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Minor-league lessons shaped Desmond’s All-Star season

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2012

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.

"One day I'm going to be a major league manager," Knorr said to Desmond that evening. "And if it comes tomorrow, you're going to be my shortstop."

"He gave me that look like 'You're so full of [crap],' " Knorr said.

Eight days ago, Knorr, now the Washington Nationals' bench coach, got word that Desmond was named to the National League All-Star team.

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."

* * *

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.

"How 'bout that?" Rizzo said. "This is as good as it gets for an old player development guy like me."

Desmond won't play in Tuesday's All-Star Game because of a sore left oblique he fears worsening and keeping him out of an exciting second half. But his ascension to elite status and his All-Star designation remains. The faith of an organization rewarded.

"I don't know if anybody with an opinion that matters ever thought [we should give up on him]," Zimmerman said. "People forget that Ian's still very young. He was learning at this level, and any time you learn up here it's tough. Your mistakes are magnified. Fans, or people who don't really have the most knowledge of the situation, don't understand that he's still becoming a better player. They only see what's in front of them.

"I think that's why a lot of people were so quick to say 'Trade this guy.' Because they don't have the eye to see how much he has to offer if he were to figure it out. I can see why people would say what they said, but I don't think anyone in here ever felt that way."

* * *

When the Nationals first added Desmond to their roster in September 2009, he spent a few days in the majors before he called his mom and his agent and told them he wanted to go back to the minors. "I don't want to be a big leaguer," were his words.

It was a different time in Nationals history; a team far less composed of homegrown talent and more littered with aging mercenaries mired in a losing culture.

"I was frustrated," Desmond said. "Because all I ever dreamed about was what the big leagues would be like. ... Then I got called up and it was like every man for himself."

Gone were the nine-hour bus rides filled with card games and stories, the friendships he'd spent years developing. Players would leave the clubhouse so quickly most would be gone before reporters entered for postgame interviews.

Gone, too, was Desmond's sense of place. In the minors, he always hit in the top of the order and played short. In his first two major league seasons, Desmond started 282 games at shortstop but hit in every spot in the lineup.

That changed this year. Desmond has started 82 of the team's 83 games and hit only first, fifth or sixth. He hit leadoff for the first 39 games until his .451 slugging percentage at the time made it ridiculous for him not to be in a better position to drive in runs.

He worried his first two seasons about his status in the major leagues and on his team. This season he does not. He changed his number from the team-issued No. 6 to Frank Robinson's No. 20. He's finding his way around D.C. and exploring more than he ever has.

There is plenty he wants to improve on, such as strike zone recognition and consistently playing Gold Glove defense, as he works toward winning a World Series. He brushes off the first-half accolades because they won't mean much if the team doesn't maintain its pace. But he embraces his role as a leader in the infield and a clubhouse filled with homegrown players. With more than three years left on his rookie contract, he talks about spending his entire career in a Nationals uniform.

He's an All-Star. The major league shortstop for a bona fide playoff contender. The work of so many borne out in the season they all knew he could have.

"As long as I have a jersey on my back, I'll be happy," Desmond said. "I think if it's a Washington Nationals jersey, I'll be happier.

"But I have to worry about the team I'm on now and the teammates I have now. If I play the way I know I can play and we play the way we can as a team, there should be no problem with me being here the rest of my career."

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