In late July, as the 2020 Major League Baseball season started amid the pandemic, Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond found himself standing on his eight-acre property in Sarasota, Fla.
Palmetto bushes had overtaken much of the land. Desmond, who had opted out of the season, was home in the summer for the first time in 12 years. He decided to take on the stubborn fronds.
When he wasn’t working in the yard, he helped his children learn to ride his neighbor’s horses. Desmond’s middle son, Cruz, loved riding so much that he opted out of spring baseball so he could learn to rodeo instead.
“Ian is a person who is always outside, always doing something,” Chelsey Desmond said of her husband. “He doesn’t do well with idle time.”
From August to November, Desmond, 35, helped coach his sons’ youth baseball team (his three sons: Grayson, Cruz and Ashton — 9, 8 and 6 — were on the same squad), which won its first championship. On Sept. 15, the Desmonds welcomed their fifth child, and second daughter, Naomi, into the world. Their daughter Dakota was born in 2019.
Desmond, who hit 20 home runs in 2019 and was an All-Star in 2012 and 2016, took control of his story. In detailing last June why he would not be playing the 2020 season, giving up a prorated salary of $5.5 million, he posted a lengthy reflection on Instagram. It focused on his experience of growing up biracial and spoke of how the police killing of George Floyd had stirred memories of his own brushes with systemic racism; it also explained his desire to be with his children as they navigated national conversations about racial justice.
His post also included a call to action for himself, which he answered in December, when he announced the start of Newtown Connection, a charity he helped found that uses baseball as a tool for holistic development for underserved youth in Sarasota. Then, in February, he said he was opting out of the 2021 season “for now” as well. He stands to lose as much as $8 million this time, if he sits out the entire season.
Growing Up Biracial
Desmond grew up in Sarasota. His parents met in the Northeast, then moved to Florida before he was born. His mother, Pattie Paradise, is white, and his father, Wesley Desmond, was Black, which did not sit well with his mother’s family, Desmond said.
When he was 18 months, and his sister, Nikki, was 3, their father died unexpectedly. Paradise worked two jobs, sometimes three, to take care of them. She married Chris Charron, who is white, when Ian was 5. (The couple divorced 13 years later.)
The family lived in a mostly white neighborhood. When Nikki and Ian were in elementary school, their mother transferred them to a private, Catholic school, where they were among the few students of color. Ian said he learned later that the school held a meeting with the student body to announce that he and Nikki would be enrolling. “They had to prepare the kids and say, ‘Hey, there are some Black kids coming, biracial kids,’” Desmond said.
Their family didn’t talk a lot about race. Paradise and Charron had two more children. “Our sister is eight years younger than me, and people would ask her, ‘Why do your brother and sister have brown skin?’” Nikki said.
Ian played soccer, with mostly white teammates and opponents. Nikki participated in gymnastics, which was mostly white as well. “It’s fair to say that my sister and I identified as white,” Ian Desmond said. “We knew we were biracial, but we just kind of felt like one with the white community.”
Still, he encountered racial profiling. As a young teenager, he was heading to a Sports Authority when he saw a woman approaching the entrance. He hurried over to hold the door open for her. Instead of thanking him, she clutched her purse.
“I was like, ohhh,” Desmond said. “It was really nothing to me, but at the same time it was like, man, this lady thought I was going to rob her.”
He was never quite sure how to fill out “race” on a questionnaire. Was he white? Yes. Was he Black? Yes.
“The biggest part for me … it’s the identity,” Desmond said. “You think about the literal time where you have to fill out that box. It’s that feeling of being on an island and not knowing which way to paddle off — where are you? Where do you fit?”
Rather than vocalize those questions, he suppressed them. He channeled his energy and emotions into sports, which he approached with a quiet intensity.
Paradise, his mother, was a hairstylist, but she never cut her son’s hair into a fade, which one of his baseball coaches noticed. One afternoon, the coach, who is Black, went to Desmond’s house and gave him his first one. “I remember it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my first fade!” Desmond said. “OK, now I know!”
When Desmond was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the third round in 2004 at age 18, he found himself most at ease with the Latino players. He still hung out with white and Black players, and became “amphibious,” he said, transforming to be like whichever group he was with. That skill helped him become a leader in clubhouses, with an ability to jump from circle to circle.
“That’s the life of someone who is biracial,” Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer, who is also biracial, said. “It helps you connect with people from different walks of life, not even just race. You’ve always been a little different in your own regard, and you’ve found a way to adapt. It might be a little tough when you’re young, but as you age you realize. That fully helped me.”
Using His Platform
When the pandemic truncated spring training in 2020, the Desmonds flew home from Arizona and waited to see what would happen. Baseball writers had reached out to Desmond — one of the few Black American players on the Rockies’ roster — after the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. As the racial justice movements around the country grew, Desmond had more conversations and reflected on his experiences more candidly than before.
“That’s when he really started talking about situations that had happened to him that I didn’t know about,” Nikki said.
On May 22, Antwuan Roach, 18, was fatally shot in Washington. Desmond had met Roach through the Washington Nationals’ youth baseball academy, where he mentored and befriended him when he was 12. Roach had earned his high school equivalency diploma and enrolled in a job training program.
“That really hit me hard,” Desmond said. “You wonder, ‘Were there other opportunities I may have missed out on to make an impact in his life?’”
Three days later, Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis. Again, reporters reached out. Desmond wanted to respond, but not by holding a news conference where journalists pulled out one or two quotes from a 45-minute session.
He called Amanda Comak Zrebiec, a former Nationals beat writer whom he had befriended, and asked her to help him articulate his thoughts. The two had several video conversations; as he talked, she took notes. The resulting post received over 43,000 likes and numerous comments of appreciation for his candor about being biracial.
Days later, Desmond was talking to a neighbor, Vince Northfield, who had retired from business at age 53. ‘How can I get something started?’ Desmond said. The two began meeting frequently, inside one of their barns, and texted and emailed with ideas when they weren’t together. Northfield paired his business and strategy acumen with Desmond’s vision.
Using the Nationals’ academy as a template, the two men established a partnership with the local Boys & Girls Club. They found facilities, supplies and volunteers and worked within pandemic parameters to plan safe, effective programming.
Newtown Connection, run through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, officially began operating this month. Standing on a field in the spring Florida sun, Desmond, Northfield and several volunteer coaches led close to 70 children in physical-education-style games like freeze tag and hula hoop. Using bean bags instead of baseballs, they introduced the game to children, many who had never played it. They described healthy eating habits, handed out snacks of bananas and apples, and talked about the word of the day: “respect.”
The twice-a-week programming will extend through the year (The Player’s Alliance donated bats, balls and gloves, for when the group graduates to using baseballs for drills), and Desmond’s ultimate goal is to create a template that other organizations can replicate around the country in connecting with and positively impacting youth, while also expanding diversity in exposure to baseball.
“You meet people who profess about family or philanthropy, but don’t actually follow through,” Northfield said. “Ian does it for real. It comes from the heart. You can see the way he helps and engages with people.”
‘We Need to Have More Conversations’
Chelsey and Ian Desmond met in the fifth grade. They were a couple, as much as two children are at 11, and “dated” until high school, when they were just friends. (They reconnected as a couple when Ian was in the minors.) On a basketball court one afternoon, Chelsey, who is white, teased him about how cocky he was. She hadn’t been around anyone as confident and hard-working as Ian, she said, and she mistook that for cockiness. “When he sets his mind to do something, there is literally no stopping him,” she said. “He applies that to everything in his life, even if it’s just a tiny goal.”
Another of Desmond’s goals that emerged in 2020 was to encourage conversations about race and culture. He posted more frequently about racial justice on Instagram, whether it was defining racism and oppression or encouraging followers to “eat one meal this weekend in a restaurant on the opposite side of town.”
When Chelsey and Ian Desmond told their oldest son about Floyd’s killing, Grayson wondered if the same thing could happen to him.
“That was like a light bulb moment for us,” she said. “Of course, we want them to learn that it’s not what’s on the outside but what’s on the inside that counts. But avoiding it and not having the conversation is just as bad.”
Nikki and Ian Desmond grew up without any connection to their father’s side of the family, which included their great-aunt Viola Desmond, a Canadian civil rights activist whose image is on the Canadian $10 bill. In the past year, Desmond has reconnected with his father’s family, including his uncle Charles Desmond, chief executive of the largest children’s savings account initiative in Massachusetts and a civic and community organizer.
Learning about his family’s culture and background has helped Desmond shape his own conversations and narratives, as he encourages more thoughtful discussions of inclusivity in baseball and everyday lives. “If we are headed to a world of equality and acceptance and inclusiveness … will our world not be biracial?” Desmond said.
“We need more people like Ian to not only speak up, but to be brave enough to listen,” said Ryan Zimmerman, a former teammate of his whose work with a personal foundation was an inspiration to Desmond. “Ian would legitimately go out to dinner with that person who didn’t agree with him. He’s such a calm, sensible person who honestly wants to know what other people think. At a time like this, that might be one of the best character traits you can have.”
Desmond said he loves living in Florida because of the cultural freedoms. He can wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat one day; he can put on skater shoes and head to the skate park the next. He can play orchestral music while driving his children to school and take them to a rodeo afterward.
It is the experiences of the past year, he said, that have helped him be fully comfortable as himself — no conformity necessary. “I’ve accepted that I am an eclectic guy who likes to do a lot of different things and I don’t need to fit into any box,” Desmond said.
“I create my own box.”