Pirates' Marte proving to be a Dominican dynamo
By Bob Cohn
Published: Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 10:41 p.m.
To watch Starling Marte fill outfield gaps with line drives, chew up the base paths and generally liven up the proceedings, it is hard to believe the first Pirates scout who saw him play was left cold.
“He didn't like him enough to sign him,” Rene Gayo said.
Gayo, the club's longtime Latin American scouting director, was speaking of the Dominican Republic supervisor who worked for him. Marte, a skinny 18-year-old, had not distinguished himself in the field. That's because he was playing the wrong position.
“He played shortstop, and he wasn't very good at it,” Gayo said, noting that he did not think Marte displayed the necessary “timing.”
Gayo, however, not only had an eye for Marte's talent but also his potential. And because of that, the Pirates today have a lithe, athletic left fielder with a big arm and expansive range, a speedy leadoff hitter with pop and an aggressive base runner who in his first full season is helping spark the club's resurgence with his production, passion and energy.
“There's a lot of good things going on,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Marte.
Few would have envisioned this after the original evaluation of Marte. Gayo said he delegates responsibilities to a 24-member staff in nine countries and trusts its judgments. If a player gets red-flagged, he said, Gayo usually accepts it and moves on. But not this time.
Late in 2006, Gayo was watching about 40 baseball-crazed teenagers harboring big dreams work out on a field in Santo Domingo. Marte, already rejected by the Pirates, happened to be out there again.
“I say, ‘He's not a shortstop. Take him to the outfield and tell him to make some throws,' ” Gayo recalled. “And then we're seeing these bazooka blasts that you're seeing now.”
Then Gayo saw Marte run.
“I'm thinking, ‘Wow, I haven't seen anything so beautiful in my life,' ” he said. “It looks like his feet weren't touching the ground.”
And then Marte grabbed a bat.
“He's spreading line drives all over the field,” Gayo said.
He had seen enough. Gayo approached Marte's buscon, Ramon Genao, better known as Papiro. A buscon represents young Dominican players as coaches and agents. Some lend guidance off the field and even serve as father figures. Marte and Genao remain close.
“What do you want?” Gayo said he asked Genao.
Genao told Gayo the White Sox offered Marte $75,000. Replied Gayo, “You've got 85 (thousand) from me.”
And that was it. After a physical, background checks and paperwork, Starling Marte on Jan. 4, 2007 officially joined the Pirates organization.
Finding his way
He hit .220 in 45 games during his first season in the Dominican Summer League — “the most expensive batboy in the league,” Gayo said — but now, at 24, with a chiseled body welded to a 6-foot-2 frame, Marte is a high-spirited talent making significant contributions while still learning the strike zone and other finer points. Last season, he homered on the first big league pitch he saw.
“He's making adjustments,” Gayo said. “Better things are coming.”
Marte, the first major leaguer from the Pirates' Dominican academy, still remembers the day on that Santo Domingo ballfield more than 61⁄2 years ago.
“When (Genao) told me the Pirates were going to see me again, I told him they already saw me and they weren't going to be interested again,” Marte, whose English is improving, said through a translator, bullpen catcher Herbie Andrade.
“And then he told me, ‘They haven't seen you like you are right now.' I was just training before. I was a shortstop. (Gayo) told me to go to the outfield. I threw from the outfield, I hit, and I ran, and it was the best day of my life because everything came out good. Everything was perfect.”
Marte had lived with his grandmother in Los Alcarrizos, a city of about 260,000 located in the Santo Domingo province, after his mother died when he was 9. He speaks with great affection about his grandmother but does not know her full name. She is simply called Ponga, he said.
Marte's favorite player was Vladimir Guerrero, who, like Marte, was known to chase a wayward pitch or two. In addition to baseball, Marte played sockball, which pretty much is the way it sounds. In some interviews over the years, Marte, who has two younger sisters, said he grew up poor, and Gayo supported that contention. But recently, Marte disavowed the word.
“I wasn't poor,” he said. “Where I lived it was not like that. The streets, the roads, the houses are good.”
“You have to remember, his outlook on poor, and yours and mine, are different,” said Gayo, whose parents are Cuban. “I grew up in the United States. There are projects in the U.S. that are nicer than where he grew up.”
After paying Genao his share of the $85,000, Marte said he was eager to help his family. He still sends money back home. Along with Ponga and his sisters, Marte's father, Ramon, is there, too. So is his son, Starling Jr., who lives with his mother. Marte is married to a Dominican woman named Noelia, whom he met through a cousin. The couple is expecting its first child in September.
“I try to have fun,” said Marte, who makes no effort to hide the joy he gets from playing. “Baseball is not my life. My family's my life. But I play hard.”
Marte said “things are getting better” off the field as he continues to learn English. In 2008, he left home for the first time to play in the Florida Instructional League.
“It was hard not only being homesick but the also the language,” he said. “But meeting other Latino players, I felt more comfortable.”
One of those players was the Pirates' first-round draft pick that year, a bilingual third baseman who grew up in New York City but was born in the Dominican. Pedro Alvarez said he did what he could to help Marte get acclimated.
“He was just real raw,” Alvarez said. “Kind of like he is now. He still has a lot to improve. He's got a lot of talent. He's just a young kid who has amazing tools.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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