Starling Marte was a fast comer for the Pirates, making his Major League debut in late July after only 3 1/2 months of Triple-A experience.But as far as he's concerned, it wasn't fast enough. Move up his clock one year, advancing his first time in the Bucs' Spring Training camp to 2011, and he could have rubbed shoulders in Bradenton, Fla., with his idol. How cool would that have been? Marte and Vladimir Guerrero, the future and past of Dominican Republic baseball, rubbing shoulders on the same field? "The player I've always looked up to was Vladimir Guerrero. I followed him, and he's the type of player I wanted to grow up to be," Marte said through his interpreter, Pirates first-base coach Luis Silverio.
Marte has grown up -- from the skinny 18-year-old the Bucs signed 5 1/2 years ago to a muscular six-foot tool chest -- and he may very well be on his way to being the type of player Guerrero was for 16 seasons.But since there hasn't been a 17th season for Guerrero, who bowed out with a strong season for the Orioles in 2011, Marte missed out on meeting him as a peer. "I understand that we belonged to different times and [playing against him in a Major League game] isn't going to happen. But no matter what, he'll still be my hero," said Marte, who hopes his fantasy will yet be fulfilled this offseason. Offseason for the Majors, that is. Marte plans to play winter ball in his native country, and he recently heard a rumor that excited him. "I heard that Vladimir Guerrero will play winter ball, and that might be the time when we both could be in the same stadium at the same time." Marte's admiration of Guerrero has two levels, but only the universal could be obvious: Guerrero was an all-around threat -- speed, high average, power bat, glove and arm -- and Marte aspires to be the same package. But there is also a provincial level: Guerrero belonged to the early-'90s wave of players who blazed a wide trail for players from Latin America. He was far from being a pioneer, but he was part of an impact core that led to the proliferation of Hispanics in organized baseball and encouraged numerous big league organizations to seek and nurture Latin-American players. Such as the Pirates, who have always been among the most proactive clubs in Latin America and renewed their commitment in 2008 with the complete renovation of their Dominican Baseball Academy. Marte is the first Major League graduate of that campus, which offers a refuge from their lives' harsh reality for dozens of kids from impoverished families, who sleep in clean dorms and eat in healthy cafeterias and attend classes, inside and outside batting cages. Marte can never forget where he came from and how he got here. Not even in the aftermath of his otherworldly Major League debut, when he clouted the first pitch thrown him into Minute Maid Park's seats. "I hope what I do helps all the guys in the academy and in my country. I'm doing it for them," Marte said that July 26 night. "I appreciate all the help I received, and I'm looking forward to doing whatever I can for the youngest players in that academy." So he hopes to be doing his little part to lead, the way Guerrero did nearly 20 years ago. The influence of the Guerrero wave is evident in daily box scores, but is even more obvious to young players like Marte in clubhouses from coast to coast, and from the bottom rung of the baseball ladder to the top. "It's definitely a lot easier now, because in every clubhouse and on every Major League team, there are at least two, three Latinos," Marte said. "It's easier to communicate with each other. It's different than it was in the past, when maybe there was only one, and he felt all alone. "Maybe he didn't know the language and didn't have anybody to be with. Now it's much easier, because you always have someone to talk to and hang out with." The teammates may become part of the extended family, but they still aren't the real family, which players like Marte leave behind, and dearly miss, to pursue their baseball dreams. The reference to his parents and to his siblings gets Marte choked up. "It's very tough being away from home and family," he said. "But it's part of the game, and I understand that."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.