Ian Desmond stood on the field at Pfitzner Stadium and looked down at the dirt. A 21-year-old Single-A repeat, Desmond walked the line between self-confidence and self-doubt. Which he had more of on a given day depended so much on the night before. The big leagues were 45 minutes away in D.C. They may as well have been on the other side of the world.
Randy Knorr, who often spent time with Desmond as he took ground balls, joined him. Knorr, an 11-year major league veteran and World Series winner, was back at the bottom of the ladder in his new managing career.
“He gave me that look like ‘You’re so full of [crap],’ ” Knorr said.
Later that morning, alone in the dugout, Knorr approached Desmond — the starting shortstop on the National League’s best team — and put his arm around him. It had been six years since they stood together that night in Potomac. The two did not speak. Knorr patted Desmond on the shoulder and walked away.
“He knew,” Knorr said. “That’s just our relationship. He knew what I was telling him.”
“Randy was right,” Desmond said. “He saw it a long time ago, and I think a lot of other people in the organization did, too. They stuck with me. This is probably better for them than it is for me. A lot of people in this organization put a lot of heart in me.”
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For as much as Ryan Zimmerman is the Nationals’ Face of the Franchise, Desmond may be the face of their farm system. One of the Montreal Expos’ last draftees, an 18-year-old beginning his professional career with obvious talent but no top-prospect status, Desmond spent six years in the Nationals’ minor league system.
He was promoted and demoted. Spent some nights showing off his athleticism and others taking his bat home after a hitless game to stand at the mirror for hours to perfect the swing that failed him. They once considered moving him to center field, a proposition Knorr hated, manager Davey Johnson told Desmond to forget and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo quickly nixed.
A year ago, he was statistically one of the worst offensive players in the league. Calls grew for the Nationals to give up on him. His name came up in trade talks. Fans lit their torches and grabbed their pitchforks.
Rizzo didn’t flinch. Johnson’s confidence in him only deepened. Desmond escaped the No. 8 spot in the lineup, seized the leadoff role Aug. 18 and, in his words, “salvaged a year,” with a second-half run.
“Nobody’s untradeable,” Rizzo said. “But he was one of the core group of guys, and it would have taken a big, big time upgrade to trade him. This guy was a winner. A makeup player who was a big part of where we were going — and he would show you flashes of skills that it takes to be a guy that you’re going to build a team around, not a guy you’re going to get rid of.”
In 2012, he’s one of the best shortstops in the NL. He’s harnessed his athletic ability and sharpened his decision-making to cut down on errors. He enters the All-Star break with a .285 average, 17 homers and leading all major league shortstops with 43 extra-base hits.