WASHINGTON — Friday night was, quite probably, Jordan Zimmermann’s final home game as a Washington National, a seminal chapter turn in the homegrown starter’s career. That moment will likely come knocking for Ian Desmond on Monday.
A third-round draft pick by the Montreal Expos in 2004, Desmond is the last remaining vestige to the franchise’s ancestral past.
Typical of Nationals procedure, Desmond has not spoken to the organization this season about a new contract, though even if he wanted to, the writing was probably on the wall when the club traded for Trea Turner last offseason.
“There’s been no talks about that,” he told 106.7 The Fan’s Craig Heist. “I don’t know what will happen on that front, but right now I’m just focused on finishing it out and putting my best foot forward every day.”
After the 2013 season, when the Nationals last missed the playoffs, Washington had reportedly offered Desmond a seven-year, $107 million extension, which would have paid him an additional $89.5 million on top of what he was already owed through 2015.
The following offseason, Adam Kilgore reported that news for The Washington Post, adding that Desmond declined the offer.
“Every offer is a fair offer,” Desmond said looking back on it. “I mean, we’re getting paid a lot of money to play the game that we love. Yeah. It was the offer that was made and, at the time, it wasn’t the right deal for me and that’s that.”
Desmond hasn’t thought about what the future holds for him or his family because, he says, that wouldn’t be honoring the moment right now.
“Every single day I come here ready to go the post for the Washington Nationals,” he said. “I want to honor my contracts, I want to honor the loyalty — like I said — and I feel like if I put my mind in other places, that would be detrimental to my goal, which is to go out there to perform for the team that is hiring me right now.”
Still, it’s difficult for Desmond to imagine anything besides playing for the Nationals, the organization whose ranks through which he climbed steadily before making his big league debut in 2009. But he understands his circumstance, which may put him in a different uniform next year.
“Well, when I was a kid, I never dreamed about fans or what particular jersey I was wearing, I just wanted to be a big-leaguer,” he said. “And that still stays true. Obviously I’ve spent a lot of time in this organization, but at the end of the day, I just want to have a jersey on my back.”
A season mired in underachievement for the Nationals, Desmond’s personal low-water mark this season — a .209 batting average and .252 on-base percentage — came at the worst possible time, 89 games into his walk year.
Critics questioned why he remained in the lineup, the value he lost, and throughout the biggest slump of his career, one which reflected the worst-case downward trend against his season averages, Desmond received unwavering support from his manager, Matt Williams.
“It was certainly tough, but I made it through,” Desmond said. “That’s something that, when it’s all said and done, I’m going to look back and be proud of myself for. I think there’s positives to be taken out of that, for sure.”
Then something clicked. From July 22 to the end of August (the best months of his career, statistically), Desmond hit .306 with 41 hits, nine home runs, 15 walks and 24 RBI in 37 games. He has since regressed in September, but the confidence is there.
“It certainly is a humbling game, for everybody,” he said. “Perseverance and endurance through those struggles I always say builds character. I’m a baseball player, that’s what I do, but that’s not who I am. I’m a believer and I’m a husband and I’m a father, and at some point — like I said — down the road, this is all stuff that’s going to make me a better man and hopefully better in all those aspects of my life, too.”
How did Desmond, with mounting pressure to salvage his season and free agency value, ultimately turn it around?
“I think just patience and perseverance,” he said. “I just continued to believe in my ability and continued to go out there and play and, I don’t know, keep on grinding. I just kept on grinding. And it hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but you’ve just got to keep on going. Keep your head up and keep on moving forward.”
After spending his entire career in the same organization, Desmond won’t simply forget what he’s built here in Washington, nor the people he’s met.
“I’ve got relationships here that are way deeper than baseball,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of lifelong friends in the organization. I’ve got people that I consider family in this organization, and there’s nothing more that I’d like to do than to bring a World Series championship to Washington, D.C., but the reality is that may not happen.”
Therein lies the harsh reality of baseball. You could almost sense a calm in the Nationals’ clubhouse in the final weeks of the season, not because the players had given up, but because they understood you cannot just flip a switch and rattle off ten straight wins.
They were, and continue to be, resigned to their humanity, just kind of existing game by game with the hope that, at the end of the season, the math all works out.
At the time of Desmond’s interview on Thursday, the Nationals still held an outside shot of cutting into the Mets’ division lead, or at least keeping it close enough to make their final three games in New York interesting.
By Saturday, as the Nats were entangled with Philadelphia, the Mets finished off Cincinnati 10-2, and in doing so, also applied the final death knell to the Nationals’ playoff hopes.
But failure is not dependent on preseason expectations. Sure, for a season prior to which the club laid all its cards on the table, entering the final contract years of Desmond, Zimmermann and Denard Span, they did not live up to their predetermined billing.
“I think the biggest thing that needs to be realized throughout this whole process over the last 12 years is that expectations are what they are,” Desmond said. “Your expectations aren’t who you are. What you are at the end of the year is what the record says you are.
“No World Series title, no Cy Young, no MVP has ever been made in February or March. At the end of the year, you assess where you’re at. If you won a World Series, you were the best team on the block; if you finished second, you were a second-place team. I think there’s only one way to find that out, and that’s by playing it out.”
Desmond maintains his loyalty to the club, even knowing his time may almost be up in D.C.
“From day one they’ve believed in me, and they’ve believed in my ability as a baseball player and they’ve trusted me,” he said. “And in return, I think I’ve taken the field every day, and as an employee of the Washington Nationals. I’ve done every single thing I could do to honor the contracts that I’ve gotten, honor their trust in me. I take the field every day and I think there’s something to be said for going to the post every day for your employer.”
“It’s all a blessing,” he said of playing pro ball. “This is an opportunity that I think any little boy, any man would want. I get to play in the big leagues and get to do my dream job every day. There’s been ups and downs, but at some point going forward in my life, I’m going to be able to use those and build on it.”
“Every time I step on the field I think I’m a better version of myself,” he added. “And numbers or stats may not indicate that right now, but going forward in the future this is all stuff I’m going to be able to look back on and realize and use.”
Desmond’s final message to Nationals fans: “Keep on supporting your team. This is an exciting organization. Come out and cheer ’em on, and love ’em and don’t buy all the hype made in the media, and just come out and love ’em for who they are that day.”
This is a game of failure, a game-by-game daily reminder that, even at your best, you will be defeated more often than not. You are a failure, even when you win.
All you can do is keep moving forward.
[Listen to this interview in full Sunday between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. on 106.7 The Fan’s “Nats Insider.”]