It was actually a little surprising to hear the man responsible for creating the popular #steak hashtag that has become a part of so many Nationals fans' in-game conversations say that he initially balked at the idea of embracing social media, especially considering the presence he's established since embracing the possibilities it provides for interaction between players and fans.
But Ian Desmond (@IanDesmond20) wanted nothing to do with Twitter when he was originally asked about starting an account.
"Back in 2012, my agent was trying to get me on Twitter and at the time I was like, 'Man, that's the last thing I want to do,'" Desmond recalled.
He came around, however, when he realized the possibilities the platform provided.
"After a few days, the company [my agent] hired to run it was putting out tweets and I was like, this is not how I want to be portrayed to the public. So I just took it over and [hoped] I could do some good with it. It started out very slow, kind of learning how to do things."
His growing interest in social media started Desmond on a path that led to him meeting Ethan Brown.
"I started following this feed called Unashamed Athletes," the Nats' shortstop recounted, "and a prayer request came across the board this one time for a kid named Ethan Brown. He was talking about how he needed prayers so I just kind of responded back to him, not knowing what his problems were and I just kind of said, 'Hey, keep on going and people out here are praying for you.'"
"I came to find out he has NF2 [Neurofibromatosis Type 2]," Desmond said. "Which is a little bit stronger than the regular Neurofibromatosis, probably a little more serious. So we became friends. He lives in South Carolina -- he showed up [in] Atlanta -- that was the first time I'd ever met him, at the cage, underneath the stadium with his mom and dad, Rick and Jan."
It didn't take long for Ian and Ethan to become friends.
"The first time I ever met him we kicked it off," Desmond explained in an interview last week. "I introduced myself to him, I said, 'Hey you know, I'm Ian' and shook his hand. He has a tumor on or near his hand or wrist, and I went up to him to shake his hand and he started yelling 'Oww, oww!" and his mom and dad looked and I freaked out. Like, 'Oh my gosh, what did you just do?' I'd never had a relationship with anyone that's had any tumors growing on their body, but all of the sudden he was just like, 'I got ya!' So that was when I knew that this kid has got something special."
Desmond said there were no role models from his youth, no players who provided an example of how a professional athlete interacts with fans, or celebrities he sought to emulate when he started interacting with people he met through social media. He discovered on his own that he could have a positive impact on people's lives and use the platform a major league career provided to do some good.
"When I was younger, I've never had in my life a favorite team really in any sport -- football, baseball, whatever," Desmond said. "I always just kind of watched the guys playing on TBS or WGN, whoever was playing the Cubs or White Sox or playing the Braves. So I never really had a favorite player or role model per se. I just kind of picked the guys I appreciated and respected their game. This isn't necessarily about trying to be somebody else or imitate the path somebody else took in their career. This is about me trying to use my platform for good. There are a lot of athletes out there that don't necessarily focus on the impact they can have. And this is something I want to take advantage of."
Through his interactions with Ethan and his growing friendship with the 20-year-old now-former Atlanta Braves fan, Desmond saw a way he could try to make a difference.
"I personally had never heard of NF, or NF2, or anything," he admitted. "It’s probably been a year of knowing Ethan and talking to his parents and stuff like that to really get the facts about NF. And the goal for me is awareness."
"NF to me, and I’m sure to a lot of people, is something that they’ve never heard of," Desmond continued.
He's trying to change that. May is Neurofibromatosis Awareness Month.
Desmond, working with the Nationals and the people who run the Nats Archive site, set up an Indiegogo campaign page through which he's working to raise funds for the Children's Tumor Foundation at Ethan's suggestion.
"My goal is to just get this out," Desmond said. "I want to spread the word about this thing and hopefully it can rally some people behind us. If we reach one person that can make a difference in these people who are suffering from this disease, that would be more than enough for me. And obviously, raising some money for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. The Children’s Tumor Foundation is the first organization to reach out to Ethan when he was in his time of need early on when he found out he was diagnosed with this, so I asked him, 'Is there a foundation that you feel is close to your heart that I can help?' And he told me CTF was the first one to reach out to him. So, you know, that speaks volumes."
In the two years since he first started his Twitter account, met Ethan and decided that he would try to do something positive with the platform his on-field skills have provided him, Desmond's opinion of the power of social media has changed.
"At first, it’s obviously very intimidating," he said. "You see the negative side effects of social media so often. The side of it that I love is the fact that I can basically paint my own picture of how I want people to see me. I want people to see the real me. Athletes and celebrities, they don’t often get the opportunity to tell people who they really are through the media. I have the opportunity to have an unbelievable platform, not only through baseball, but through social media as well to really paint a picture of myself to do the things that I want to do where I can control it. So, I have embraced Twitter and social media a little bit. I’m no pro, by any means. I don’t have a million followers, but the [fifty some thousand followers] I do have, I appreciate all of them, and even in times of trial, they support me. It’s a very special relationship we’ve got."
Though he was clear throughout the interview last week that he didn't want the story that came from the conversation to be about him, Desmond said he is aware, because of what Ethan and his family have told him, of what a positive impact he's already had on other people's lives.
"They are extremely grateful," he said. "Not only for this work that we've done, also my relationship with Ethan, but I tell them every single time this is absolutely my pleasure. This is not something I'm doing out of sympathy or anything like that. I truly enjoy our conversations and I really consider Ethan a close friend at this time.
"This is not a charity thing that I'm doing. Unfortunately, the way we were brought together was through this disease, but I've created a real friend out of this. And Ethan and his family are great. They are supportive of the Nationals and these are Braves people first and we've converted them."
The goal of the Indiegogo campaign is to raise both money for The Children's Tumor Foundation and awareness of the impact NF has on more than two million people worldwide.
"There is hardly anybody that I've ever come across on the street that would be able to tell me what NF is," Desmond said, "and that is something that I would like to change."