SURPRISE, Ariz. – “Outfielders!” the voice rang out. “Field 2!”
Which presented only two potential issues for Ian Desmond.
First, oh yeah, I’m an outfielder.
Second, Field 2 would be, uh, where exactly?
“I didn’t know where to go,” he admitted.
After a couple false steps he followed the crowd.
Mid-morning Monday under a soft blue sky and Eric Church singing “What I Almost Was,” Desmond stood in center field with four other guys on Texas, read a sinking liner spit from a pitching machine, squatted, broke back, stuck what must have felt like a huge glove in the air and snared the baseball.
Bam, you’re an outfielder. Not so hard.
“Yeah, we’re going to stick him out there and start whacking balls [at him],” the manager, Jeff Banister, had said before grinning. “No … It’s not as easy as hitting fungoes and having a guy go run them down.”
They would start there, however.
That Desmond is a Texas Ranger, and the left fielder for the Texas Rangers at that, is the result of an impressive — and not always neat — sequence of accidents, circumstances, dumb luck, happy coincidence, systemic failures, one slow-healing knee and Desmond’s ardent belief in himself.
You may start, in fact, in the winter of 2012, when noted left fielder Josh Hamilton signed a five-year, $125-million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.
In the spring of 2014, just before Hamilton’s second season as an Angel, Desmond, an All-Star shortstop for the Washington Nationals, reportedly rejected a seven-year, $107-million contract extension.
Hamilton played 240 games in an Angels uniform, had some trouble with an old foe, was kicked out of Anaheim by the pitiless owner there, and last summer returned to Texas. For pennies on the remaining dollars, the Rangers would restore their Hambone to left field.
In the same summer, Desmond was suffering through his worst offensive season and additionally committing 27 errors. His time in Washington would end with free agency, but not before turning down a one-year qualifying offer of $15.8 million.
Over a long winter, jobs were filled. The burden of being “a QO guy” worsened. Spring arrived. Players reported to camps across two states. Dexter Fowler signed last week with the Chicago Cubs — $13 million for one year. And Hamilton’s troublesome knee swelled again.
“I was frustrated,” Desmond said, but also, “I have a lot of faith. … I knew I was going to get a job. I believe there is always a good job for a great teammate.”
The Rangers would need an outfielder. Desmond was a shortstop. But, first, he was a ballplayer — big, strong, athletic and willing. They came to agreement Sunday — one year, $8 million. A day later, his name was on the back of a Rangers uniform, if not on the sign over his locker. That read “Texas Rangers,” which was close enough for the time being.
The Rangers made it clear that Elvis Andrus is their shortstop. He is under contract for another seven seasons. That’s a lot of seasons. There would be no competition. Though, most would agree, Desmond has been the better player.
That was all fine by Desmond, who watched from home in Bradenton, Fla. when report dates came and went, and as exhibition games were nearing. He is 30 years old. The game doesn’t give up on talented 30-year-olds quite that quickly. Or heartlessly. Before he signed on with the Rangers, he talked with Banister. He talked with former Rangers shortstop and third baseman Michael Young, a special assistant to Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.
“I was floored he was still out there this time of year,” Young said Monday.
Where this leads when Hamilton returns — he’ll start the season on the disabled list — is a decision for another day. At the moment, the priority is to get Desmond up and running in left field. In seven previous big-league seasons, he played 7 1/3 innings in the outfield, all in right. Beyond that, he played three innings in center field for Triple-A Syracuse in 2009 and five innings in center field for Licey in the Dominican Republic that winter. He had considered changing positions in desperation before, however, a secret he revealed with a smile.
It was 2004, the year he was drafted in the third round by the Montreal Expos. In 55 games at shortstop in the Gulf Coast and New York Penn leagues, Desmond, then 18 years old, made 30 errors.
“Hey,” he said he told his coaches, “put me in the outfield. I can’t take this anymore.”
Their response: “No. You’re a shortstop.”
He came back the next year and made 39 errors (in 127 games.)
Eleven years later, “What I Almost Was” accompanied his move — perhaps temporary, but perhaps not — from the dirt to the grass, from D.C. to Arlington, from familiar to whatever’s coming.
There was little energy to waste on the QO system that appeared to cheat him — “I think it’s clear that something needs to change,” he said and moved on — and more to gather for the work ahead. He seemed a very happy man on Monday. The team should be more than competent. The clubhouse — Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder reside in not-too-distant lockers to his left — is thick with strong, reliable personalities. Desmond makes another.
“I’m extremely excited,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful, also. … As for swallowing my pride and learning a new position, that’s not going to be a problem.”
It’s still baseball. Sometimes it’s right in front of you, is all. Sometimes it’s on Field 2.