How Ian Desmond 'stepped up big' by stepping away from 2020 MLB season

How Ian Desmond 'stepped up big' by stepping away from 2020 MLB season

Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on NBC Sports Bay Area on Friday, July 3 at 8 p.m.

Ian Desmond has bigger things on his mind than playing professional baseball, yet he's not turning his back on the sport.

The Colorado Rockies outfielder announced Monday on Instagram that he won't play in MLB's shortened season amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Desmond instead will remain in Sarasota, Florida with his pregnant wife and four kids, working to get local youth baseball "back on track." The 34-year-old, who is biracial, said the fields he grew up playing on suffered from years of neglect, exemplifying baseball's inaccessibility reflective of societal inequality.

"Why can't we support teaching the game to all kids -- but especially those in underprivileged communities?'' Desmond wrote. "Why aren't accessible, affordable youth sports viewed as an essential opportunity to affect kids' development, as opposed to money-making propositions and recruiting chances? It's hard to wrap your head around it.''

Desmond is stepping away from MLB to do the kind of work that Dave Stewart is innately familiar with. Stewart, a former A's pitcher and current NBC Sports California analyst, has worked extensively to help children in underserved communities. The A's community service award is named for him as a result of that work. 

Stewart, who is Black, believes Desmond is rising to the occasion in a way that this moment requires.

"I said, 'Man, this brother stepped up.' " Stewart said on "Race In America: A Candid Conversation," which airs Friday at 8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

"It's the first thing I thought of. He stepped up, he stepped up big. He had things that obviously had been bothering him for a long period of time. He voiced the things that were bothering him, he voiced the things he thought needed to be addressed in baseball, but he also made baseball aware and the world aware that if I read it right, he's got a baby on the way, he's got children at home, I'd much rather be safe spending time with my family teaching these kids how to play the game. And in the meantime, baseball handle your business is the way I took it. Baseball, handle your business."

[RACE IN AMERICA: Listen to the latest episode]

Desmond said some of his formative memories occurred on the fields he's trying to revitalize, but they weren't all happy. He wrote that he "never felt fully immersed in Black culture" growing up with a white mother, but still identified as Black when asked because of the prejudice he experienced. Desmond recalled his high-school teammates chanting "White Power" before a game, and his eventual grade-school classmates needed to be told in a school-wide meeting that he was enrolling.

In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody last month, Desmond felt he could be silent no longer. He pointed to MLB's distinct lack of Black owners, front-office executives and managers, noting that about 8 percent of players are African American while racist, homophobic and sexist jokes are all-too-normal in clubhouses and unwritten rules that aim to create conformity all-too-often stifle Black players from being themselves.

MLB has "a minority issue from the top down," Desmond wrote, and former A's pitcher Edwin Jackson said it was "empowering" to see his one-time teammate address it.

"That's something we love to see," said Jackson, who played with Desmond on the Washington Nationals in 2012. "That's something that is sad that we had to suppress those feelings for so long from being afraid to speak up. For him to be able to speak up now and not be afraid anymore, I love to see that. I love to see that, and I wish we could have that for more people. It's brave. It takes a lot to do, to express your feelings to the world about how you feel, it takes a lot to do that."

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Jackson said he spoke with Desmond about the decision, and that it's very reflective of his former teammate's overriding feeling.

Desmond simply has had enough.

"He wants to express himself and show you his values, what he values and the order he has his values in," Jackson said. "His family comes before the game. His life comes before the game. It shows that he's put a lot of his emotions on the back burner because of baseball. He's tired of it, he's switching roles. He's putting his family first and he's putting himself first, beyond the sport that we play."

Dontrelle Willis joins A's broadcast team on NBC Sports California

Dontrelle Willis joins A's broadcast team on NBC Sports California

Editor's note: This story originally was published on July 20.

NBC Sports California is adding a high-energy and charismatic presence to their studio crew for the 2020 season with former MLB pitcher-turned-analyst Dontrelle Willis joining the team.

Willis, a two-time MLB All-Star, spent nine seasons playing in the big leagues, and found himself with a knack for an on-air presence.

“As far as the staff, you, Brodie [Brazil], Dallas [Braden], [Dave Stewart] -- it’s a well-rounded cast that just truly enjoys covering the team,” Willis told NBC Sports California. 

“So, I think it shows in your guys’ work so I just want to be the big-little brother and go out there and showcase my talents and my joy as well, but I’ve always been a fan of the way you’ve covered the team and I think fans love the way you cover the team so I’m just trying to get on board and hop on and get a title like everybody else.”

Willis, 38, is a Bay Area native who attended Encinal High School in Alameda. He looked up to Stewart and looks forward to working with him. He's also excited to see some of the young stars the A’s have with a bit of a closer eye.

“Obviously Frankie Montas and Jesús Luzardo is a kid that come to find out, I was one of his favorite players growing up,” Willis said.

“It’s really cool to hear those stories because you never know how far what you do reaches, but I heard at Fan Fest someone asked him who was his favorite player and he said ‘Dontrelle Willis,’ and I’m like, ‘Well hell, I’m more of a fan of him than anything,’ you know what I mean?”

“You can’t be a fan of mine when you throw harder than me,” Willis said.

For Willis, this job of covering the A’s is more than just commentating on the game. 

“I’m truly honored, I mean the whole ball club -- the Oakland A’s saved my life, so I’m truly honored to be a part of this staff and continue to watch them play baseball because they’re one of the better teams in baseball,” Willis said.

Willis spent some time beginning in 2015 working with FOX Sports as a regular studio analyst on the network’s “MLB Whiparound” where he brought his energy and knowledge with an infectious smile.  

[RELATED: Montas revels in opportunity to be A's Opening Day starter]

For his work covering the A's this season, Willis sees all the positives the team has to offer in addition to their pitching. He complimented their hitting and mentioned Marcus Semien, but wanted to give a warning.

“I tell you this much: If you don’t respect the A’s, they’re going to roll over on you," Willis said.

A's mailbag: Expectations, concerns one-third of way through season

A's mailbag: Expectations, concerns one-third of way through season

After Friday, the A’s will have completed one-third of their 60-game regular season for 2020.
Even with an early cushion atop the AL West, there are still a lot of compelling questions and observations coming from Oakland fans.
Here are just a few from Twitter and Instagram:
Joe Morgan @V3RNALp00ls

Really like @tonykemp. Great clubhouse guy, loves the game, terror on the basepaths.
Fortunately, the A’s didn’t have or need a lot of turnover from 2019, but it’s pretty clear that Tony Kemp is a frontrunner for the best offseason addition. His OBP (.429) and solid defense at second base stand out, but I’m glad you mentioned the energy and chemistry he clearly exudes with teammates. Kemp is the kind of asset that pushes Oakland past being a good team, to potentially a great one.
A’s 4 Days @SealDaRealDeal

Trading for another arm in the rotation wouldn’t be bad in my opinion. So you do you think would fit in with the A’s rotation?
I understand there have been a few recent starts that didn’t go well for Oakland, in the midst of some others which were downright exceptional. By now, we know what every starter is capable of, and to jettison any member of the group after just a few outings into this abnormal season would be a mistake in my opinion. Trades deemed “necessary” in a season like this need to be clear-cut, mandatory ones, and I don’t see that being the case for the A’s. There are 17 days left until the Aug. 31 trade deadline, which many are predicting won’t be anywhere near as busy as normal -- from the logistical standpoint of importing somebody new into a team’s bubble, but also to upset any group chemistry without time to spare.
Instagram: @roof.dylan 
What’s one thing you’re excited to see this season that you haven’t yet?

Really looking forward to the first Khris Davis burst of homers. For that to happen, he’ll need more consistent appearances in the lineup, and for that to happen, he just needs to keep the current momentum building. The at-bats are producing less strikeouts, louder contact, and more opposite-field direction. Positive signs. The A’s have plenty of capable names to DH, but make no mistake, when KD’s bat edges toward a normal clip, he’ll be penciled in every day.
Instagram: @ronalddatz
What overall record would you say the A’s finish with?

It’s important to remember that 36 wins is equivalent to the 97 Oakland recorded each of the last two seasons. That established, I think they can even get to 38 victories in a 60-game season. If there’s a healthy lead gained on the division by Aug. 31, I believe there could be some extra wins for the taking in September against teams who already are sunk.
Instagram: @eric_ohh
If we win it all ... will there be an asterisk or no?

Whoever wins a World Series in 2020 ultimately will be looked at differently 10 years down the road. But different doesn’t have to mean less impressive. Yes, it’s a short season, and more than half the teams will qualify for the playoffs. But knowing the additional physical and mental weight of playing through a pandemic, I don’t believe any athlete in the league currently would consider winning this World Series any less of an accomplishment. 
Instagram: @brooke_mullkin
What do you think is the Athletics’ strongest aspect of their team?

To steal from Dallas Braden, Glen Kuiper and Ray Fosse who all mentioned this recently on A's Pregame Live, it’s their depth. Lose a starter or two? Lose a center fielder to suspension? Need a pinch hitter for the 10th inning? The A’s have somebody capable for nearly every role, and behind that usually is someone else primed for the opportunity. This team is one of the most impressive recent versions of the A’s on paper. Now it’s their turn to prove that on the field.

[RELATED: Report: Laureano suspension reduced from A's-Astros brawl]
Instagram: @martinm_2019
What’s the chance (Matt Olson) gets a splash hit this weekend?

Matt Olson is on a recent streak of homering every third game -- for whatever that's worth -- and the Giants are expected to start three right-handers in a row. We know the towering moonshots Olson is capable of, especially pulling to right field. But more than anything individual, the A’s need to at least win the series against a Giants team that shouldn’t be able to match up.