Once or twice every spring training, Ian Desmond walks into the clubhouse that houses the Washington Nationals’ minor leaguers and searches for himself. He wants to talk to them all, to make everyone who enters the franchise feel at home. He answers questions. He forges relationships. He looks for kids who remind him of what he was at 18.
“I was never one of those guys, if somebody would walk in, I’d be the first guy up talking to him,” Desmond said. “I was always kind of laying back, watching, observing. I try to look for that guy in there.”
On Monday afternoon at Citi Field in New York, for the fifth consecutive opening day, Desmond will stand at shortstop for the Nationals, a team that existed in the abstract the first time he set foot in that minor league clubhouse. The franchise moved from Montreal to Washington months after it drafted him. A handful of employees — and just one player — remain. In her house, Desmond’s mother, Pattie Paradise, keeps the Expos hat and uniform he wore as a minor leaguer.
Ten years have passed since Desmond joined the organization. He feels those years — the roots in Viera and Washington, the connections. If Ryan Zimmerman serves as the face of the franchise, Desmond is the face of the organization hidden from public view. He represents the low-level coaches, the community relations staffers, the minor league players who bustle below the surface. He may know more people in the organization than anyone. He binds them.
“There’s men in this organization that have equally as much invested in me as my own parents,” Desmond said. “I came here when I was basically a boy. They basically can take half the credit of who I’ve become.”
Desmond, 28, has become an all-star shortstop and a Silver Slugger winner. He has become a husband to Chelsey, his sweetheart since age 10, and a father to two boys. He has become a board member for the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and, away from the spotlight, a big brother to a kid fighting a rare and terrible disease. The organization made him a man. He gave the organization a conscience.
“He’s gone from a very talented baseball player to becoming one of the better leaders we have on this team,” Zimmerman said. “As you grow up and learn what’s important to you, you do things off the field. I’ve known Desi for a long time, and I’m proud of the person he’s become, the player he’s become.”
No one asks Desmond to make trips to the minor league clubhouse, and he wants no publicity for them. “I don’t do it for me,” Desmond said to a reporter. “I prefer to do stuff like that kind of under the radar. I don’t even know how you found out about it.”
Mention Desmond to someone within the Nationals’ organization, though, and stories spill forth. In the winter, new Manager Matt Williams asked holdover coaches about team leaders. The response: “Desmond’s your guy.” Coaches in the farm system use Desmond as an example for how minor leaguers should hustle. He stands in front of his locker after every game, inviting reporters to talk to him so teammates can slip out the door.
“We were hitting” in the batting cage, bench coach Randy Knorr said. “Guys were standing around, and they would go, ‘Boy, that guy’s a leader, man. I’d follow him anywhere.’ These are guys that have been here for a while. To have another player that has played longer than he has to say that is pretty impressive.”
Desmond can lead, in part, because of the power of those 10 years. He feels comfortable speaking with any member of the organization, and all of them know they can talk to him. Both his parents still work “probably more than a millionaire son should let them,” Desmond said. He sees himself as no different from them: blue-collar, regular.
“I try to be even with everybody,” Desmond said. “I don’t try to feel like I’m better than anybody. I don’t try to feel like I’m below anybody. I try to just do my work and be relatable to everybody. When everyone does that, you get that community. I just try to do my job and treat people the way I want to be treated. Whether that’s based on my faith or whatever, I just try to be nice to everybody. You know what I mean?”
Ethan Brown learned five years ago, at 16, he had contracted neurofibromatosis, a disease commonly known as NF. The disorder makes its victim dangerously susceptible to tumors, particularly in the brain, and in 2012 cancer assaulted Ethan’s body. Before he began chemotherapy, he filled out a prayer request on the Christian Web site Unashamed Athletes.
Desmond frequents the Web site and noticed Ethan’s story. He knew nothing about NF. The awfulness of the disease and Brown’s resilience struck him. He started a correspondence with Brown through Twitter.
“It was kind of mind-blowing because I didn’t ask for it,” Ethan said in an e-mail. “He did it on his own.”
In April that season, Desmond invited Ethan and his family, who live in South Carolina, to a game in Atlanta. Desmond bought them tickets and brought them on to the field. He asked Ethan whether he had brought a coat. Ethan insisted he would be fine. Desmond walked into the dugout, grabbed his team-issued jacket and gave it to Brown.
Desmond would not let the relationship fizzle. They texted, tweeted or talked two or three times each week. They send each other Bible verses. Their favorite is Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron so one friend sharpens another.”
“Ian’s the big brother I never had,” Brown said.
Last year, Desmond invited the Browns to Nationals Park in midsummer. The game fell on a blistering afternoon, so Desmond bought tickets for seats in the shade. Before the game, Desmond toured Ethan through the clubhouse. When he introduced him to teammates, Desmond said, “This is my friend, Ethan.”
“That made me feel very special,” Ethan said.
This winter, Brown’s condition worsened. Tumors formed on his brain stem, his spine and his hands. They surfaced inside and outside his body. They compressed his brain stem. He required three brain surgeries. The operations left him with symptoms of a stroke victim. He needs a wheelchair. His speech slurs. It is difficult for him to swallow.
At a Braves game last year, Ethan asked Desmond about his tattoos. Desmond asked Ethan if he had any, and Ethan told him he did not.
“Would you get one if I got one?” Desmond asked.
Ethan agreed. Desmond created a coat-of-arms design that held meaning for both of them: a shield made of four puzzle pieces, the symbol for NF research. Deer antlers because Brown loves to hunt. Baseball bats for Desmond. A cross. A motto: “End NF.”
Desmond watched over FaceTime as an artist etched the tattoo on Ethan’s biceps. Sometime this year, Desmond will have the same design inked on his body.
In May, NF Awareness Month, Desmond and the people who run Nats Archive — a fan blog Desmond befriended — plan to launch an Indiegogo campaign. Desmond wants to raise money for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. More so, he wants people to know about his friend’s disease.
Brown amazes and inspires Desmond. He laughs at Ethan’s jokes and marvels at how he stays upbeat as he goes through hell. Daily frustrations make Desmond think of Ethan. His problems become so trivial they vanish. If his friend can keep smiling, Desmond thinks, so can he.
The weekend of April 11, the Nationals are playing in Atlanta, and the Browns are going back to Turner Field. “We don’t care how we get there, if he has to use a wheelchair,” said Rick Brown, Ethan’s father. “He’s going.”
In the summer of 2010, Desmond’s rookie season, a group of local businessmen came to Nationals Park. Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, the chair of the team’s charitable wing, the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, would pitch them on donating to the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, a place for disadvantaged youth that remained in the infancy of construction. A Nationals player would increase cachet, maybe help raise funds.
Desmond volunteered. At 12, Desmond joined an AAU team called the Sarasota Snappers. Two men without children coached the team, and they made him fall in love with baseball. He played 150 games a season “at least,” he says.
“Those guys basically kept me off the streets, kept me out of trouble,” Desmond said. “My eyes were set on becoming a good baseball player. They obviously taught us how to be men. I really owe a lot to them. We had kids on our team that were pretty outcast. They needed this. That’s what we can provide to these kids in D.C. A safe place to go. Why would you not want to help out a kid if he has no love at home or if he’s sleeping on the ground? Not eating dinner? That’s stuff this academy can offer. That’s awesome. I’ll do whatever I got to do for that.”
As Desmond shared his story at the meeting, Tanenbaum knew she wanted Desmond to join her cause. “When it came time to ask a player to be on the board,” Tanenbaum said, “it was going to be Ian.”
During the season, Desmond rarely has time to sit at meetings. He receives group e-mails sent to all the board members. Tanenbaum knows he reads them because he asks her specific questions.
Desmond persuaded Mizuno, the equipment company that sponsors him, to donate gloves to every kid in the academy. This summer, he will launch Ian’s Academy All-Stars. Each month, 15 kids and 15 parents from the academy will come to Nationals Park, stand on the field for batting practice, sit in the lower bowl and receive vouchers for concessions.
“Ian’s paying for all of that,” Tanenbaum said. “That was his thing. He didn’t want them sitting in the upper bleachers. He wanted them down below.”
Tal Alter, the academy’s executive director, received a text message from Desmond in the middle of the night last summer. The Nationals had lost two games in a row to the Phillies. “I can’t sleep,” Desmond wrote to him. “I’m thinking about the academy.” He suggested that the third and fourth graders spend time around sixth and seventh graders, so they can see something to strive toward. Alter put the idea into practice.
Desmond sometimes calls or texts Alter and says, “I’ve got some free time today. Take me to meet with some kids.” Desmond makes his visit without fanfare and even without the team’s knowledge. He prefers not to wear his uniform, to make the connection person-to-person, not player-to-fan.
“There’s no show about him,” Alter said. “It’s all real. He treats everyone like a normal human being.”
The simple answer is, Desmond wants to play the rest of his career in Washington. With age, Desmond has learned the complexity of baseball’s business side. In January, after negotiations on a longer deal fell through, Desmond signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract extension.
“That’s a ton of money,” Desmond said. “I don’t really ever think I really deserve it.”
And yet a simple conclusion gave to complex reasoning. Desmond and the Nationals struck the deal only after Desmond turned down a long-term contract offer that, based on reports Desmond will not verify, would have paid him almost $90 million over seven seasons.
Desmond states his position in a humble manner. “I don’t pretend like I’m some college graduate with a masters in finance,” he said. “I got a high school education. I may or may not have deserved the diploma.” But Desmond is also entrenched in his nuanced stance. He is not greedily demanding more money. He is sacrificing comfort and risking security in the name of players before for him and for the sake of those to follow.
“If you said, ‘Hey, Ian, we want you to play here for the rest of your career.’ Okay. Yeah, absolutely. Duh. Where do I sign up?” Desmond said. “At the same time, there have been a lot of people that have come through this game that have sacrificed a lot for us, the players that are coming through now. I don’t want to sign a deal — and this isn’t to say they’ve offered me this — but I don’t want to sign a deal that is so bad that a future shortstop gets screwed because I signed a terrible deal. I’m not going to be that guy, that kink in the chain. I’m going to get a fair deal, or I’m just going to wait.”
For Desmond, the easy choice would have been to accept the Nationals’ offer. But the Texas Rangers signed Elvis Andrus to an eight-year, $120 million contract two years ago. Desmond did not want to depress the market, no matter how difficult.
“Someone says, ‘Here’s X dollars,’ and you’re sitting there going, ‘Man, I couldn’t ever spend this in my whole life.’ How do you turn that down?” Desmond said. “That’s neither here nor there. My focus is here. I’ve got two more years. They’ve obviously paid me the $17.5 million for the next two years. I’m completely grateful. That’s security enough for my lifetime.”
“He’ll probably give half of it away,” Knorr said.
Desmond likes to point out that, for all his success, he has spent more time in the minors than the majors. Minor league baseball, to him, is “beautiful.” He loves the purity of young players chasing a livelihood and old players hanging on. Ribald bus rides and hotel card games remain some of his fondest memories.
His early days in the majors were miserable. The kinship from his time in the minors disappeared. Players bolted from the stadium after losses. The clubhouse lacked brotherhood. “If this is what the big leagues is like, I don’t want to be here,” Desmond told his mom. “I want to go back to the playing in the minor leagues.”
Desmond worked to change that. Before he proposed to Chelsey, Desmond explained requirements for life in baseball.
“I was like, look, I’m going to be early to the field — way earlier than you think is necessary,” Desmond said. “I’m probably going to come home way later than you think is necessary. I said, that’s just part of what I do, and that’s how I do it. So if you can accept that, that’s good.”
Chelsey nodded. Today, if Desmond heads to the field late, Chelsey asks him, “What are you doing?” When he comes home early, she asks, “What happened?”
“The culture here has completely changed,” Desmond said. “We are becoming a family.”
Standing in the middle of the diamond, Desmond cultivated that. Knorr, whom Desmond considers a father figure, once told Desmond in Class A he would make the majors strictly because of how he plays the game. He connects to people. He treats them like equals.
“He’s what you would want your son to grow up to be like,” Rick Brown said.
Ten years in one place allows so much to happen. A group of people can turn into a family. A city can learn the measure of a man. And an 18-year-old boy can find himself.