The Shortstop and the Glove
It was a few minutes before the game and there were a handful of fans circled around the photo well at Nationals Park, adjacent to the Nats dugout, lined up three, four, five deep just waiting patiently for an autograph. There were kids with baseballs, dads with jerseys and a mom with a pink bat. There was just one player present and it wasn’t a surprise that it was Ian Desmond. He has made it a daily practice to give fans what they want–his autograph. No one walked away empty-handed.
Everyone got an autograph and everyone left smiling. It is the Ian Desmond way: no shortcuts and stay until the job is finished. That’s why he takes extra ground balls. That’s why he practices the minor details of his position like throwing the ball sidearm to second base instead of overhand to save precious milliseconds. That’s why he practices signing his autograph, a signature he can sign in a blink of an eye.
Just a few months into his rookie season, Desmond is already making a difference on the field and with his storytelling in the clubhouse–even if no one believes him.
“You want a story of young fables,” said Nyjer Morgan laughing, who nicknamed him ‘Aesop’s Fables’ because he is full of tales. “He tells the most ridiculous stories. He acts like he is so wise. He thinks he is a wise man but his hands still haven’t crawled out of his turtle shell.”
Desmond could only laugh. It is all in fun, just part of being a rookie.
When you put Desmond and Morgan in the same room, you worry about the oxygen levels because collectively they are never short on words. Their friendship resembles Mr. Miyagi and Daniel Son–but they both think they are the teacher filled with infinite wisdom. Desmond doesn’t bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh but he is a man of many tales–spontaneous stories that don’t come to mind very easily. Morgan–a person who is never out of words–was at a loss trying to think of one of Desmond’s parables.
“I can’t remember anything because they are too ridiculous to remember,” Morgan said. “You just have to hear it for yourself.”
Desmond is a self-proclaimed wise man and Morgan is full of wise cracks.
“This is the problem,” Desmond said. “These older guys can’t appreciate the fact that a young guy has a little bit of wisdom. I got a little bit of wisdom. When I try to talk to Nyjer, he automatically takes it as jargon. But really there is a lot of reality to what I say, but he just doesn’t want to hear it.”
His fables–or words of wisdom–have reached the point that when he opens his mouth he is immediately discredited. The common response is “Come on Aesop, that’s not true. Stop embellishing the story.” If you can’t argue the facts, just discredit the source.
Desmond was trying to show Morgan a few exercises with the foam roller in the Nationals weight room. The players roll on it to stretch their muscles but Nyjer would only use it to stretch his leg muscles so Desmond told him, “Nyj–that is great to use on your lower back and shoulders, it breaks up the tissue and makes your arm feel better.”
Yeah, whatever you say, Mr. Desmond.
For a week straight, Nyjer kept saying, “No, no, I don’t believe you.” Nyjer didn’t alter his routine and believed it was just for the legs. As the fable goes, Morgan tried it and he liked it.
“But when I tell him something,” Desmond said. “He pretends he came up with it on his own. ‘Aesop didn’t tell me, I thought of it myself.’”
Deciphering what is fact and what is fiction is as easy as asking two little kids who started the fight? The kids immediately point at each other and you are right back where you started. His nickname is no longer just a name–it is an action, a verb, a response to anything that can’t possibly be true, as in “That’s Aesop.”
It works both ways. When he tells a story or when his teammates see him diving to his right, making a play in the hole that only he can get to and the first expression that comes to mind is “Wow, that’s Aesop.”
His ability to make unbelievable plays and his production at the plate earned him the starting position after Spring Training, and now he is showing he can play every day at the Major League level. It hasn’t been easy but it wasn’t easy getting here either. It took five years, numerous comparisons to Derek Jeter, a broken hand and a Single-A demotion. It has been the journey along the way that has provided him the wisdom and the knowledge to know that he can’t take it for granted.
Desmond off the field is the same person on the field. His reflecting sunglasses, gold chain, baggy pants and loose jersey is who he is–a laid-back, low key, Floridian. He keeps his family close to his heart–literally–there is a tattoo of his mom, dad–he passed away when Desmond was a child–and his step dad tattooed on his chest and the words “Family” tattooed on his left wrist.
“He’s special,” Third Base Coach Pat Listach said. “He’s out there and he wants the ball hit to him. And we do, too.”
Desmond is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to his defense–he has the most errors in the Majors but still is one the best rated shortstops according to his range and ultimate zone rating, a statistic that tries to quantify a player’s value by the number of runs he saves. He makes the ‘how-did-he-do-that,’ gold glove play look routine but he has occasionally made the routine play look challenging.
It is just part of being a rookie–there are going to be errors just like there might be holes in his stories.
“But it’s plays that are made that maybe some other people don’t make that’s impressive about Desmond,” Riggleman said. “Last year, there were plays that weren’t made that aren’t scored, errors that were killing our pitching staff. Guys are making plays now, Desmond especially.”
There is no need to embellish how good he can be, all you have to do is watch him.
After former General Manager Jim Bowden watched Desmond in 2005–his first invite to Big League Spring Training–he picked up his phone and called former Scouting Director Dana Brown to talk about Desmond. Bowden had just one complaint.
“Dana,” Bowden said. “You made a mistake when you drafted Desmond.”
“Why?” he asked, mystified by the statement.
“Because you took him in the third round instead of the first round,” Bowden replied.
Mistakes aside, he continues to prove at the young age of 24 that he can be a main contributor for the Nationals in the years to come.
“He’s a got a chance to be one of the elite shortstops in baseball,” Riggleman said.
That just means you should get his autograph while you can because it is only going up in value, even if he isn’t concerned with limiting the supply.
And that is no fable.