The long journey pays off for new Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond

"I've been wanting to be in the big leagues with these guys for a long time," says starting shortstop Ian Desmond. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- Ian Desmond faced his stall in the mostly empty clubhouse inside Space Coast Stadium, a room in which he had logged memories from adolescence to adulthood. He pointed out the first locker he occupied, when he was only 19. "It was right down here," Desmond said, gesturing toward the corner to his left. "Next to Carlos Baerga." Desmond shook his head and considered what that meant.

"I've been in this locker room, maybe, longer than anybody in here," he said. "I've been wanting to be in the big leagues with these guys for a long time."

Six years, or one full quarter of Desmond's life, have passed since he first stepped into this clubhouse and pulled on a Washington Nationals uniform. He was a part of their future before they had a past.

The tests he faced -- a comparison to Derek Jeter, a Class A demotion, a shaky batting average, a broken hand -- all seemed worth it Sunday morning. The day after he recalled that first spot in the clubhouse, Desmond sneaked out of the room so he could call his parents and tell them what he had just found out. He had made it to the major leagues.

Desmond will begin the season as the Nationals' starting shortstop, the job earmarked for him since he first wowed Nationals officials and teammates in spring 2005. "Man," a catcher named Gary Bennett said then. "That kid has some tools." They came together last year and formed a shortstop ready for the majors, a player steeled after a long ride.

"Internally, he had his doubts," said Chris Charron, Desmond's stepfather. "It's a rough road going through the minors. He can take a bullet. I think he understands that there's going to be punches along the way."

At first, it seemed Desmond's path to the majors would be a smooth one. The Nationals invited him to major league camp less than a year after he played his final game for Sarasota High. Frank Robinson, then the Nationals manager, watched him play shortstop and take batting practice.

"Hey, kid," Robinson told him. "When you're 22 years old, you're going to be pushing for a spot in the big leagues."

General Manager Jim Bowden and Robinson played him during the first week of spring, and Bowden watched him make three spectacular plays. "He has tremendous poise," Bowden said at the time. "He reminds me of Derek Jeter -- except those were Ian Desmond plays, not Derek Jeter plays."

Reminded of that comparison this weekend, Desmond playfully rolled his eyes.

"I knew at the time I was nowhere near what Jeter was," Desmond said. "I was like, 'Oookay.' "

The external expectations heaped on Desmond never affected him. The internal pressure he placed on himself did. He would make an out and think about it the rest of the night, his focus on the flaw in his swing and not the routine groundball rolling at him. He could be electric in the field, but he could also lose focus.

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