stops in Batavia, N.Y.; Wausau, Wis.; Jackson, Miss.; Tidewater, Va.; and Spokane, Wash., before crossing the border to join the Canadians in only their second season in the Pacific Coast League, one level below the majors.
The catcher played in 130 games in 1979, hitting a respectable .263. More importantly, he had as his manager John Felske, a retired catcher who had only 54 major-league games to his credit, although he had spent 11 seasons in the minors before becoming a coach.

“John Felske helped me a lot when he was my manager at Vancouver,” Yost told the Milwaukee Journal in 1981. “He's the one who turned it around for me. He got me thinking about the game.
“Before that, I was just putting on my uniform and going out and playing. I didn't know what I was doing.
“Physical ability was never any problem, but I never thought about the mental part. John taught me I had the mental capacity to play the game. It was something I didn't even realize you needed before.”
Don Wakamatsu has A+ penmanship.
The next season, Yost tried to crack a Milwaukee Brewers lineup in which he was No. 4 on the depth chart behind veteran Ray Fosse, Charlie Moore and Buck Martinez. (Buck wound up as a beloved catcher with the Blue Jays, where he is now the play-by-play announcer. Moore also played for the Blue Jays and is perhaps best remembered as the emergency fill-in for an injured Ernie Whitt during the Blue Jays' infamous swoon of 1987. The Jays squandered the American League East pennant by losing the final seven games of the season. Moore was sitting at the venerable Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto to drown his sorrows when the plaster ceiling of the 138-year-old drinking hole landed on his head.) Yost made the parent club's roster after spring training in 1980, but only got in two games before being returned to Vancouver. He hit a solid .309 at Nat Bailey Stadium before being called up again after 80 games.

A great defensive player, he'd have only a middling major-league career as a backup catcher (batting an anemic .212) lasting just 219 games spread over parts of six seasons, ending with five games played for the team that drafted him, the Expos.

In 2003, the lantern-jawed Yost became manager of the Brewers, a position once held by former Vancouver Mounties players George Bamberger and Rene Lachemann, as well as by former Canadians manager Tom Trebelhorn, who had led Vancouver to a Pacific Coast League championship in 1985. Yost built the Brewers into a contender through five seasons before being surprisingly fired after a 3-11 streak with just 12 games left in the 2008 season. It was only the third time baseball historians could recount when a manager was fired from a contending team in the final month of the season.

Yost was replaced by Sveum, his third-base coach, who had never before managed in the majors. Sveum, like Yost originally from California, joined the Vancouver Canadians as a 21-year-old infielder in time to help the club win the 1985 championship. He hit just .236 that season, but spent the 1986 campaign divided between Vancouver and the parent Brewers.

Sveum (pronounced swaim) works under Yost on the Royals as a hitting instructor, an achievement for a player whose career major-league average was .236, the same he hit in his only full season in Vancouver.

The third Vancouver connection in the Royals dugout is bench coach Wakamatsu, who was hired away from doing that job with the Blue Jays in 2013.

Another backup catcher, he was in his sixth year of an apprenticeship in the minor leagues when he got a surprise call up to the majors. In 1991, the Canadians were a farm club of the Chicago White Sox, who had Carlton Fisk, a future Hall of Famer, as first-string catcher and Ron Karkovice as a backup. When Karkovice tore a ligament in his left thumb, the emergency call went to Vancouver, even though Wakamatsu was hitting an anemic .127 at the time.

“You play in the minor leagues for so long you wonder if you're ever going to move up,” he told me at the time. “Everything I touched this year went bad. You can't ever give up. Statistic-wise, when I'm playing my worst, I get called up. It's a strange game.”
The promotion to his dream job turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. His first assignment was to catch the unguided missiles tossed by Charlie Hough, a knuckleballer. Early in his debut, two elusive pitches corkscrewed past Wakamatsu, allowing a run to score. In the end, his Sox defeated the California Angels and he managed a single in four at-bats. The ball was waiting for him in his locker at the end of the game. He also finally had a chance to read his name in a big-league box score, even if it was reduced to “Wkmts.”

Wakamatsu would only play in 18 games for the ChiSox that season, as most of his career was spent in a 12-season whistle-stop tour from Billings, Mont., to Chattanooga, Tenn., to Port City, N.C., to Albuquerque, N.M., to New Orleans. He played 117 of his career 780 pro games in the uniform of the Canadians, which had been deliberately designed to look like the label of a Molson lager with which it shared a name.

Wakamatsu had greater success as a coach, working his way up until he was named manager of the Seattle Mariners in 2009. He guided the team to a mediocre 127-147 record over two forgettable seasons worthy of note only because he became the first person of Asian-American ancestry to manage in the majors.
A fourth-generation Japanese-American from Oregon, Wakamatsu was a college student before he learned the full story of his grandparents internment during the Second World War. His father was born in a detention camp in Tule Lake, Calif. Near the end of the war, his grandfather even enlisted in the U.S. Army. Yet when the family returned to their former home at Hood River, they were ostracized by the townspeople. Barbers and hairdressers refused to touch their hair and even the merchants who deigned to sell to them made them enter through a back door. The grandparents rebuilt a home from lumber purchased from the camp in which they had once been held.
His father made a conscious decision not to raise his own children in such an atmosphere of hatred and bitterness, which explains why Wakamatsu was an adult before he learned the family's full history. Ever since, he has taken it as his duty to share the story as a lesson.

The Royals faced a crisis in the World Series when Edinson Volquez's father died suddenly in the Dominican Republic just hours before his son was to be the starting pitcher in Game 1. The family decided to keep the news from the pitcher. It fell on Wakamatsu to develop a contingency should Volquez find out and be unable to play. (He quietly told Chris Young, himself bereaved a month ago when his father died of cancer, to be prepared to be the starter.)

Among Wakamatsu's many tasks as bench coach is responsibility for filling out the lineup card posted in the Royals dugout, which he does in a beautiful faux-Gothic cursive, a nod to his grandfather's beautiful penmanship. The cards are cherished by Royals players as keepsakes from games in which they reached a personal milestone. It is unknown who will keep Makamatsu's card from Sunday's World Series-winning game, although it probably belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.