ATLANTA | Ian Desmond was navigating his way through Class A baseball as 19-year-old prospect in an organization with an uncertain future when things changed for him.
He was poring over Washington Nationals box scores, studying the team that was forging an early history of futility at the major league level and praying for three things:
A wife, a baby and a big-league career.
As Desmond stared at an empty Instant Messenger box bearing the screen name of a girl he'd known since the fifth grade but was too nervous to actually send a message, something happened. That girl sent a message his way.
Six years later, the Nationals shortstop sat in the visitors' dugout at Sun Life Stadium hours before the 205th game of his major league career. His wife, Chelsey, the girl with the impeccable timing, was on her way to the stadium from their Sarasota, Fla., home.
In a few hours, Desmond would play his first career game in front of his 12-day-old son, Grayson Wesley.
"It's just perfect," Desmond said.
Now that Grayson has arrived, Desmond slowly is coming out of the offensive struggle that gave him a .205 average and .253 on-base percentage through his first 19 games. He also committed seven errors in that span.
"I don't know why, he just wasn't playing loose," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. "It's his second year. Second year is tough. A lot of players have a hard time in their second year. They call it the sophomore slump. Somebody didn't make that up. It's happened enough that somebody put a label on it."
Said Desmond: "I think everyone says that in the back of my mind [Grayson's impending birth] probably was [affecting me]. But there was other things going on at the field that were making me more upset. The fact that our offense wasn't working, and I know that I'm an integral piece."
But Desmond began to come around as he returned from a paternity leave April 26-27. All he did was hit .438 in the first five games after his return, raising his to .250 entering a three-game series at Atlanta on Tuesday night.
As happy as Desmond was about the birth and his improved play, though, it wasn't a connection he wanted to make. This, after all, is a guy who used to arrive at the field at noon for a 7 p.m. game in the minor leagues, the one who takes early infield and hitting practice regularly and watches video daily to log each one of his at-bats in a notebook.
"What people don't see is I was working my [behind] off in the cage before that, and those are the kinds of things that frustrate me," he said. "I feel like every time I do something good, it's always because of somebody else. Whether I moved to the seven hole or I was hitting in the two hole or leading off, or I had my son or my wife was here - it's always somebody else.
"That's the frustrating part, because I work so hard that I wish people would just say, 'Hey, Ian works so hard and look what it got him.' That really frustrates me. That's some of the little things that build up inside me sometimes that I just want a little slice of the cake too."
The people who need to know that, though, do. As general manager Mike Rizzo went about building this season's team last winter, there's a good chance Desmond's name came up in almost any trade talk. He's still here.
"You hear stuff, comments or whatever, get Desmond out of there, this and that," Riggleman said. "What they don't know is how impactful he is on the team. Probably more than anybody on the ballclub last year as we went through some tough times, he stayed just right there. He never wavered."
The Nationals still are very much a team of the future. Everything written or said about them in the big picture involves a 'when.' When third baseman Ryan Zimmerman returns to full health; when outfielder Bryce Harper arrives and when Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are finally in the starting rotation at the same time.
But as integral as all of those pieces are, so is Desmond playing the way he knows he can.
"The final piece for Desmond is to realize that he is the guy at short," said Randy Knorr, who managed him for several years in Class A. "He is the man. It doesn't matter what anybody says anymore. He wants to lead. Every time he's been on my team he's always led."
He's already got the wife and the baby.
"He's living the life," Riggleman said. "He's got it going well, and he appreciates it and works hard to keep it."
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