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Philadelphia, PA – Ian Desmond didn’t struggle with confidence in his first year of professional baseball. He struggled to tone it down. It didn’t take long for him to mature enough to know he needed to be an astute student.
“I think at first, obviously, not that I was an all-star or anything, but I think it was realizing everyone had the equal ability that I did. And that every day wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. it took me a little while that first year,” he said before a game at Citizens Bank Park between the Nationals and Phillies.
Desmond was of the last class drafted by the now extinct Montreal Expos in 2004 out of Sarasota High School and was one of only four players the Expos drafted to make it to the majors. His upbringing in the very pro-baseball Sarasota, Florida was rich with opportunities to learn the game from guys who knew plenty. His fortune was spending most of his time taking tips from guys who are known for their vast knowledge of the game.
“There’s a lot of guys in that area that played pro ball, played in the big leagues that I got to know. Rich Dubee [Phillies pitching coach] was one of my mentors growing up. Me and his son [Michael] played together. Dewey Robinson who is a pitching coach for the Astros, Jim Bollinger…they were all so involved in baseball and they helped me a lot.”
He was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Expos playing in 55 games and finished the season hitting .228 with 27 RBI. The minor league atmosphere took some getting used to. Gulf Coast is a league where young players are just trying to get used to playing at a professional level, it isn’t the place for fanfare. “You’re playing in front of no fans in the heat of the summer in the GCL. You’re struggling and grinding through it,” Desmond said. In 2005 the Expos became the Washington Nationals and he began the season with the Savannah Sand Gnats, before his promotion to Potomac. Over the next four seasons he bounced between there, Double-A Harrisburg, and, finally, Triple-A Syracuse where he played 55 games before the Nationals called him up in September of 2009.
The new Washington era of baseball was on the clock to excite fans after the initial surge of excitement in 2005. But it was not going to be that easy and players such as Desmond needed a lot of help along the way.
“One of the knocks in the early years was that the Nationals were bringing in too many veteran guys. But at the same time, for us young guys it helped us tremendously. Not only could you get guidance from Dimitri Young, but you could get it from a scrappy player like Damian Jackson. He was there my first spring training. Royce Clayton, Christian Guzman…there was all different veterans, but all different types of makeup. So you could pick who you really liked and pretty much model yourself after anyone on the field, because they all had established big league careers.”
Before even getting to the big leagues, the versatile player bounced around from center field, second and third base, catcher and, finally, shortstop. It wasn’t until he signed professionally that he played shortstop regularly. He said he always knew he’d be a shortstop. It has not been an easy road at short and Desmond is still improving as a fielder. As a rookie in 2010, he accumulated 34 errors, but lowered that number to 22 in 2011 . This year has been important in showing that he’s capable of continuing to improve. He finished the 2011 season hitting .253 with 49 runs knocked in. But his late season surge was a step in the right direction.
The Nationals are in the middle of trying to reshape their future. They’ve had the benefit of drafting and signing two of the best prospects in baseball history, with pitcher Stepehen Strasburg and outfield slugger Bryce Harper. They created a noisy buzz when they wooed Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth from the Phillies with a hefty contract. They’re adding pieces, developing talent, but they’ll need more.
“Ultimately, I want to win. I want to be part of a championship team and be a champion.”
The minors were a tough experience to appreciate, but at the end of that time Desmond saw those times in a very different light.
“Once I realized that pro ball was more about team camaraderie and road trips and bus trips and having roommates and developing that brotherhood, that makes the struggle so much easier.”
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