The relationship between teammates is often close, but for Pittsburgh Pirates outfielders Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, it goes a bit further than that. Both were born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, just three years apart. Both signed with the Pirates as teens, with the older Marte preceding Polanco through the farm system to arrive in the majors in 2012. When Polanco debuted two years later, Marte was there to greet his countryman to the majors.
As close as teammates can be, perhaps nothing prepared Polanco for Marte’s 80-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. ESPN’s Marly Rivera sat down with the young Pirates outfielder to talk about the suspension, its impact on the Pirates and on the relationship between Polanco and Marte.
Can you describe how you felt when you found out about Marte’s suspension?
Polanco: It was something that really surprised me. It hurt tremendously. It affected me. It’s still affecting me. I talk to Starling every day, and to listen to him and talk to him hurts a lot because he’s like a brother to me. It’s very painful not only for me, but also for the team. It affects the team mentally and also on the field, because Marte is a five-tool player. He can do it all on the field. All. So [his absence] affects the team. I’m going to try to give him strength and I’ll always be supporting him, because he made a mistake, but now has to move forward. He is going to comply with his suspension and he will come back healthy, and most importantly, strong.
I tell him to keep his head up and accept his responsibility. And he already has. He told me that he will comply and that he will prepare to come back and help us as he always has when his suspension is over.
What has been the hardest part?
Polanco: The most difficult thing is not to see him here every day; that joy Marte has, he’s a very happy person. I have never seen him angry. Not seeing him here, it’s been a few days since we’ve been able to see him here. His presence is very important. That for me is the most difficult part. Also, that feeling of knowing that your brother is not here, because of his mistake, and that is extremely difficult for me and for the team. And also to think about his family, those people back there in Villa Mella [a very poor community near Santo Domingo], who love us so much, what they are going through right now, that for me is the most difficult thing.
How do you deal with the disappointment and the headlines that Marte let down the Pirates?
Polanco: It is very hard for me to see so many people who write to me on social media, and to hear those things, too. I have even seen things that people have said, not only about him, but also about me, that ‘since you are brothers, I bet you’re [doing that], too.’ People who have no love for one another, who don’t have any feelings, who have no heart. I have seen many things that people say, terrible things, this, that and the other, many things. So I’d rather stay away from social media. I try to clear my mind and not think too much about it, because it is something that [brings] too many negative thoughts and this is the beginning of the season and you don’t want that for your career or for your season.
What did Starling tell you?
Polanco: He has been very positive with me. He said, ‘I know this hurts you, it hurts me, because you know how close we are, but try to focus and help the team because you’re a very important part.’ He tells me, ‘Focus and work hard, you can help the team a lot. I know I will not be around you during this period of time, but you still have to focus and work hard and help the team and I will be watching and I will be supporting you wherever I am.’ He said that wherever he is, he will be watching the games and told me to stay focused in what he knows I can do.
Did learning about Marte’s suspension affect you in that series in St. Louis? (The Pirates were there when the suspension was handed down.)
Polanco: I am one of those people that never likes to come out with an excuse, but we really felt the fact that Marte would not be able to play the next two games. He’s a person who impacts the game in many ways. I think it really affected us. But now it’s time to keep our heads up and move on. That series already happened. Nothing else can be done. When St. Louis comes here, or when we go there, we have to play hard and seek revenge.
Drama in the outfield over who was playing where — did it ever have an impact on you?
Polanco: I let everyone do what they do. We are a team and all, but they are the ones who make the decisions as to who’s going play in what position. I am here to play. I want to be in the lineup every day. I will play wherever they put me. That never affected our friendship and communication [between Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Polanco]. Everyone is here to play, happy to play wherever they put us. We are players; that’s what we talked about during spring training when we had a meeting, the three of us.
The three of us had a meeting and told each other that there would not be any problems between any of us. That as long as we’re playing and the three of us are in the lineup, doesn’t matter at all where we play. That we’d give 100 percent without any issues or problems between any one of us. We said, they can make their decisions.
And what about McCutchen saying “this is my spot” after a big catch in center?
Polanco: All’s good, and McCutchen did that because it really was a great catch. I saw him and laughed; I loved that play he made. They are both center fielders. McCutchen has won Gold Glove in center field. That’s been his position. And both are great.
How do you turn the page, knowing that even if you do make the playoffs, Starling would not be eligible to play?
Polanco: As [manager Clint Hurdle] said, this hurts us, but we still have a season to play. Even though he’s not here, we still have to play those 80 games. We have to stay positive. We have to give 100 percent because we know our one goal is to make it to the playoffs. Then you have to play. Personally, for me, I don’t know how to answer how I’m going to be able to turn the page, because it’s not going to happen fast just like that. But the manager told us that we have to play and keep going; keep our heads up and prove that we do have the talent necessary to play and move on, even if Marte is not here today.
Did Hurdle’s words help you?
Polanco: Yes, of course, because I was very worried. He brought the team together. Marte also met with all of us and said that even though he won’t be here, the team has to move forward, and that we will continue winning and we will have a good season and when he returns he will help us.
What would you like people to know about Starling Marte?
Starling Marte is a very positive person. I have known him for many years and have never seen him make a bad impression or have a long face. He’s a very joyful person. Very kind. He likes to help a lot and has a really noble heart. Sometimes people have taken advantage of it.
And yes, he may have fallen, and I can’t say what he did or did not do. I have no idea how that could have happened. But I do know that he is a very noble person, a happy person, a family man, who enjoys spending time with his children. I don’t like the terrible things they’re saying about him like that. I understand that he made a mistake, but he’s a human being that has feelings.
I have seen with my own eyes these things, things that no one wants to see, such bad, negative messages. People have to turn the page now and we have to continue playing baseball. I know that his followers really feel cheated, and it hurts, and I understand. I know it’s not so easy, but you have to turn the page. In spite of everything, he is a human being, with feelings, and he feels awful. He feels awful right now and we have to support him.