Ned Yost, the man Brewers fans love to hate and live to bash
In Milwaukee, if you're looking to raise the collective temperature of the city's baseball fans, there are two simple words that you can utter that will do the trick quicker than a trip down Bernie Brewer's slide: Ned Yost.
Oh, there are a few other words that will get the local baseball-loving populace all lathered up, too. Eric Gagne will certainly do the job. Rickie Weeks works. Bill Hall. Doug Melvin, the general manager who built this team and hired Yost, maybe. Just bringing up the hometown Brewers at all and their lurching, face-planting start is a good way to crank the ol' angst meter in town.
Nothing, though, gets the fans frothing faster than a mention of Yost, the Brewers' clean-cut, square-jawed, maddeningly frustrating manager. He is more than a simple lightning rod for the fans' discontent. He is a lightning rod on top of a dart board on the hottest of hot seats. If Barack Obama has this many fingers pointing his way come November, we'll soon be calling him Mr. President.
Yost, of course, is not the sole cause of the Brewers' 22-24 start, no more than he's the reason that they finished over .500 last season for the first time since 1992. It's not his fault, of course, that the Brewers have maybe three hitters and three pitchers who are meeting expectations. You really can't pin the team's sinking slugging percentage -- it was .456 last season, and .401 this season -- on Yost. You can't blame him for Yovani Gallardo's season-ending knee injury.
But try telling that to the Yost critics out there, who see him as a sometimes snippy, uptight, often humorless automaton who has squandered the talented youth on the team. You'll be telling your side for awhile.
"I could do four hours of Ned Yost every day if I wanted to," says Steve "The Homer" True, the host of a drive time radio sports talk show in Milwaukee. "It's impossible to overstate how much [many fans] dislike Yost."
In his sixth season with the Brewers, Yost has used up just about all his credit with many around Wisconsin, despite coaxing the team to a .500 record for the first time in 13 years back in '05 and, in '07, managing a winner, at 83-79. In fact, the relative success of last year has worked against the 52-year-old skipper for a couple of reasons.
One, a lot of people around the team thought that the Brewers should have been much better than an 83-win team in '07, given that they began the year 20-10 and were in first place in the National League Central for a whopping 121 days. They were in first place as late as Sept. 18 before finishing 5-7, two games behind the Cubs and out of the playoffs.
Two, that winning record has upped expectations for this season to a superheated level. Unrealistic? Maybe. But Brewers fans have been waiting for a return to the postseason since 1982, and are fed up with being patient.
"It's all too slow for everyone. They're dealing with the frustrations of 25 years," True says.
Even the team's general manager recognizes the importance of this season.
"There's still the perception that we should take that next step, and from our perception, we should," Melvin says. "We want those expectations high. This was a year to continue building on."
Yet here they sit, a nice cushion from a 6-1 start already disintegrated with a six-game losing streak in early May. The Brewers added another five-game skid less than a week later that they finally snapped Tuesday in a win at Pittsburgh. The uneven start has sent the Brewers' faithful -- more than 2.8 million last season and averaging almost 34,000 a game this year, 10th best in baseball -- into conniptions.
"Fans are certainly thinking 'now' more than they have in the past. But at the same time, this isn't the first year the Brewers were supposed to be good, or the first time in recent memory that they've disappointed," Jeff Sackmann, author of the Brewers' fan site BrewCrewBall.com, says in an e-mail. "We're used to getting our hopes up (a little), just to see them dashed.
"No matter how good the team is supposed to be, we have a lot of practice following a loser. It isn't quite like being a 'Wait 'til next year' Cubs' fan. But it's close."
Beyond the influence, or non-influence, of their manager, the Brewers can look to a lot of reasons they're in the predicament they are. Melvin points out, first and foremost, the injury to Gallardo, who had a promising debut last season but now has had surgery on both knees over the past three months. He blew out his right knee on May 1 and the next night, the team started the six-game losing streak.
But the problems go way beyond that. First baseman Prince Fielder was awful the first few weeks of the season. He didn't hit his first homer until April 17, in his 65th plate appearance of the year. He's still slugging nearly 200 points lower than he did last season, when he had 50 home runs.
Much of the lineup beyond Fielder is killing the Brewers. Second baseman Weeks is hitting .200. Hall, moved from center field to third, is hitting .207. Shortstop J.J. Hardy is at .247. New center fielder Mike Cameron, after missing the first 25 games of the season on a drug suspension, is hitting just .230. You could make an argument that only Ryan Braun, moved from third to left field this year, right fielder Corey Hart and light-hitting catcher Jason Kendall are anywhere close to playing the way they should. "It's really hard to see guys who have hit in the past batting .190," Sackmann says. "Not much to say about that other than it sucks."