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Royals manager Ned Yost goes back a long way with Yankees' Billy Connors

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost walks into

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost walks into the team's dugout before Game 4 of the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, in San Francisco. Photo Credit: AP / Jeff Chiu

SAN FRANCISCO - Forty years later, Ned Yost hasn't forgotten.

Chosen by the Mets with the seventh overall pick in the 1974 draft, Yost soon signed and was sent to Class A Batavia.

Yost, who now is 60, entered Saturday night two victories away from winning a World Series title as the Kansas City Royals' manager. He smiled at the memory of his 19-year-old self and also the memory of one of the coaches he met in Batavia, a man to whom he gives a large amount of credit for his ascension to the majors.

"I absolutely loved Billy Connors,'' Yost said in an interview in the Royals' dugout before Game 2, pausing for emphasis. "Loved him.''

Connors, of course, is a longtime Yankees employee, a one-time pitching coach for the club who became a lightning rod as he forged a close relationship with George Steinbrenner and became known as The Boss' "pitching guru.'' He's still a spring training instructor with the club.

But well before his time with the Yankees, Connors was the roving minor league pitching coach for the Mets. And it was in Batavia where he came across Yost, whom he still calls "a special kid.''

"I was just very impressed with Ned,'' Connors, 72, said Friday from his home in the Tampa area. "I loved being around him. He was just something. I knew at the time he was special, something different than the other guys.''

But also one who needed watching off the field.

"Back in those days as a young player, I was always finding myself getting in trouble,'' Yost said with a smile. "Always. Billy was the one guy, and Paul Tretiak [a Mets scout], that always had my back. They always did, no matter what kind of trouble I got in with the [scouting] director. Billy was always there to protect me, and I've never had a coach who did that.''

The scouting director at the time was Nelson Burbrink, previously a scout best known for signing Tom Seaver. Burbrink quickly grew tired of the young catcher's immaturity.

"It was never jail or police trouble, it was just mischief trouble that I would get into and really [tick Burbrink off],'' Yost said, "and Billy was always, he was always there protecting me. [Burbrink] wanted to send me home one time and Billy said if you send him home, you're sending me home too.''

Connors recalled Burbrink asking Batavia manager Wilbur Huckle to submit a list of players from his roster he felt were legitimate major-league prospects. The list contained one name: Yost's.

"And Burbrink fired him,'' Connors said with a laugh.

Connors, then at the beginning stages of establishing his reputation as a top pitching coach -- Greg Maddux thanked Connors, his first pitching coach with the Cubs, during his Hall of Fame speech last summer -- said that even then, Yost carried himself as a big- leaguer.

"Just his makeup, the way he handled himself behind the plate,'' Connors said. "He had all the tools, it was just a matter of going up the ladder. And he had the desire, too. You love to see kids like that.''

Yost, who made his major-league debut in 1980, appreciated Connors' pitching knowledge -- "I'd never seen anybody who knew so much about the game of baseball and especially pitching as Billy did,'' he said -- but there was more to it than that.

"It was just a special relationship,'' Yost said. "I've never had a coach that backed me, believed me and protected me as much as Billy did.

"I've been in this game since 1974 when I signed, and I can remember maybe 10 coaches that I played with, but Billy Connors is indelibly branded into my mind as one of the top coaches I've ever been around.''

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