Starling Marte was a late arrival to Arizona Diamondbacks summer camp.
He almost didn’t show up at all.
The 31-year-old outfielder was delayed by Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 testing protocols on his way from the Dominican Republic and didn’t arrive in Phoenix until mid-July. After taking the day to get his four kids settled in, he worked out for the first time shortly thereafter.
“I had to wait for all of the tests to come back, but they are all good and I’m ready to go,” he says through a translator in a Zoom call with Diamondbacks reporters after his first practice.
When spring training was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Marte was getting ready to be Arizona’s everyday centerfielder. Everything changed in one tragic week in May. Marte’s wife Noelia broke her ankle, then died of a heart attack while in the hospital awaiting surgery. He announced her death in a May 18 Instagram post, then tried to decide what came next.
“My first thought was I wanted to retire and not play baseball anymore,” Marte’s translator says. “I was processing the tragedy, and I was leaning in that direction. But I had some conversations with some pastors and my friends back home, and I felt a lot more supported.”
The final decision, though, didn’t come until Marte talked things over with his three oldest children, who are 10, 6 and 4. His youngest, a 1-year-old, is also with him.
“I especially felt supported by them when it came to coming back to play,” he says. “This has been the hardest on my oldest, because she spent so much time with her mother.”
Sadly, Marte has some idea what his kids are experiencing. His own mother died when he was 10, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother.
The Diamondbacks sent the team plane to get Marte, fellow outfielder Ketel Marte (no relation) and their families from the Dominican Republic. The teammates discussed playing through tragedy, as Ketel lost his mother in a car accident during the 2017 season.
“He and his wife gave me their condolences, and we talked a lot about our kids,” Starling said. “It’s all about moving forward now and making sure our kids are ready to handle what comes next.”
The Diamondbacks organization, from the owner to the players, has done whatever possible to help a teammate dealing with a tragic loss, even though he’s never played a regular-season game for Arizona.
“We were in regular contact with Starling,” general manager Mike Hazen says. “Obviously, it was a horrible tragedy, so it will be good to have him here and see him again.”
Marte played his first eight major-league seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing in the 2016 All-Star Game and winning a pair of Gold Gloves in the outfield. In January, he was acquired for a pair of minor-league prospects. He’s expected to hit near the top of Torey Lovullo’s lineup, probably in front of power hitters Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar.
Last year, he set career highs in homers (23), RBI (82) and runs (97) while hitting .295 with an .845 OPS. He also stole 25 bases, marking the seventh straight season with at least 20. That’s exactly the kind of hitter the Diamondbacks need at the top of a batting order that needed more runners in 2019.
“I feel really good and really prepared,” he says. “It was tough to get back to training, but I’m going to be ready for the season.”