SAN DIEGO – Before he could make the commitment he wanted to make, before he could change positions and cities and leagues all with one signature, Ian Desmond had to both hear from and be heard by the men who would be his new bosses. In a dozen years of professional baseball, he had known and trusted just one organization. A new commitment, a new start, merited at least a conversation.
“I just think it’s easier for people to break their word when it doesn’t go from mouth to ear,” Desmond said. “I just wanted them to hear the conviction I had in my voice, and I wanted to hear what their intent was going to be. Just like a handshake. I don’t need anything signed. You shake my hand, and that’s enough for me.”
This handshake was verbal but life-changing. On the other end of the phone were Jon Daniels, the general manager of the Texas Rangers, and Thad Levine, his top lieutenant. This was an unusual request, a free agent player asking to strip away the handlers and speak directly about his own intentions, his own character, his own path. It was, at one level, an overlooked baseball player opening a suitcase and selling his wares, wares other teams had considered and decided to pass. But as sales jobs go, this was genuine.
“From the moment he opens his mouth, JD and I kind of look at each other and say, ‘This is something special,’ ” Levine said. “This is someone with very unique leadership qualities in a baseball player, the way he presented his intensity, his focus, his desire to win, why he had selected us, what transpired in Washington with regards to the contract – everything he talked about further bolstered our feelings about him.”
That Desmond is here, preparing to make his first actual appearance in baseball’s All-Star Game (he was selected but injured in 2012), is both completely stunning and absolutely logical. Stunning only because his best year is following his worst, because after he and the Nationals couldn’t agree on a long-term contract extension the most lucrative deal he could land was for one year and $8 million and included a switch from shortstop to the outfield. Logical because those who know him believed this kind of performance – a .322 average with 15 homers and 55 RBI, trailing only Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs – was always inside of Desmond, if only he could let it come out.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that I had in my mind,” Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper said Monday, the day before he’ll oppose his old teammate and mentor at Petco Park. “In the offseason, I couldn’t believe that no other team was trying to get him, no other team was going after him. . . . What a deal the Rangers got.”
That seems obvious now, what with the Rangers owning the best record in the American League, with Desmond, 30, suddenly an essential part of their lineup, in which he hits second, and their clubhouse, in which he is something of a transformative figure. But there were steps in this process, too. They included a mental transformation for Desmond, who spent the offseason calling former teammates – Jayson Werth, Mark DeRosa, Rick Ankiel and Steve Lombardozzi – about the challenges of changing positions, about whether he could pull it off.
“It was more to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking. . . . Talk me out of it,’ ” Desmond said. “And no one could talk me out of it.”
DeRosa, a teammate in Washington in 2012, was direct. Desmond told him, “I was working way too hard to make 20-something errors a year” as a shortstop. DeRosa responded, at first, that Desmond wasn’t giving himself enough credit as a shortstop, the position at which the Montreal Expos drafted him in 2004, the position at which he had made 882 of his 889 major league starts. But there was a reality, too.
“He was like, ‘It’s not like you’re Omar Vizquel,’ ” Desmond said, referencing the 11-time Gold Glove winner at the position. “And I was like, ‘If you knew how much work I put in to try to be like Omar Vizquel, and I can’t get there. I think there’s a position on the field where I can work hard and get to that level.’ “
Texas had Elvis Andrus entrenched at shortstop. That was fine with Desmond. He said he had no desire to play two days in left, two days at short, to be bounced around. It was another reason to get on the phone with Daniels and Levine. He wanted the chance, he said, to say: “If I’m going to do this move, I’m going to be an outfielder. . . . If I’m going to do it, I want to go master something, or try to master something.'”
In that phone conversation, he told the Rangers’ brass that his goal this year – his first at a new position – was to push Kansas City’s Alex Gordon, widely regarded as the best left fielder in the game, for the Gold Glove.
“There was a sense of respect and reverence, but he meant it,” Levine said. “He wanted to compete with him because he viewed him as the best.”
Yet this wasn’t just a smooth, sign-on-the-dotted-line-and-become-an-all-star process. From his first day in Rangers camp, Desmond not only took flyballs in left and worked diligently with outfield coach Jayce Tingler, but he stayed through each round of batting practice to shag balls, then headed over to the minor league side to shag more. In left, he struggled some with being called off of balls by the center fielder, who has that right. And two weeks into the season, he was nearly inept at the plate, hitting .109 and without an extra-base hit.
As much as Desmond had impressed the Rangers with his sales pitch and attitude, baseball is an unforgiving business masked as a game. The Rangers didn’t truly know him, and might not have needed him, and $8 million of sunk cost isn’t that much. Their reaction?
“Just drank heavily,” Levine said. “I’m joking, as far as you know.”
In reality, the only real conversation Desmond had was with Manager Jeff Banister, who told Desmond he was going to give him two consecutive days off. Clear your head, work on whatever you need to work on, and you’ll be back in there. On April 19, his first game back, he had two hits, including a double.
“We’ve never looked back,” Levine said.
In mid-May, Desmond moved to center field, where he has grown more comfortable and where he ranks fourth in baseball in the advanced metric “ultimate zone rating,” which measures how specific fielders make plays vs. the average player at that position. Through the entire process, he has ingratiated himself in a clubhouse that has every intention of playing deep into October.
“He probably has one of the best outlooks on the game and himself personally, even with him and his family. It’s something you want to be around,” said Rangers all-star left-hander Cole Hamels, a longtime adversary when he was in Philadelphia and Desmond played in Washington. “That’s kind of who you want to encourage people to kind of go towards and be that type of person. He’s that guy.”
Now that guy is here as an all-star, as an outfielder, as a Ranger. He is a free agent again at the end of the year and has certainly rebuilt his market. The next question is obvious: Will the Rangers bring him back?
“I think he stands for everything we believe in and what we want our young players to be and what we want our veterans to emulate,” Levine said. “His performance speaks for himself, but what he does for our franchise outside the white lines has been equally impressive, equally valuable. We’d have genuine interest.”
Would that be reciprocal?
“I haven’t really gotten that far yet, to be completely honest,” Desmond said. “Right now, everything’s so new to me I don’t really have time to look forward because I’m still really trying to get a grasp on what’s right now.”
What’s right now: For half a season, Desmond has been among the game’s best players. And there’s little doubt that, come the offseason, he won’t have to solicit calls from major league general managers to get them to understand the package he can deliver.