WASHINGTON — Ian Desmond is in the thrust of the best season of his career, hitting .301 with 20 homers and 63 RBI. As was custom for him here in Washington, he has played in all but two of his team’s games. None have been at the shortstop position.
The three-time Silver Slugger has reinvented himself as an outfielder in Arlington, Texas, where it might surprise Nationals fans to hear he’s committed only eight errors all season (he had one more than that through April of last year).
Desmond signed a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers on the brink of spring training and will earn $8 million in that time, a far cry from the $15.2 million he’d currently be earning annually had he accepted Washington’s seven-year, $107 million extension offer after 2013.
(He would be nearly through the third year of that deal, by the way, theoretically having cost himself approximately $20.34 million already.)
This was a player who, at the time of his departure, was the last remaining vestige to the Expos as a third-round pick by Montreal in 2004, the year before the Nationals were birthed in D.C.
There will be no reuniting with the franchise by which he was drafted out of high school at 18 years old; this 30-year-old’s Rangers do not play the Nats this season. But they do play the Orioles.
Desmond spoke of lifelong friends he had made in Washington during a particularly moving interview near season’s end last September. Some of those friends, he says, traveled to Camden Yards in Baltimore to see Desmond play in a Rangers uniform Tuesday night.
“Coming back here, seeing you guys,” Desmond told some familiar faced reporters before the game. “I talked to [MLB.com reporter Bill] Ladson the other night and my old host family from Woodbridge is coming up. It’s good. It’s good to see the people that you care about.”
Desmond wouldn’t have been surprised to even see a few Curly Ws set against the starkly orange and white crowd.
“I spent a lot of my career [in Washington] and I felt like I had established a pretty good relationship there with a lot of people,” he says. “Throughout the course of the season, you don’t realize how much you miss certain people, and how many familiar faces you really did come across.”
Some of the faces to stick with Desmond in the 10 months since his exit from Washington aren’t so much public figures representing the Nationals, but those who represent the organization to the thousands who gather for 81 home games a year.
Asked how difficult it was to leave the place he spent the first seven years of his career, Desmond says, “Well, I mean, obviously the final goodbyes, like I was talking about, with a lot of people that I care about. I mean, yes, it is the team, but there’s people… for instance, every single game, pretty much, I would sit in the dugout before the game and Susan would be sitting there. She was the usher for like the owner’s seats, I guess you could say, right there, and I would wave to her before every single game.
“Starting that stuff all over again. Every time I would stretch down the line, there’d be a gentleman right there, and it’s weird, like I took for granted that I never knew his name, but every single game he would tip his cap to me. You know, like, just little things like that. I mean that’s seven years of doing that. It almost becomes like… you become numb to it.”
After an offseason of uncertainty, Desmond burst out of the starting gate and represented the American League at this year’s All-Star Game — his first since 2012 — a salute to a blistering first half in which he hit .322 with 15 homers and 55 RBI for Texas.
“I think my whole career has been a blessing,” he says. “You look back to the year I had in 2009 in Triple-A; I went off and hit .340 and ended up coming up to the big leagues and staying.”
“All that whole time there in Washington, even back to 2004 when I got drafted, was all just a complete blessing,” he recalls. “And I think even leaving was a blessing. I think getting a fresh start in Texas with a team that really wanted me, and just the success that we’re having, the way we’re playing, it’s a blessing that I ended up there.
“I’m just really grateful for both places and for the way that it didn’t end ugly in Washington, in my eyes, and I don’t think in their eyes, either. It was just kind of like one of those things where that chapter needed to come to and end and this new chapter has been great. I couldn’t have asked for a smoother transition.”
Although many would have imagined a stressful offseason for Desmond, sitting by the phone for a call which didn’t come till spring, he says — thanks to frugally saving much of his career earnings and keeping himself preoccupied with his family and training regimen in Florida — it was quite the contrary.
“It wasn’t really that difficult,” he says. “We knew that we would have a job. And, at that point, leave everything else up to the big man.”
Over the course of 162, baseball players have a way of compartmentalizing memories — the good, the bad and the ugly — like no other professional athletes in sports. In that respect, it’s not difficult to imagine them partitioning off entire seasons of their careers. But moving on from the only team you’ve known in your pro career? Mentally, Desmond drew strength from a fortuitous piece of advice imparted to him by one of his first managers in the minor leagues.
“In 2005, I was in the South Atlantic League with Randy Knorr as my manager,” he says. “Halfway through the season, I got moved up and Randy told me, he called me into the office.”
“Randy Knorr said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to cut the cord from these guys. We’re sending you up there. Don’t worry about us, we’re going to be fine. You go up there and do your thing.’ And I took that advice with me this offseason,” he says.
“Yes, I do have a very large spot in my heart for all the guys on that team, but I think Randy’s advice made it a little bit easier for me to where I said, ‘Hey, they’re going to be fine,’ and just kind of, not wash your hands of them, but cut the cord and give yourself to the new team. And that was what I did from Day One and that helped me tremendously.”
That’s not to say arriving at that conclusion was easy.
“Those little things,” Desmond says. “Knowing that that time was going to come to an end was really hard for me, and then obviously watching Bryce grow up and watching the way that he had like such a phenomenal year last year. And I’m not taking any credit for it, because he was the one in the box, but to be able to be a part of his career, that was special to me.
“To know that I was going to have to cut that cord was tough at the end, but when I got here, the first day I stepped onto that spring training field, these guys made me feel like I’ve been here my whole career and it’s been like that ever since.”
Desmond still texts his former Nationals teammates, and they often do the same.
“When I’m flipping through channels and their games are on, I’ll watch them and I’ll shoot Jayson a text every once in a while, or Harp a text and say ‘nice swing, blah, blah, blah.’ But, look, you spend as much time as we spent together, you’re gonna have a spot in each other’s heart. I’m appreciative of that, that they care about me and cheer me on, and they know that I’m right there with them as well.”