This story appeared in the Sept. 26, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine click here.
Ian Desmond appeared to have lost an $80 million gamble in 2015. For most people that would be the worst part of any given year. Not for him. More crushing was something that kept happening in quiet moments at home.
The 31-year-old Desmond is by all accounts a devoted family man, and he and his wife, Chelsey, have three sons, Grayson, five; Cruz, three; and Ashton, one. Last year Grayson fell in love with baseball with a passion that only a four-year-old can summon. He ought to have had an in-house role model: his 6' 3", 215-pound father. From 2012 through ’14, as the shortstop for the Nationals, Desmond had three straight 20-20 seasons, won three NL Silver Slugger awards and, according to FanGraphs, had accumulated a WAR of 4.0 or better in each year, something that only nine other players—including MVP winners Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen—also accomplished. Last year, though, Grayson emulated his father’s teammates, not his father.
“As a baseball player, all we dream about is our kids wanting to be like dad,” says Desmond. “Coming home, my kid’s like, ‘Oh, I’m Bryce Harper!’ ‘I’m Yunel Escobar!’ He was never saying, ‘Hey, I’m Ian Desmond!’ All I want is my kid to imitate me. That was pretty tough.”
Desmond didn’t do much to inspire anyone’s fantasies in 2015. His average dropped to a career-low .233. His strikeouts climbed to a career-high 187. He didn’t reach his 20-20 -standard, finishing with 19 homers and 13 steals. His WAR fell to a pedestrian 1.7. Desmond is still not sure why his tools deserted him, but it may have had something to do with two mid-April plunkings, one on each hand, five days apart from the same Phillies starter, Sean O’Sullivan.
Desmond’s season-long slump was poorly timed. Not only did he fail to inspire a newly awakened baseball fan, but he also became a free agent for the first time last November, two years after he had turned down a seven-year, $106 million offer from the Nationals that would have begun in 2014. He had already locked in his final two arbitration seasons, ’14 and ’15, at a total of $17.5 million, so the proposed contract would have, in essence, compensated him $88.5 million for his first five post-free-agency years. It was not a particularly competitive pitch. The Rangers’ Elvis Andrus, a shortstop who had only once reached a WAR of 4.0, signed an eight-year, $120 million extension in April 2013. “I didn’t accept it,” says Desmond of the offer. “I was at peace with it. No big deal.”
When it became clear last winter that Desmond would not be receiving anything close to an equivalent offer, it was viewed by some as a financial blunder. The market for him was further squeezed by a glut of young, talented—and cheap—shortstops that dampened clubs’ enthusiasm for older, expensive ones; a star-filled free-agent class, topped by three players—pitchers David Price and Zack Greinke and outfielder Jason Heyward—who sucked up more than $600 million in guarantees; and the fact that any team signing him would lose a top draft pick after Desmond turned down Washington’s one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer.
Desmond says he tried not to dwell on any of that, just as—he swears—he rarely thought about the offer he’d rejected two years earlier. “I still get to play the game I love,” he told himself throughout 2015. “I still have an opportunity to provide for my family. As long as I have a jersey, I’m cool.” Then, he says, “The off-season comes, and I don’t have a jersey.”
Last winter Desmond installed a batting cage outside his house, in Sarasota, Fla. It became his sanctuary, especially when his longtime agent, Doug Rogalski, would call with the latest update—and there was never much of an update. “I would hit every day, but when Doug would call and say, ‘Hey, man, no news today,’ I would just be fuming, and I’d go out there again,” Desmond says. “The only thing in my own power was the fact that I could go to the cage to hit.”
Desmond had hit his way out of a job, and he thought he could hit his way back into one. There was also one other thing to try.
By late February, as pitchers and catchers started to report to spring training, Desmond had yet to receive a single formal offer. He had gone to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which he and Rogalski had deemed a good place for him to work out in case he was forced to wait until after June’s draft (when teams would no longer have to forfeit a first-round pick to sign him) to find a new home. One day Desmond saw a Japanese college team practicing. The coach invited him to join them and he accepted, taking BP and ground balls at short. Then he headed for the outfield.
As a kid Desmond had dreamed of playing centerfield, and he only played short because he was good enough to stick. By that day in February, however, he just wanted a job, so he shagged balls in the outfield, off the bats of Japanese collegians.
Meanwhile, the Rangers were homing in on him. The club had first discussed the possibility of acquiring Desmond before the trade deadline the previous July, at the suggestion of Michael Young, their longtime infielder who had become a special assistant to GM Jon Daniels. The Rangers had Andrus in place, but they sent a scout to watch Desmond for six games. The scout’s report was dated July 6, which ended with Desmond batting .212, but the report was positive. “Same player, enough big tools, upside an All-Star,” the scout wrote. “Overall tools look sharp: speed, arm, bat speed.” The report included another note, one that Daniels had seen before. “If you go back and look at our reports on him, from every year, they said that if he would ever be open to it, this guy would be a dynamic outfielder,” Daniels says.
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In the early morning of Sunday, Feb. 28, Desmond agreed to the only offer he received: a one-year, $8 million deal. “If I had more than eight, I’d give you more,” Daniels told him. “We’ve got eight.” It was half of what he would have earned had he just accepted the Nationals’ qualifying offer. That morning former major league GM Jim Bowden, on his SiriusXM radio show, called it the worst contract for a player he’d ever seen, but Desmond didn’t care. “I was ready to go,” he says. “Zero disappointment.” He arrived at the Rangers’ spring training facility that Monday, and he had a jersey again. But there was a catch: He would have to become an outfielder.
Desmond had to shed the fielding instincts he had developed throughout his baseball life. Instead of pivoting when a ball was hit, he had to turn fully sideways, so he could explode either toward the plate or away from it. Desmond enlisted outfield coach Jayce Tingler to run him through as many as three one-on-one tutorials a day, and spent his new club’s batting practice sessions power-shagging—he’d field each ball at full speed instead of lazily snagging them, as most outfielders do. He did that until he realized that his new teammates were too powerful for him to make the most of these sessions, and presented Tingler with a better option. “Guys like Adrian Beltre are hitting the ball over the fence all the time,” Tingler says. “He wanted to go down to the minor league fields, where you have High A guys with good swings, but they’re 19, 20 years old so the balls are staying in the park.”
It wasn’t long before Tingler sidled up to Dwayne Murphy, the six-time Gold Glove winner who is the Rangers’ minor league outfield coordinator, to discuss his pupil’s astounding progress. “Murph,” Tingler asked. “What am I missing?”
“Nothing,” said Murphy. “I’ve never seen anyone transition this quick.”
On Opening Day, April 4—about six weeks after he’d shagged balls with the Japanese team at IMG—Desmond debuted as a major league leftfielder. When starting centerfielder Delino DeShields Jr. was demoted to Triple A in mid-May, Desmond became the Rangers’ every-day centerfielder. Now, according to FanGraphs, his arm has prevented the ninth-most runs in baseball among outfielders, and his Ultimate Zone Rating is above average and better than those of some lifelong outfielders including Trout and Jacoby Ellsbury. He is also a 20-20 player again—he’s batting .287 with 22 homers and 20 steals, and his WAR is up to 3.9.
Desmond is again as good a player as he was when he was being offered a nine-figure contract, and he is again a cornerstone of a first-place team; at 90-63 the Rangers have the best record in the AL. Is he haunted by his lost wages? “He’s never talked about it once,” says pitcher Cole Hamels, a longtime NL East opponent in Philadelphia who is now a teammate in Texas. “He’s one of those guys who really knows how to separate the business side and the actual pure joy of playing the game.”
“If I took a loss financially,” Desmond says, “what I gained as a professional was worth every penny.”
With two weeks remaining in the season, Desmond has returned more than $30 million in value on the Rangers’ investment. Of course, he has won no sympathy for having to make do with only $8 million this year, but he doesn’t want any. His mother, Pattie Paradise, still works as a hairdresser, and his stepfather, Chris Charron—who helped raise him from the time Desmond was five—is a chef in a country club kitchen. “My wife and I are extremely frugal,” Desmond says. “She still shops at T.J. Maxx. Not that there’s anything wrong with T.J. Maxx. We feel like, man, we already have enough money to live forever. If we spend this money, we’re doing it really wrong.”
It doesn’t take much foresight to imagine that Desmond will do well in this winter’s free agency period. The Rangers would like to re‑sign him, but five-tool outfielders don’t run $8 million a year. “We’re gonna have a lot more competition for him,” says Daniels. “He’s gonna fit everybody. But we know he fits us, and it’s a conversation we’re gonna have.”
In fact, Desmond will rank near the top of a weak class of free agents, and over the next four seasons he might exceed the $80.5 million in earnings that he lost but really never had.
That wouldn’t even be the best part of his season of redemption in Texas. The best part happens when he is with his children. Cruz has already been infected by his older brother’s baseball mania. When Desmond’s sons swing their little bats, they pretend to be their dad.