As reporters approached, the 30-year-old stood tall — as he has through good and bad and awful — put on his hat, and took a deep breath. Tears came quickly, and words came slowly.
“When I got drafted by the Expos, they didn’t know where the team would be,” Desmond said. “But they couldn’t have found a better home.”
Then he paused, a few more deep breaths, dropped his chin to his chest and raised it again.
“I’m extremely proud to say that I was a Washington National.”
Teammates around the clubhouse stared over the reporters’ scrum, observing the farewell of a man who was a teenager when he arrived and who grew into one of the most relied upon and respected emotional leaders of a team that emerged as an annual contender with him as its shortstop.
“I think when you have character people around, good things are bound to happen,” said Desmond, asked about the state of the organization he will likely leave, unable to agree to a long-term deal in offseasons past. “There are a lot of good players here, a lot of good coaches in the organization.”
All of them will tell you they respect Desmond. Mike Rizzo, the general manager who will let him go this offseason, praised him before the game.
“Ian Desmond is the rock of the organization,” Rizzo said. “A guy that when I became the GM we made him the everyday shortstop, and [he] has blossomed into one of the best in all of baseball. So yeah, these guys, when these guys are in their last years, their decision-making years, it’s very, very difficult for us personally and professionally.”
Desmond endured a grueling and inconsistent season. After errors flummoxed him in April, he hit .161 in June and .190 in July. With free agency looming, he battled doubts but battled back, finishing with 13 stolen bases and 19 homers, one short of a fourth straight 20 home run season. He showed the strain of the struggle — his and his team’s — never lapsing in approach. When the Nationals called up his projected successor Trea Turner, he mentored him. Asked about positives he’ll take from his career, Desmond glanced toward the locker of another young star.
“I think one of the bigger [positives] is kind of watching [Bryce Harper] grow up a little bit,” Desmond said. “It’s been fun to play a part in his career.”
Harper and Desmond are like brothers, Harper says. When one homers, the other removes his helmet in choreographed celebration. After last season, Desmond advised Harper about his weight, suggesting he stay slim instead of swollen with muscle. This year, Harper played more games than he ever has before, healthier than ever.
“If he doesn’t come back, I’m definitely going to miss him. He’s family to me,” Harper said. “… I’m going to miss him all around. The way he fights out there. The way he plays. The way he goes about it. He’s just a good person through and through. He’s a great ambassador for the Washington Nationals.”
Whether in his work with the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, which he visits unexpectedly, his welcoming approach to fans, his personal touch with staff, or his respectful treatment of the D.C. media, Desmond has endeared himself to the Nationals community since the team moved to the District in 2005. By the time he was done with his interview, he was not the only person in the vicinity fighting back tears.
“This organization has been nothing but good to me,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, a long way personally and as an organization.”