- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VIERA, Fla. — Dusty Baker invited former Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson to spring training to give the still-young franchise a sense of history.

“The real good organizations I’ve been in have some history, which we don’t have much here,” Baker said. “I thought back to my Dodger days and there was [Roy] Campanella, [Don] Newcombe, [Sandy] Koufax. All these greats in camp, which if they said just one thing to help a kid figure it out — just one pitch or one theory how to hit a curveball or whatever — I’ve seen it turn people’s careers around. I know Nick was popular here.”

You know who else was popular? Ian Desmond.

The former Nationals shortstop’s absence is hanging over the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse. He should have been a player years from now, like a Newcombe or a Campanella, who would return to spring training representing the history of the franchise.

Instead, Desmond is home — the best-hitting shortstop in the National League for three consecutive seasons, out of job as of this writing. It’s almost as if they are holding a wake here in Viera in memory of his career — or perhaps, more to the point the money he has lost — in a series of circumstances that dealt the popular player a very bad hand.

“I’ve talked to him during the offseason, checking on him,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, another long-time Nationals player. “It makes you wonder how a guy like that can’t have a job. He’s one of the most talented, athletic people I’ve ever been around who not only has proven he can perform at this level, but it one of the top performers, one of the best-hitting shortstops in the National League.

“He’s a great guy,” Zimmerman said. “Watching him grow into a leader and what the shortstop position should be is one of the coolest things I’ve seen here. The player he became, everyone got to see, but they didn’t get to see how he transformed inside the clubhouse. When he first came up, he didn’t say much. Then he became a vocal leader. That is what I was most proud of him for.

“That is what makes this so painful.”

If we are to believe the reports, Desmond, 30, is in the position he is in — a free agent that teams have stayed away from because of the cost involved in surrendering a high draft pick to sign him — because he tried to do the right thing.

Two years ago, the Nationals reportedly offered Desmond a seven-year, $107 million contract extension. Desmond, though, opted to play out his contract and become a free agent this year — reportedly because he felt an obligation as a players union member to set the market for free agent shortstops who would follow him. It is the message that the union constantly delivers to players, and Desmond saw his role as a bigger obligation.

That was before the Nationals, preparing for a future without Desmond at shortstop, traded for top prospect Trea Turner in December 2014. That was before Desmond, after three consecutive years of offensive numbers that led all NL shortstops and garnered him three Silver Slugger awards, had a bad first half of 2015. Though he finished with 27 doubles, 19 home runs and 62 RBI, he had scared enough teams off with his .233 average and 27 errors to stop from bidding long term on his services this winter — in part because since Washington made Desmond a one-year qualifying contract offer this winter, it would be entitled to a high draft pick, a price apparently too high for teams to pay.

“It’s like the perfect storm,” Zimmerman said. “These people don’t know what they are missing out on, the person. Whatever happened last year, it happened last year, but he has a good track record after six years in the league. It’s a tough spot.”

Danny Espinosa now has the locker that Desmond used to have on veterans’ row. He will open the season playing the position that Desmond, his good friend, played regularly for Washington since 2010. He, like many others here in the clubhouse, is thinking about his former teammate.

“We all feel bad for him, Espinosa said. “We came up together and have had a long relationship. He won three Silver Sluggers in a row, and to have everything based on just one year, not having a great year, and having that pick attached to him, and have people not sign him because of that pick — I’m sorry, I’m taking Ian Desmond over any first-round pick. He has proven he can play in the big leagues at a very high level.”

Desmond will wind up with a job for the season, and his career is far from over. And, no one is going to have to hold a bake sale for him. He has earned $23 million during his playing career. But, whatever his intentions were, his decision to pass on the Nationals’ contract offer could wind up costing him a big fortune — not a small one.

It shouldn’t have happened. Desmond was as much a part of the Washington community as any player that has played for this franchise. He served on the board of directors for the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. He cared about people, he cared about the city.

And he is missed.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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