The Ian Desmond era has begun in the nation’s capital. The Nationals called up their shortstop of the future on September 8, and the toolsy 23-year-old appears ready to stake claim to the position, having hit .330/.401/.477 between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse in what has been a breakthrough season. A 2004 third-round pick whose performance had previously lagged behind his tools, Desmond put up even better numbers after his mid-season promotion, hitting a lusty .354, with a .428 OBP, in 55 games against International League competition. Just as importantly, he has also made great strides defensively, adding improved consistency to his plus range and an outstanding throwing arm that has been rated as the best in the Nationals system. On the final weekend of the minor league season before his promotion, Desmond talked about the key to his breakout campaign, and what it means to be on the doorstep of the show.
David Laurila: How would you describe Ian Desmond?
Ian Desmond: I think that I’m kind of a keep-the-peace/go-with-the-flow kind of guy. I try to keep that kind of mindset and try to take life as it comes. I try not to plan things; I just wake up every morning and try to enjoy my day. I try to enjoy the game.
DL: Is your personality pretty much the same on and off the field?
ID: It is. Off the field, I’ve learned to let things go; I’ve learned to relax and enjoy my life. If you do that, the more fun baseball gets, because then you don’t really look at it as a job. You look at it more like, you know… like what you said before we started [the interview], “It’s a beautiful day outside.” There are a lot of times I’ll be out at shortstop, and I’ll be like, “Man, it’s beautiful out here. This is a great day, and I get to play in this game, and they’re paying me,” as opposed to, “Man, my body is tired, we have four more games, and I’m hitting .220; I need to pick it up a little bit.” Do you know what I mean? I just try to look at the positive; I try to find positive things in every situation.
DL: How difficult is that to do that when you are going through a bad stretch?
ID: Oh man, it is hard, you know, but there’s always… you’ve got a job, and there are millions of people out there right now who don’t have jobs. We’re privileged to be in the situations that we’re in. We’re knocking on the doorstep of a future that is set up for us. If you make it to the big leagues for a couple of years, and… I mean, that’s decent money. It’s money that some people won’t make in their whole lives.
DL: You’re having a breakthrough season. Why?
ID: I think that this is the first year that I’ve really learned how to separate good days from bad days, and how to be out there just enjoying it, you know. In years past, my first at-bat would come and I’d make an out, and I’d be so mad. It would be, ‘Why am I so mad? I still have three more at bats.’ Or I’d make an error and I’d be like, ‘Oh, no, I made an error. I can’t make another error.’ This year I’m just kind of, ‘Whatever. I just made an out, but we get four at-bats.’ If the umpire gives me a bad strike, I’m just, ‘OK.’ In the past, it would really just get into my brain, but this year I’ve separated it a lot, and that’s making it a lot easier for me. It’s become stress-free baseball for me, I guess you could say.
DL: What allowed you to make that mental adjustment?
ID: I’ve just learned that people have personal problems within baseball, and that makes you realize that anything can happen, so you really just have to appreciate everything. Just because you get out, one time, it’s not the end of the world. There are bigger problems out there.
DL: Simple as that?
ID: I guess the best way to say it is that it’s amazing how fast the game can be taken away from you. You never know what could happen, so you just have to go out there and appreciate every game. Once you learn to appreciate the job that you have, and realize that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that you just have to seize every opportunity you get, I think you’re down the right road.
DL: How has relaxing helped you to improve your performance on the field?
ID: It just makes your mind think more clearly. There’s the old thing that people used to tell me, like in karate-if you’re going to punch somebody, they want you to be relaxed. They don’t want you to be squeezing your fist as tight as you can. If you have a free mind, then you’re just out there letting your body work. But if you’re out there all tight and tensed up, everything is running through your head and your body can’t really react the way it wants to.
DL: How will you keep from tensing up when you make your big-league debut? There will obviously be a lot of adrenaline coursing through your body.
ID: I don’t know, but I think I’ll be able to. I guess that I just feel that I grasp that feeling of relaxation now. I feel that I can put it to use at any time. Do you know what I mean? I don’t feel there’s any situation where the stress gets into my head any more. And if it does, I can get it out. I just take a couple of deep breaths and relax.
DL: One of the biggest strides you’ve made this season has been improved plate discipline. Is that directly related to your ability to stay relaxed?
ID: Oh, yeah. Like I said before, in the past… I don’t think I was ever a big arguer with umpires, but a lot of times, if I got behind in the count, I would start panicking. I’d be, ‘Don’t strike out, don’t strike out.’ Negativity can just overwhelm you in this game, because you fail a lot. So if you can look past the part of… I guess that I’m just not scared to fail anymore. I mean, I failed for the first four years of my career. Every year I was worrying about it, worrying about it, ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no.’ This year, I finally said forget it. If you mess up, or if you fail, you’ve still got the next at-bat; you’ve still got the next game. And there are multiple opportunities in a game where you can help your team win. It doesn’t have to be at the plate; it doesn’t have to be on a spectacular play on defense. There are other ways that you can help your team. You can walk and steal a base to get into scoring position. You can bunt a guy over-things like that. I feel that I put too much pressure on myself before, and now I just kind go out and do whatever.
DL: Do you honestly feel that you failed in your first four years of pro ball? How are you defining failure?
ID: I guess that what I mean by failing is that I didn’t hit the way I thought I should hit. I failed myself, I guess. I didn’t show everyone what I could do. This year, that’s what I’m doing, really. I’m going out there and showing, hey, this is me, I’m playing the way I want to play now. That’s it.
DL: You not only improved your offensive performance, you’ve also made great strides defensively. Ross Detwiler made note of that when I talked to him earlier today.
ID: It’s funny that he said that. I feel that I have, but every time Detwiler pitches, it seems like, man, I’ve really been messing up behind that guy. We’ve had a couple of games where he’s got me quite a few ground balls, and they’ve taken bad hops, or I’ve booted a couple of them. But I feel that, all around, yeah, I’m definitely better. I mean, every year I feel like I’m getting better.
DL: The minor league season ends in a couple of days, and there are rumors that you’re going to get called up for the first time. Have you been told anything?
ID: No, I haven’t been told anything. There are always rumors about something, so I just try to wait and see. You don’t want to build those high expectations, because if they don’t come… you know? I’m just going out there and playing as hard as I can every day, and hopefully they’ll give me the call. If they do, I think I’m ready.
DL: Any final thoughts?
ID: I think that the most important thing that everyone should know about all of us is that we’re out here because we love this game. No matter how frustrated we get, or how upset we look sometimes after a loss, or whenever anger and emotions get the best of us on the field, we all love this game. That’s why we’re out here. And I think that I love this game equally, if not more, than any player who has ever played this game. I don’t think there’s anybody who has more passion for the game of baseball than me.
Postscript: In his big-league debut on September 10, Desmond went 2-for-4 with a home run and a double, driving in four; in his second game on September 12, he went 4-for-4 with two doubles and a walk.