VIERA, Fla. -- Ian Desmond has worn the No. 6 on the back of his jersey from the moment the Nationals first called him up to the big leagues in Sept. 2009. Why? "Because that's just the number clubhouse manager Mike Wallace gave me," Desmond said. "I never had any connection with it."
Desmond, though, didn't feel it was appropriate to be requesting a specific uniform number while still a rookie, or even during his second full season in the majors last year. It wasn't until this winter that the 26-year-old shortstop felt he had his foot "all the way through the door" as a big leaguer and thus was comfortable asking to make a switch.
So it is that Desmond, after 329 career games as No. 6 for the Nationals, has suddenly become No. 20 for the Nationals.
And why No. 20? Because a pair of former athletic greats who are special to Desmond wore that number: Frank Robinson and Barry Sanders.
Robinson, in particular, means a lot to the shortstop. When an 18-year-old Desmond was given a chance to play in a few spring training games in 2005, Robinson took him under his wing. The Hall of Famer and former manager went so far as to bring Desmond to Washington for the Nationals' first-ever exhibition game at RFK Stadium, and drive him to the ballpark.
"He was the first one, really, to believe in me and guide me," Desmond said today. "I still stay in touch with him. He was a good mentor to me."
Even though the Nationals never formally honored Robinson, the organization hadn't given out Robinson's uniform number after his stint as manager ended following the 2006 season for several years. They finally gave No. 20 to second baseman Adam Kennedy in 2010, though it was unused again last season.
So, did Desmond call Robinson and seek his blessing before requesting the number from Wallace?
"No," Desmond said. "He probably would have said: 'You better start hitting some homers before you take that number!'"
Sanders, the former Lions running back, also was a favorite of Desmond's when he was younger.
"One of the only football players I ever idolized," he said. "One of the only athletes that I ever really idolized as a kid. So I figured it would be a nice thing to do."
Desmond wasn't the only Nationals player to switch up numbers this winter. Double-play mate Danny Espinosa has switched from No. 18 to No. 8 (which he wore in college and the minors).
"That's my number," Espinosa said. "I want to take over 8."
Newly acquired pitcher Edwin Jackson, meanwhile, will make some history of his own as the first Nationals player ever to wear No. 33 in a regular-season game. That number had been unofficially retired for former Senators slugger Frank Howard (though minor-league first baseman Larry Broadway did wear it during the spring of 2005).
Jackson wore No. 36 last year with the Cardinals, but that number was already taken in Washington by reliever Tyler Clippard. He's worn No. 33 in the past and requested it, so after receiving permission from principal owner Mark Lerner, Wallace gave out Howard's old number for the first time.