The wife: Chelsey Desmond

The wife: Chelsey Desmond

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THE WIFE

In a baseball marriage, the players are in charge of their careers, and the wives are in charge
of everything else. Just ask Ian and Chelsey Desmond.

In a baseball marriage, the players are in charge of their careers, and the wives are in charge of everything else. Just ask Ian and Chelsey Desmond.

Published on May 9, 2014

The preparation for the baseball season, sprawling and yawning before them, began in 30-minute increments in a rented Florida apartment at bedtime during spring training. Chelsey Desmond took her two sons — Grayson, approaching his third birthday, and Cruz, just 15 months old — to bed in Viera, across the state from Sarasota, where she and her husband, Ian, grew up, where they live still. At 7 p.m., Cruz hit the pillow, done till daytime. At around 9, Grayson followed. The next night, they shifted to 7:30 and 9:30. The night after, 8 and 10.

Above: Chelsey Desmond holds her 17-month-old son Cruz, while his brother Grayson, age 3, checks out Dad’s game from the family room at Nationals Park.

Any project involving toddlers requires adjustments, and occasionally it took a couple of nights for the change to take hold. But when it was time to head north to Washington for the season, the transition was complete. The offseason schedule evolved into the baseball schedule, with tykes as third-shifters, staying up past midnight, waking up at 10 or 11 a.m.

There are 81 games at Nationals Park, and try making Chelsey miss one, whether bronchitis or bad moods get in the way. There are 81 more on television, when Daddy’s on the road playing shortstop and MASN provides the lonely link. Chelsey Desmond knows what other young mothers might think, knows what grandmothers think, knows what schoolteachers think. You keep your kids up till when?

The explanation comes with a sigh, internal or out loud. Yes. Yes we do. Think it through. With Ian’s departure for the ballpark each day around 1 or 1:30 p.m. and return after 11 p.m., try keeping the kids on a schedule the rest of the world would deem “normal.” When would the kids see their dad? “This is about staying together as a family,” Chelsey said.

“Baseball wife” would seem to be a glamorous job: hair done up, makeup just right, shopping all day, nannies at the ready, clapping for your millionaire man from the stands, then hugging him before rolling home in the SUV, tinted windows up. It is, at its core, an odd existence. Baseball wives are expected to wed at a certain time of year, to give birth at a certain time of year, to pick up the toys and the car and the dogs and the kids when dad is sent to the minors or traded midseason. They are full-time moms, part-time real estate agents, occasional fathers, all-hours dog walkers, logistical magicians.

Let’s be clear: This is not a complaint. “Being in D.C., you see all the military people,” Ian Desmond said. “They’re not worried about their husband coming home from a road trip. They’re worried about their husband coming home alive.”

It is, though, a reality. There is no sport like baseball, in which the seven-and-a-half months from spring training to the final regular season game contains just one equivalent of a weekend, the all-star break. So there’s no marriage like a baseball marriage, in which the players are in charge of their careers, and the wives are in charge of everything else.

Photos: Balancing baseball and family

Ian Desmond joins his younger son, Cruz, at the batting tee in the cage. Cruz isn't too much taller than the tee, for now.

“For half the year, you’re like a single mom,” Ian said. “And you’re a single mom in a city where you have no support. It’s not like you’re at home and you’ve got your family and friends that can keep eyes on kids. It’s completely different.”

Or, as Chelsey said, “People think it’s all roses and butterflies.”

Chelsey, 27, said this curled up in a leather chair in the living room of their rented house on a leafy street in Arlington. On the bare floor of the adjacent dining room, there was no table, only a stroller and a scooter so Grayson and Cruz and Bailey, the family’s affectionate pit bull, had plenty of room to roam. The clock on the wall stood stuck at 8:50.

Glamour? Chelsey’s uniform for the morning — for just about every morning — was sneakers, Lululemon sweats, headband in hair, coffee in hand. The Disney Channel played quietly in the background, but Grayson picked up a plastic baseball bat instead. Ian, 28, sat slumped in a facing couch, both a crippling error and a monstrous home run 12 hours behind him. Another game stared him, and the family, straight in the face.

“Go to Daddy’s game?” Grayson said. “Go to Daddy’s game?”

“Not now,” Chelsey said. “Not yet.”

“Where’s Cruz?” Ian asked. Now 17 months old, Cruz had wandered off, behind the island in the kitchen.

On the agenda on this Tuesday: Nothing. It is essential. “This is the time we get with Ian,” Chelsey said. “Without this time, what would we have?”

The club of baseball wives

In any profession, there are experiences that only colleagues can truly understand. Baseball wives are their own club. “I always joke that when you get traded, they kind of throw you into the family room and say, ‘Pick a friend,’ ” said Lory Ankiel, wife of former Nationals outfielder Rick. “And you think about it. What if I would not be friends with any of these girls? Who would understand?”

Trade-deadline deals, though, are every baseball family’s worst fear. “A nightmare,” Chelsey Desmond said, and she only has heard stories. Last season, outfielder Scott Hairston was at a movie in Chicago with his wife, Jill, and their two sons. All cellphones were off, and when the family emerged, text messages and voicemails awaited; Scott had been traded from the Cubs to the Nationals. They wanted him on a flight that night.

“He had to pack something,” Jill Hairston said. He left the next morning. She packed up the house and the kids.

Chelsey Desmond with one of the next generation of Desmond baseball men, 3-year-old Grayson, before a home game in April. Chelsey Desmond first met Ian in the fifth grade in Sarasota, Fla.

In 2010, Lory Ankiel was pregnant with her first child when Rick was dealt from Kansas City to Atlanta. She packed up the clothes, the pictures, the Rottweiler, the Siberian husky, and drove home to Jupiter, Fla., before turning around and heading to Atlanta to find a new place and start a new life. Temporarily.

“There has to be a better way,” she thought. So she started a Web site for baseball families, ourbaseballlife.com, which offers resources in every major league city — vets, pediatricians, where to live, approved babysitters, etc. The service could replace the informal word of mouth that has kept baseball families socially afloat for generations.

“I would have no clue about where to send him to school,” Chelsey Desmond said, looking at Grayson. But why look in Washington now, when Grayson isn’t even a kindergartner and Ian could be a free agent after next season? For now, it’s enough to find an Arlington program in which Grayson can play soccer on Friday mornings.

“It’s really easy to come to the field and let him be friends with the kids here,” Ian Desmond said. “But you have to kind of put them in other social environments, where it’s not only baseball players’ kids. There are other kids who have no idea about baseball, who want to play something else or talk about something else. He should know them, too. You have to make an effort to do it.”

These are, at a lot of levels, joint careers in which the labor might be divided but the stress is shared. Sitting in the stands, even now, Ian’s younger brother Chris, who is living with the Desmonds this season, will turn to his sister-in-law as her jaw clenches and say, “It’s not the World Series, you know.”

“When he goes through struggles, you feel it,” she said. “I probably let it affect me too much.”

The previous night, with the Nationals holding a 1-0, eighth-inning lead over the Los Angeles Angels, Ian Desmond failed to make a play he normally would make, an error that opened the gate for the Angels, who scored four times in the frame. In the ninth, Desmond crushed a solo homer to center, but the Nationals lost.

“I don’t care about the homer,” Ian said.

“I knew not to say anything about it,” Chelsey said, sitting in the chair across the living room from her husband. “Not even, ‘Nice job.’ ”

“She gets I’m still gonna be upset,” Ian said. “The hardest part is getting over it now. ‘Shake it off.’ People say that. But it still affects you. Obviously I don’t want it to affect my family. But how can I just fake it?”

“Yes, I understand,” Chelsey said. “But I still sometimes feel like, ‘Don’t you want to talk about it?’”

She knows, though. She was an athlete herself, and the yearning for competition never completely leaves that kind of person. She knows, too, because she knows him. All baseball wives share, to some extent, the excitement and tension of their husbands’ careers. Chelsey has shared in her husband’s entire life.

“To me, he wasn’t Ian Desmond baseball player,” she said. “He was Ian Desmond from fifth grade.”

Grayson Desmond gets a very special birthday gift from Dad, a new Nationals cap, as he joins Mom and little brother Cruz in the Nationals Park family room.

Childhood sweethearts

It was in the lunch room at Ashton Elementary School in Sarasota. Ian Desmond walked in wearing a T-shirt from a baseball tournament, with the strut of a 10-year-old athlete. And like any good love story, even good love stories that begin before puberty, little Chelsey Edwards whipped her head around and said, “Who’s that?”

So it began. They “dated” in fifth grade, then again in middle school, that is until Ian talked Chelsey into a trade with another boy. Kid stuff. But what Ian likes now was there then. He can still tell Chelsey’s mother about the sundress Chelsey wore in her fifth grade class picture, because she never wore a dress in her life. “That’s part of the reason I married her,” he said. She was a tomboy, soccer and softball and volleyball, good enough to score more goals than anyone in the history of Riverview High, good enough to earn a scholarship to Lynn University in South Florida.

Chelsey, though, was enough of a homebody that when it came time to go, she freaked out. She stayed home, enrolled in community college and hoped to become a dental hygienist.

Ian had his own scholarship, his to the University of South Florida, but when the Montreal Expos took him in the third round of the 2004 draft, he signed. In October 2005, after his first full season of pro ball, he officially asked Chelsey to be his girlfriend.

His life was off, a complete dedication to baseball with no guarantee it would pay off. Her life, in a way, began anew. In 2006, when he was playing at Class A Potomac, he stayed with a local family and would talk with Chelsey for hours by phone sitting in his car out front, so as not to disturb his hosts. The first time she came to visit, her luggage got lost, Ian’s car broke down, and they had to bum a ride over to Potomac Mills Mall to buy some sweats and T-shirts so she could get through the trip.

By then, Chelsey was working in a dentist’s office. “I didn’t care if they fired me,” she said. She would follow the team bus, learning the back roads of the minors, from Woodbridge to Myrtle Beach and back again, only to have to pay for her own hotel room in whatever dump the team stayed at. Neither made much money. They might not see each other for a month or more. There were external pressures, too.

“When you’re dating a baseball player, all anyone wants to tell you is, ‘He’s cheating on you,’ ” Chelsey said.

This is the hushed-tones subculture of baseball, that of infidelity. Chelsey said she took solace in the fact that she had known Ian for so long, through so much. He didn’t go out much, and doesn’t to this day. They are, by their own telling, both introverts.

“He was the best boyfriend ever,” Chelsey said. “He was aware of my feelings. I didn’t ever have to worry.”

Ian Desmond shows off his glove work, without a glove, catching a hit by his son Grayson. During one recent three-hour-plus rain delay at Nationals Park, Grayson insisted on waiting out the game, playing under the concourses.

Yet laying the foundation for a baseball life meant stress anyway. During one surprise visit from Chelsey and his family, on the road in New Hampshire, Ian got a message to meet Harrisburg Manager John Stearns in the hotel lobby. He was demoted from Class AA to Class A. Chelsey joined Ian’s mother in driving him to the airport the next morning. Both women sobbed.

“Is this even worth it?” Chelsey said she and Ian would ask each other. “Why are we torturing ourselves?”

The torture eventually subsided. It was, it turned out, worth it. In 2008, the Nationals sent Ian to the Arizona Fall League, where only elite prospects go. The couple got engaged, and the next day, the Nationals added Ian to the 40-man roster — another major step, an indication that security and stability might actually exist in this game. The next spring, before he departed for the season, he left a note for his mother, something he did every year. This time it read: “This is going to be the year when I’m going to make it to the big leagues.”

In September, he was called up. And there was Chelsey, watching his first major league appearance — he hit a homer and a double — on television with her family in Sarasota, then driving through the night to meet her fiance at the team hotel in Miami. She got out of her Honda Accord to find — what’s this? — a valet. Her hair was on top of her head. She wore sweats and a T-shirt. Ian Desmond had just one game in the majors, and even he knew: That’s not how major league girlfriends dress.

“Welcome to the big leagues,” Chelsey said. “I was so out of my element.”

The next night, with Chelsey in the stands, Ian went 4 for 4.

Keeping the kids busy

When the Nationals are home, Chelsey Desmond, wife of shortstop Ian, takes the couple’s two sons — Grayson, 3, and Cruz, 17 months — to every game. This requires a shifted schedule, one atypical for most American families. A sample day involving a 7:05 p.m. game:

10-11 a.m. The family wakes up. This is the time Ian, 28, gets to spend with his wife and boys. By their own nature, they don’t plan much — playing ball in their basement, maybe a walk to a nearby park. “We’re total introverts,” Chelsey said. At some point, Cruz goes down for the first of his two daily naps

1-1:30 p.m. Ian heads to Nationals Park, with Grayson pleading to go along too. “This is every day,” Chelsey said. But when Ian leaves, the rest of the family starts its day.

1:30-4 p.m. Chelsey and the boys run errands — grocery shopping, stopping at Starbucks for pumpkin bread and a strawberry smoothie.

4 p.m. Grayson and Cruz head down for a nap. Chelsey uses this time for herself and to fix dinner that they can bring to the ballpark. “Anything I can put in Tupperware,” she said.

6-6:30 p.m. If the boys haven’t woken up yet, Chelsey might nudge them forward. Usually, they leave for Nationals Park — a 25-minute drive, depending on traffic — at 6:30 p.m. from their rented house in Arlington.

6:55 p.m. Arrival at Nationals Park. Grayson and Cruz often will play in the Nationals’ family room, where they have dinner. The facility across a concourse from the home clubhouse employs two babysitters nightly and has toys, a fenced-in “yard” in which the boys play ball and some televisions.

7:05 p.m. The game begins. Grayson, in particular, is intent on watching his father play. “Why did you swing and miss?” he asks. During the game: Chelsey tries to watch as much as she can from her seats, which players buy. A former softball and soccer star herself, she can get tense watching her husband. “I think anybody who was competitive, you don’t lose that,” she said.

Game’s end If the Nationals win, Ian will occasionally bring his boys into the clubhouse to wander around and maybe eat something in the players’ dining area. The family doesn’t come in after losses.

10:30 p.m.-ish After a typical game, Chelsey will pile the kids in the car and have them home by 11. Ian usually follows shortly after, but the boys don’t go to bed before Ian gets home. “I always want them to see him,” Chelsey said.

Midnight The Desmonds begin putting Cruz to bed, then follow with Grayson. The boys typically sleep through the night — and then they do it all again the next day.

Monday night, when the skies opened at Nationals Park, the games continued under the concourses, just outside of the home clubhouse. Grayson and Cruz Desmond jitterbugged about, each dressed in a little Nationals jersey with little Nationals pants, each wearing No. 20 with “Desmond” stitched across the back. Grayson tugged a plastic bat. Cruz tossed a tiny rubber baseball.

“We’re staying,” said Chelsey, maybe midway through what became a rain delay of more than three hours, sinking into a couch. “I could try to get them to leave, but Grayson wouldn’t have it.”

She sat across from Jen LaRoche, wife of first baseman Adam and mother of two, on another couch. Jill Hairston, wife of outfielder Scott and mother of two more, leaned back in a chair. They were the only Nationals wives who remained, and the only three who have their kids in Washington before the end of the school year. The televisions on the walls carried the Cardinals-Braves game, and each woman knew exactly what was at stake: If Atlanta lost for the seventh straight time and the Nationals beat the Dodgers when the rain ended, their husbands would be in first place. A Brave smacked a home run. Three adult women yelled, “No. Nooooooooo!”

Grayson Desmond wandered over to the refrigerator. “I want a Popsicle,” he said, tugging at the door. “Have some fruit, Grayson,” said his mom.

During the season, the family room is a baseball wife’s refuge. Players pay for their tickets, yet some families rarely use the seats. The family room is the Nationals’ hub, with two sitters, toys in a back room, an open play area to throw around a ball outside the door – a makeshift yard. Hand prints from an art project are smeared across one wall. This offseason, the walls were repainted a bright red-and-white, the Nationals’ colors.

Not every team affords families such a space.

“I feel like I want to scream at some GMs: Do you have any clue?” Lory Ankiel said. “I know there’s an old-school way of thinking, that the men just do the work. But to me it’s logical. You can relieve so much stress on your player if you relieve the stress on his wife.”

Sitting around during the rain delay, with their husbands in the clubhouse across the hall, there was little apparent stress among the wives. The LaRoches’ two kids, 12-year-old Drake and 10-year-old Montana, are fixtures at the ballpark. “She makes it look so easy,” Chelsey Desmond said. The Hairstons, with sons now 8 and 6, are pros too. Last year, Jill Hairston hit 13 cities with her family, sending postcards to the classrooms back home as something of a follow-the-Hairstons school project.

Chelsey Desmond is still, by her own admission, figuring it all out, with more figuring to come. Her husband is in the first season of a two-year, $17.5 million contract that will provide more money than either had ever dreamed of — but he hasn’t yet signed on long-term with the Nationals. Who knows? Moves could be afoot. Chelsey is also pregnant with the couple’s third child. The due date: Oct. 18, smack in the middle of the postseason. When Grayson was born, Ian flew home with the team from Pittsburgh, then hopped a flight to Tampa early the next morning, racing to Sarasota in time to witness the birth of their firstborn. Now, if the Nationals are in the playoffs, and the new baby comes?

“I won’t even tell him if I go into labor,” Chelsey Desmond said.

It is a baseball life. “I get to support my husband living his dream,” she said. “Not everyone can say that. There will never be any negative to that.”

It was after 10 p.m. in the family room. The tarp was still on. The Cardinals hung on to beat the Braves. And when the 18th home game of the Nationals’ season ended past 1 a.m., Chelsey Desmond took her family home. Cruz stayed up much of the night, yet it didn’t matter. On Tuesday, another game awaited not just Ian Desmond, but the entire Desmond family.

More on Ian Desmond

Desmond signs new two-year deal | Desmond becomes backbone of Nationals

Desmond fundraising for neurofibromatosis | Desmond quits tobacco in the offseason

Desmond on board of Nationals’ new academy

Ian Desmond heads to the batting cages with sons Cruz and Grayson after an April home game. The Desmonds are expecting a new addition to the family, with Chelsey due with her third child in October.

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