These days, it feels like the Colorado Rockies are cursed.
A terrible stretch of baseball going into and coming out of the All-Star break has shifted a club in the middle of the hunt to one way on the outside, left to pick up the pieces in determining what went wrong and how it can be fixed.
While they managed to steal a victory in the final encounter of a four-game set against the Washington Nationals, it will likely come as a bitter consolation prize for fans who are frustrated at the lost potential of one of the most promising seasons in team history.
But that game was a reminder that the Rockies are not the only team in baseball who is cursed.
Ever since closing up shop as the Montréal Expos – a franchise that came tantalizingly close to ultimate success only to see a strike-shortened season vanquish all hope – and re-christening as the Washington Nationals, the team that now calls DC home has arguably been paying the price for taking the game away from a baseball town and cutting in half Canada’s representation in MLB.
Despite landing two of the most gifted talents of a generation in Stephen Strasburgh and Bryce Harper in consecutive drafts, the Nationals have never won a postseason series and every decision they make seems to come back to haunt them.
Now, out in front of the National League Wild Card race, they had a chance to sweep a floundering Rockies team but a late flurry from former Nationals in the form of Daniel Murphy and Ian Desmond swung the game back in favor of Colorado for an 8-7 win in extras.
It could not have been a more perfect ending to a series that saw both players receive standing ovations upon their first at bats from a hometown crowd that still clearly holds much love for them both. In fact, you could even hear a few still cheering Desmond’s ninth-inning homer that tied the game.
And that appreciation goes both ways.
“A lot of people in the Nationals organization just taught me about being a man and being a ballplayer,” Desmond said. “What hard work looks like and how to go about things the right way.”
He paused for a moment to make sure to highlight former manager and all-time baseball great Frank Robinson.
“Frank taught me, I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but getting to watch somebody like that on a daily basis and just listening to his interviews. When you’re in the minor leagues you’re always just reading the website of the big league team and watching post game interviews and things like that. He was just a special guy, he went about things in a very unique way. Kind of had this unique personality where he was very tough on the outside but on the inside he had a very big heart. Kind of reminded me of my grandfather a little bit. My grandfather is a similar way. He’s pretty rough around the edges but he did have a big heart deep down inside. I don’t know, he was just Frank to me.”
Desmond has chosen to honor the legend who passed away in February of this year every time he slips on his uniform.
“I was in my third season in the big leagues. When I got here, they just gave me number six,” he says of his original jersey number with the Nationals. “As a young kid, I didn’t want to complain, six was great, it could have been 96. But, I kind of felt like I was at the point in my career where I had established myself here and I just felt like if I was ever going to pick a number, now was the time… before I fell in love with six. I started thinking of what numbers would mean something to me, I never really had a favorite number. Frank was number 20, he was a big influence in my career and my life. Barry Sanders was a football player that I looked up to. I just decided to go for it.”
The No. 20 he wears is not the only tribute apparel that found in Desmond’s locker in Washington this week during the trip back to the place where his big league career began.
It is only fair that the last player ever officially listed by the Montreal Expos organization got his hands on a proper Expos hat.
“All the years I was there I was dying for them to do a throwback day, because I never got to go to Montreal, never got to play in Montreal. I mean, I played my rookie year for the Gulf Coast League Expos. But, never was able to officially be able to put the real uniform on and I saw that they did the throwback day a couple of weeks ago, and I texted (the Nationals) and I said, ‘Hey you’ve gotta save me one of those hats’. It’s special to be the last player of an organization and still be playing. I take pride in that, especially with this new connection that I have to Canada. It’s just a little sentimental thing. I’m not gonna wear it around, I’ll probably just bring it to the house and then maybe one day when I retire I’ll take it out or something.”
He can add it to a small collection at home.
“Stuff that made it through the years: jackets, jerseys, things like that,” he says. “An official hat, that was a throwback, it’s kind of special. Just something I kind of wish I had been a part of.”
It’s been a strange near-miss that has colored Desmond’s career. Life is full of “what if” and “what might have been” moments and an outfielder for Colorado hitting a decisive home run against a team he used to play for that used to be a different team he just barely didn’t get to play for sure has a unique story to tell.
“I got drafted and a couple of days later there were people at my house saying ‘You’re an Expo now and it’s not going to be for long. You’re fine and obviously, nothing is going to happen to you but you’ll be playing under a different team name and probably a different city associated with that team.’ It was pretty bleak the first year we were in Melbourne, FL and the locker room was still green from the Marlins. It was just pretty weird. But, it was the best thing ever, coming from high school and having this great opportunity in front of me and you could never have told me anything different. I just was in heaven at the time, just living every day.”
But, of course, the lost opportunity to visit or play for Montreal has become a beautiful irony with Washington, D.C. becoming like a second home for Desmond who says he feels like it is the place where he grew up.
“So many people here, fans, staff around the field, players, people at Walter Reed (General Hospital), they all played such an important part of my life. It’s not like you can just go to a different team and that side of your human life just goes away. I learned a lot about the military and servicemen and women and the sacrifice that they make here. I feel, not out of guilt or anything like that, I just want to pay my respects to them. I’ve seen how it affects them when we go there and it means a lot to them. Just to give them that couple of hours of a little bit of relief, hear their stories and allow them to tell their stories to us, and be the heroes that they are. It’s exciting and I love doing it.”
Most of us find ninth-inning, game-tying home runs exciting, because they absolutely are, but it’s also nice to hear every once in a while that someone who knows a thing or two about such dramatics finds just as much joy in giving back to the communities that have given so much to him.
Even honoring people in cities and a country he never played in; fans of a ghost team.
But he also helped build a new one from the ground up and that’s a big part of why there is such a strong two-way emotional connection between Desmond and Nationals fans.
“It makes coming here hard,” Desmond admits. “The other day I struck out and they were like ‘it’s OK Desi, we still love you!’ and at other stadiums, they’re like ‘you suck!’ It can make it difficult for me to play with that edge I need when they are so nice.”
The early days that Desmond can recall suggest that anyone who is a longtime season ticket holder at Nationals Park is so, at least in part, because of the excitement and class he brought to the ballpark each day.
“I can remember back when there were only like 12 people up in the stands doing the ‘N-A-T-S, N-A-T-S, Nats-Nats-Nats!’ chant and now it’s full and they’re all doing it,” he says. “They’ve come a long way and I’m proud to have been a part of that, but they can start booing me now,” he added with a smirk.
Always the competitor, Desmond’s attention returned to trying to win baseball games for the Colorado Rockies. But he will always be able to take pride in his role in reigniting baseball in the nation’s capital.
And he could not be more honored to be forever remembered as The Last Expo.