Baseball offers Marte respite from tragedy
PHOENIX -- Starling Marte wears masks.
The visible ones are blue, three-ply and disposable. MLB protocols require them in clubhouses and almost all non-playing settings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Wearing one on the field is not required. Marte, who is from the Dominican Republic -- where the virus has shut down the island -- follows the health directives.
Marte’s other mask, the one not seen, protects his heart. This personal protector is not optional. It defends him from succumbing to the throes of depression and allows him to operate as if everything is normal. He wears it when he is on the field, in the clubhouse and in the dugout.
It’s been two months since Marte, 31, lost his wife, Noelia Brazoban, 32, to a heart attack and the world he once knew changed forever. Shields have helped Marte withstand the hardships he has faced since he was a boy. This time, they could save his life.
“I’m feeling OK,” Marte said in Spanish during a recent interview on life after Noelia. “And I know I’m going to feel better being able to focus on something else.”
Rene Gayo, 57, the son of Cuban refugees and former international scouting director for the Pirates, saw Marte twice in 2006, months before he signed him for $85,000 after a workout in San Pedro de Macoris in ‘07. Marte was tall and lean. He was strong and fast. Sure, he wasn’t the extraordinary shortstop his trainer Ramon “Papiro” Genao said he was. The solution was simple -- just move him to the outfield.
Gayo, who had previously scouted for Cleveland for a decade before joining Pittsburgh in 2004, wanted to sign Marte earlier that summer.
But others in the organization were not convinced.
“I remember asking Papiro why we were there, because the Pirates had seen me a lot and didn’t want me,” Marte said. “And he kept saying, ‘They saw you when you weren’t a real ballplayer. Now, you are a real ballplayer. Every team will want you.’”
In the fast-paced world of international scouting, a delay in consensus could be fatal to a prospect’s career. It almost derailed Marte’s path. Then, fate intervened when a film crew from a Pittsburgh television station traveled to the Dominican Republic to film a workout as part of a documentary on the team’s operations on the island. Marte threw a wrinkle in everyone’s plans by showing up. He wasn’t invited.
“I’m in the outfield getting interviewed by these camera people and all of a sudden I hear a bunch of screaming and yelling,” Gayo said. “So, I tell the American camera guys ‘I’ll be right back,’ and I go see what’s going on. And it’s our guys and Starling’s trainer yelling at each other in Spanish. Our guys are telling them, ‘We don’t want him there because we have seen him,’ and his trainer keeps insisting we see him again. I look up in the stands and Starling has his hands on his face crying. I’m like, ‘We can’t have any drama. The Americans are here to film us!’ I yelled at Starling to get into the outfield get ready to work.”
That’s when Marte’s tears stopped rolling and the cameras started shooting. The teen’s superb running, throwing, and hitting abilities were almost off the charts. The kids watching the tryouts moved from the stands to the grass, where they cheered his every move.
It didn’t take an expert to realize Marte had something special.
“You could have put a glass of water on his head and it wouldn't have spilled,” Gayo recalled. “That’s just how graceful a runner he was. If he’s born in America, he's a running back and going pro, not playing baseball.”
It’s customary for scouts to use a 20-80 grading scale when evaluating players. A score of 50 serves as the average and an 80 is considered elite. Marte blew the evaluators away with 80-grade throwing, running and hitting potential. His below-average showing at shortstop was the primary reason he didn’t sign with a team until he was 18, two years after most top teens in the Dominican sign. A switch in representation also slowed down the signing process.
But in many ways, the timing could not have been better.
“We were expecting to see five kids, and I think 25 showed up for the workout,” said AT&T SportsNet anchor Rob King, who was on site in San Pedro de Macoris and played a key role in producing the documentary. “I remember Rene saying, ‘If they are going to show up and be here, I might as well watch them perform.’ And it was one of the highlights of my career. Starling was like a lightning bolt out of the sky. You have a better chance of finding a pearl in an oyster than to go that workout, have somebody be signed and that person wind up to be Starling Marte. It was just amazing.”
Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, Marte’s teammate in Pittsburgh from 2012-16, is certain D-backs fans and new Arizona teammates are going to fall in love with his old buddy. Marte is “one of a kind,” McCutchen said.
“I was in the dugout with him in Houston during his big league debut [in 2012], and he looked at me and winked,” McCutchen said. “He says, ‘I’m going to swing and I’m going to hit a home run in my first at-bat.’ And what do you know? He hits a homer. Right then, you knew he was going to be somebody that could play, but also somebody that enjoyed the game. You need that on a team. Every team needs somebody like that who doesn’t take everything so seriously all of the time.”
During his eight seasons in Pittsburgh, Marte sported a .287 batting average with 108 homers, 420 RBIs and 239 stolen bases in 953 games. He established career highs last season with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs. He also hit .295 and stole 25 bases in his second straight 20-homer, 20-steal season and his seventh consecutive season with at least 20 stolen bases.
Marte’s 120 league-adjusted OPS+ in 2019 was his best since '14. His 70 assists from 2013-19 lead all Major League outfielders during that period.
“Arizona is going to see somebody who can quite frankly really do it all,” McCutchen said. “He can do any and everything, and he can do it in a way that I just go, ‘Man, that was amazing.’ He just a lot of fun to watch.”
Marte might be best known for the game-winning home run in the ninth inning against the Cubs at Wrigley Field that propelled the Pirates to the postseason for the first time in 21 years in 2013. He won consecutive Gold Gloves in 2015 and ’16, and he was named to the National League All-Star team that season. His rising star dimmed in 2017, when he received an 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
“A lot happened to me in Pittsburgh -- a lot good and some not good,” Marte said. “They treated me well, and they gave me a chance to be exposed to the world. It was sad to leave, but I’m grateful for the opportunity. You just have to move on.”
In January, the Pirates traded Marte to the D-backs for a pair of emerging, 19-year-old prospects -- shortstop Liover Peguero and right-hander Brennan Malone -- and $250,000 in additional international bonus pool money in a cost-cutting measure and unofficial rebuild. Pittsburgh also sent $1.5 million to Arizona to cover part of Marte's $11.5 million salary for 2020. The six-year deal he signed in 2014 includes a $12.5 million club option or a $2 million buyout for 2021.
Marte should feel right at home in Arizona. He is expected to patrol center field with David Peralta in left field and Kole Calhoun -- who played with Marte for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League -- in right field. For his career, Marte boasts a slash line of .403/.429/.657 with 10 doubles, two triples and one home run in 15 career games at Chase Field.
“I know he sees the ball well in Arizona and he rakes there, absolutely rakes at Chase,” said former Pirates teammate Gregory Polanco, who like Marte is from the Dominican city of Villa Mella. “The people there are going to see that he is the same guy with the same energy if he is 0-for-10 or 8-for-10. He’s just so relaxed that it makes you feel relaxed.”
What the D-backs also get in Marte is a complex man with a cornucopia of interests.
Marte taught himself to play piano, but he has no real interest in formal lessons. He enjoys making fitness videos, high fashion and the finer things afforded to millionaire ballplayers. But he also loves the simpler life. He works out at the beach and dives into the Caribbean in between reps. His favorite pastime is swimming in the pool with his kids. Yes, he can sometimes dress head to toe in luxury labels, and he dreams of getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari. But he’s also never forgotten about his humble roots on the island those who know him best still live.
Marte grew up in Villa Mella. It’s where he met his beloved Noelia.
He may live in Arizona. But Villa Mella will always be his home.
“When you get to know Starling and all that he has been through in his life and you see how happy he is on and off the field, you just have to give him a lot respect,” Polanco said. “He's just such a positive person and that’s why he and Noelia made such a good match. She was the same way. You walk into their house and you feel the love and positivity.”
The municipality of Villa Mella, a blue-collar hard-working town, is about five miles north of the capital. Technically, it’s part of the greater Santo Domingo metropolitan area, but it’s more rural than urban.
It’s best known for its crop of big leaguers like Marte and Polanco, along with dozens of other pro ballplayers. It’s also home to the Dominican baseball academy for the Oakland A’s – and it is known for having some of the best fried pork belly on the island, known locally as chicharrones.
Marte and Noelia both grew up in Villa Mella. They met as teenagers in 2007 at the clothing store where Noelia worked.
Marte was a budding baseball talent, confident and charming. Noelia was delightful and friendly, but also very savvy. Wason Brazoban, one of her five older brothers, was once a Minor League prospect with the Giants, so Noelia knew all about the game players play. Wason never made it out of baseball’s lower levels, but his backup plan served him well. The former prospect is among the most famous singers and songwriters from the island.
The romance between Starling and Noelia began in earnest a few years later. The couple married in 2012, and the next year, they welcomed Smerling, their first child together. Their daughter Tiana was born in ‘16. Marte also has two other children, including his oldest son, Starling Jr.
After having children, Noelia ran a nail salon and a lending business, while juggling the kids’ school schedules and managing Marte’s calendar. But it was her role as the family matriarch that she valued the most.
“People that know her would say she was full of love and compassion. Very humble,” Marte said. “Her husband is a professional player and her brother is a famous musician, but she always stayed the same and never let things go to her head. Just a good person, always helping others.”
The couple saw each other every day during the final months of her life with the Dominican Republic on lockdown because of the coronavirus. Noelia was quarantined at home, but she was far from isolated. Her family life was her best life.
Then, it unexpectedly all came to an end.
Noelia fractured her ankle in mid-May and had a heart attack in the hospital while waiting on surgery. She was buried the next day. Marte announced her death on his social media. The heart attack was related to the broken ankle, Marte said. He has chosen not to elaborate publicly.
“We are all living day-to-day with this tragedy,” Marte said. “God’s plans are perfect, and in the moment, you might not understand what’s happening, but I understand in time that the deep pain in my heart will subside and I will be better.”
A grief-stricken Marte wanted to retire after Noelia’s death. Members of his church persuaded him to reconsider. Besides, baseball -- especially in the time of COVID-19 with all of its protocols, safety measures and uncertainty -- was a welcomed distraction. It was a chance to put on his baseball mask.
“What can you say when something like this happens? There are just certain things in life when you can’t say anything because words don’t capture it,” Gayo said. “Anybody who has lost someone knows that the key to life to is getting past what you will never get over. And that’s what he is trying to do now. He’s trying to get past what he will never get over.”
Friends and family across baseball check on Marte daily. His support group also includes his new D-backs family, who have offered and provided a variety of services since Noelia’s death, led by Junior Noboa, the club’s vice president of Latin American operations. D-backs managing general partner Ken Kendrick sent his private plane to the Dominican to pick up Marte and teammate Ketel Marte, who is not related to Starling, when Summer Camp began earlier this month. In 2017, Kendrick had flown Ketel Marte and members of Arizona’s front office to the Dominican Republic when the infielder’s mother Elpidia Valdez died in car accident.
“The one thing that we have done over the course of the past several weeks is express how much he means to us and that we love him,” D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said. “I'm sure there are some emotional wounds that are still healing. And we want to continue to show that support for him.”
Marte is honest with himself. He admits he’s still learning how to cope with being alone and navigate the challenges that come with being a single parent. He’s also drawing on his own experience with death. Marte was raised by his grandmother and aunts after his mother died when he was 9. With the help of a child psychologist, he’s learned how to answer questions about Noelia’s death when his children ask about their mother.
“I lost my mother, but this feels different. I was just a kid,” he said. “Now, I’m an adult and I understand what this loss means to me and the kids. They don’t understand and everything reminds them of her, but we are all working together to go forward.”
The D-backs will open the season against the Padres on July 24 in an empty Petco Park in San Diego on Friday. Marte will be in center field and if he has his way, that’s where he will be for all 60 games. He’ll smile and laugh. Hit and run. On the field, he’ll show no signs that his world has been flipped upside down off of it.
He’ll have a mask on.