On and off field, Desmond motivates 'mates
The sun was just rising on Labor Day morning when Ian Desmond arrived at Coors Field with a mission to accomplish. With the help of some of the clubhouse workers, Desmond rearranged the furniture in the Rockies' clubhouse before his teammates showed up.
"I was trying to mix things up a little bit," he said. "I wanted to create an atmosphere in there where everyone is together, not divided. I don't think [divided] is a feeling they tried to create, but before it was kind of hard to get around. You had people over there, people over here and people over here.
"Now we have openness. It's a little fresh air. You start to see different groups of guys intermingling, and that's what good teams do. There where communication starts."
That afternoon, the Rockies, who had lost 15 of their previous 22 games, pulled out a 4-3 victory against the Giants, touching off a stretch in which, after Tuesday night's 4-2 victory against the D-backs in Arizona, the Rox won seven of their past eight games, opening up a 3 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals in the battle for the second National League Wild Card spot heading into play Wednesday.
Of course, the Rockies have put together an impressive run of pitching and hitting in this recent stretch, which included their first four-game sweep of the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium since 1993, the franchise's first year of existence, and back-to-back wins in the first two games of what will be a four-game series against the D-backs, who opened this month by sweeping three games at Coors Field.
With apologies to the expanding world of analytics, there are more than stats that determine winning and losing. There is a human element. And there is a need for that guy in a clubhouse who can step out front and help his teammates keep their focus, regardless of how disappointing their own season may be.
They are the guys who can challenge teammates to be better. They also are the guys who can help alleviate pressure that teammates may start to feel. They are few and far between. It is, after all, an aspect that is part of a person's makeup. It is not something a player can suddenly decide he wants to be.
Desmond is one of those guys. He was with the Nationals, his original franchise. Desmond also was a year ago, when after being nearly ignored on the free-agent market, he signed a one-year deal with the Rangers. And he has been this year, the first year of a five-year deal he signed with Colorado.
It hasn't been all happiness. From a personal standpoint, this has to be the most disappointing of Desmond's career. His first seven full seasons in the big leagues, he appeared in at least 154 games six times, and 130 the other. Desmond was a career .264 hitter, whose team-first mentality was underscored by the fact that never hesitated to move to the outfield with the Rangers after playing shortstop for the Nats.
And when Desmond signed with the Rockies, it was as their first baseman, with the expectation that he would become a Benjamin Zobrist-like utility player eventually.
Desmond's season took a tough turn before it began. He was hit by a pitch in Spring Training, suffering a broken left hand that led to him spending the first four weeks of the season on the disabled list. Then came a right calf injury that has sidelined Desmond twice. As a result, he goes into Wednesday night's game at Arizona having appeared 78 of Colorado's 145 games, starting in 72 -- 55 in left field, 16 at first base and one at shortstop.
Desmond is hitting .273 with five home runs, 33 RBIs, nine doubles and a triple, the lowest totals in a career which had since him hit 132 home runs with 214 doubles, 24 triples and 518 RBIs combined over his seven previous seasons.
Disappointed? Of course. Discouraged? No chance.
"Throughout my career, I've been through some really great times, and I've been through some bad times," Desmond said. "I count both as blessings. The hard times, I've looked at as tools to make me a better person, a better man. Kind of build my character and test me a little bit. And that's what I'm looking at this year.
"This has been a trying year, but at the same time, I think I've got so much out of it. I've learned a lot. I've got to sit and cheer on my teammates and watch them go about their business and learn from them. So yeah, are there certain things that try to creep in there that can create some frustration? Absolutely. But I think when you have the right outlook and know that everything is how it's supposed to be, you kind of just keep plugging on just kind of sharpen up from it."
It is all part of having that inner strength to be a leader, without trying to be a leader, like Hal McRae was with the Royals in that team's heyday, and like the late Don Baylor was through his career.
It was no coincidence that in Baylor's last three seasons as a player, he became the first player to reach the World Series with three teams in consecutive seasons. Ballclubs with hope of winning wanted him to seal the deal.
It's an aura that surrounds Desmond, something he said came from his days in the Minor Leagues, playing for manager Bob Henley with Class A Advanced Potomac in 2005.
"One day we were sitting on the bench in Woodridge, Va., and he says, 'You know what's the most important thing about being a leader?' And I was like, `No. Please, what is it?' And he said, 'Timing is everything.'"
"And right now, everything has worked out," he said. "We're exactly where we wanted to be. Could we have played better last month? Absolutely. Could we be leading the division? I don't know. ... But we've played really well. We've done a lot of really good things here, and we've got ourselves in a position to play meaningful games in September with or without me on the field.
"And that's the best thing, because imagine if I was hurt all year and the team was doing awful. That would've been brutal. If not only for me but for Jeff [Bridich, general manager] and for Dick [Monfort, owner], and everybody else involved. So we've been able to keep going, keep moving forward. These tests, not only for me personally but for the team, are going make us better in the long run."
And Desmond has helped the Rockies find their way, making sure they have a clear path to stay together, even if it does mean he has to get up early on Labor Day to make sure the couches and tables aren't becoming barriers.