Feb 23, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
VIERA, Fla. — Ian Desmond was among the first members of the Nationals to report for spring training earlier this month, early enough that the big-league clubhouse inside Space Coast Stadium wasn’t yet fully up and running.
So on his first day in town, Desmond instead drove to the year-round, minor-league complex just down the street. That’s when he realized it, that he had first walked through those same doors 10 years earlier, a 17-year-old Expos draft pick who had no idea what the next decade had in store.
“I walked up to the clubhouse, and it all just hit me real quick,” he said. “Like, boom! I could remember my Gulf Coast League days when I reported in 2004. Everything just kind of flashed before my eyes. It was pretty cool.”
Desmond hasn’t had much reason to venture back to the minor-league clubhouse since making his big-league debut in Sept. 2009. He has developed into one of baseball’s best shortstops. An All-Star. A Silver Slugger. A Gold Glove finalist. A multimillionaire who almost certainly will command a nine-figure contract (either from the Nationals or another franchise) sometime in the next two years.
It’s easy to forget now just how far Desmond has come. He first entered the public’s consciousness in March 2005, when as an 18-year-old he was given an opportunity to play in a couple of Grapefruit League games with the major-league club. After watching his young shortstop make a couple of spectacular plays at shortstop, then-GM Jim Bowden began comparing him to Derek Jeter.
Desmond’s path to stardom, though, wasn’t nearly as smooth (or as quick) as Bowden might have believed at the time. He languished in the minors for six years, appearing in a staggering 448 games with Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg, never hitting better than .264 until 2009 and committing an average of 32 errors per season.
There were plenty of shaky moments during his early days in Washington, as well. Desmond was charged with 34 errors as a rookie in 2010, then posted a disappointing .298 on-base percentage and .656 OPS the following season.
Through it all, the Nationals stood behind Desmond. Mike Rizzo, who replaced Bowden as GM in 2009, turned down trade offers for his struggling shortstop. Former managers Jim Riggleman and Davey Johnson touted him as star-in-waiting and leader on the diamond.
“I do owe them a lot, because of the knowledge I got from them and the people they surround me with here is priceless,” Desmond said. “They could have easily given up on me. They kept on running me out there. But I think the biggest thing is, I didn’t give up on myself.”
You know the rest of the story. Desmond, like the Nats, had a breakthrough performance in 2012, earning an All-Star nod, the first of his two Silver Slugger awards and MVP votes. And he nearly duplicated his numbers last season, despite the team’s overall underachievement.
Along the way, Desmond became the heart-and-soul of the Nationals roster. He speaks for teammates after tough losses. He calls the occasional team meeting. He settles pitchers down when they lose focus. He leads, on and off the field, something Matt Williams previously saw from afar and now is seeing up-close.
“Talking to the guys this winter, to a man, the guys that were here from last year said: ‘This is your guy. This is the guy that is your leader on the field from a baseball-playing perspective every day,” the rookie manager said, adding: “He’s one of those rare guys that sees everything that goes on. It’s good, because he’s aware and he’s out there to be the leader and he relishes the role.”
Desmond insists he never set out to be a leader. The role just comes naturally to him.
And given the long road he took to reach this point, he feels an obligation to help those now trying to realize the same success.
“I look and see guys like (minor-league shortstop) Josh Johnson, all the way at the end of the lockers in the clubhouse,” Desmond said. “That used to be my seat. It kind of symbolizes it. I’ve come up all the way. I was the very last guy, and then I kind of creeped my way up to the front of the lockers. And now I’m up here.
“I see guys like (outfielder) Steven Souza, who have battled through the minor leagues, have had their ups and downs. I think I kind of paved the way for them in this organization. There’s not a level they’ve been to that I haven’t been to. There’s not an experience they’ve had that I haven’t. I feel like I can really relate.
“You know, I didn’t do everything right. I didn’t do everything perfect. But I feel like I have a lot of experience to share with them. And it’s cool to give that back to them, and that I’m here to be able to do so.”
As he walked through the doors to the minor-league complex earlier this month, and as all those memories of his first days with the organization 10 years ago flooded his mind, Desmond couldn’t help but pause to appreciate the path that brought him back.
“It’s been a pleasure, to be honest,” he said. “It went by really fast. I’m just proud to be a National.”
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