VIERA, Fla. — Ian Desmond had wanted to ask for years, and this felt like the right time. He told the Washington Nationals he wanted to wear No. 20, a tribute to his first manager, Frank Robinson, and an assertion of the manner in which he viewed his own standing. He is a major leaguer now, and major leaguers choose their uniform number.
“Anytime you’re new to the big leagues, there’s always the opportunity you could get sent back to the minor leagues,” Desmond said. “But I think the minor leagues are in my past. Regardless of what happens, I feel like I’m a big leaguer. I feel those days are over.”
Desmond, 26, spoke those words early this spring training, sitting at his locker in the section of the Nationals clubhouse reserved for veterans. The Nationals for years stationed Desmond in the other corner, with all the other minor leaguers who wore numbers in the 90s and carried dreams in their hearts.
In his third major league season, he has grown to become a central figure on the Nationals, their unquestioned starting shortstop and leadoff hitter. Yet he remains a player with something to prove. In his rookie season in 2010, Desmond led the National League in errors. For the first half of last year, he ranked among the least productive hitters in baseball. So now can he be the electric, rangy shortstop who committed fewer than 17 errors over the final five months of last year? The hitter who hit .305 with a .342 on-base percentage over the final quarter of the season?
“Last year, I think he put too much responsibility on himself,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He tried to do too much. He was changing things around, typical second-year struggles. He knows who he is. He knows the type of player he is. You’re going to see a more consistent Ian Desmond.”
“I feel like I’ve shown everything in flashes,” Desmond said. “I know I can be a consistent, complete player. I think that’s going to be really fun to do. When it all comes together, which I believe is going to be this year, it’ll be nice. It’ll be fun.”
Desmond’s less-stressed outlook, he thinks, will help. He first took the Nationals’ shortstop job in the spring of 2010, but last year he still felt he had a tenuous grasp on it. He took extra grounders day after day in the spring and played with a fury trying to impress. Even last year, he thought about keeping his job as much as playing the game.
“Especially early on, I wanted to get out of the gate,” Desmond said. “I didn’t play the way I wanted to. I think last year, I thought in the back of my brain, ‘I gotta step it up.’ This year, I feel like I’ve got to put all that stuff aside. I’m a big leaguer. Forget about that and move forward with my career, quit looking back.”
Desmond also will play his second season as a father, having welcomed a son, Grayson, in late April last year. This winter, he took on another father-figure role when his younger brother, Chris Charron, moved in with him and his wife, Chelsey, in their Sarasota home.
Charron was 10 when the Montreal Expos drafted Desmond in 2004. His parents separated soon after. Away from home while making his way in professional baseball, Desmond spent little time with Charron. As Charron came of age living with his mother and without a full-time father figure, Desmond wanted to take a more active role in his brother’s life.
“He was kind of going astray,” Desmond said, declining to offer more details.
The first day Charron moved in, Desmond and Chelsey sat him down and laid out the rules of their house. He would make his bed and do his own laundry. They would eat dinner each night as a family. He would go to school and do his homework, go to bed and do it again the next day.
Desmond and Chelsey asked Chris, “What do you want to do in your life? If you’re not going to do college, what are you going to do in the future?” They talked, and Charron decided he would like to be a barber.
Charron enrolled in barber school, and he works there six days a week, five days after school. “His instructor thinks so highly of him,” Desmond said. When the Nationals played in Sarasota this spring, Charron cut Desmond’s hair. One day, Desmond hopes he will become the Nationals’ team barber.
This spring, Desmond beamed when Chris sent him a picture of a progress report from school with three A’s, one B and a C. “It’s a progress report,” Desmond said, “so he’s working on that C.”
Desmond was about Charron’s age when he joined the Nationals organization. All these years later he has grown up, a son of his own and a brother he helped straighten out. His new responsibilities did not change Desmond’s outlook on the field, but they did alter his perspective.
“Showing them what hard work looks like,” Desmond said. “If you want to be successful in life, you gotta put the time in. Showing him that kind of stuff. It doesn’t really feel like a whole lot has changed because I’ve always taken that approach.
“But it’s nice to go home after you put in an honest day’s work and see your kid, and know that one day he’s going to look back at you and say, ‘Man, dad, I really appreciate you working so hard so we can live a better life.’ ”