TEMPE, Ariz.—As a talented young athlete with the goal of playing in the major leagues, Deven Marrero was living an idyllic life in South Florida. His years of practice and dedication had thrust him into the spotlight at an early age, and anyone who saw him play could see a superstar in the making.
It seemed as if the good times would last forever.
And then his world crashed down. In 2009, his father Luis was convicted of five counts of sexual battery, molestation and other charges and is expected to remain in prison until 2025. At the time the ordeal started, Marrero, who has two younger sisters, had graduated from high school and was playing summer ball in Ohio. His mother Dalyn Nye had to make the most difficult phone call of her life, informing her son of what was occurring.
“I really didn’t have to explain it to my girls because they lived it, but I did have to explain it to Deven,” she said. “I basically had to tell him what his father had done, and his father was like his best friend. Deven said, ‘Mom, he tricked me. I wanted to be like him.’
“He really looked up to his dad, so that was very, very difficult . . . One of things he looked up to was not who he thought he was. It broke my heart, but I have to tell you, Deven said to me, ‘Well, I have to be the man now, Mom.’ And I said absolutely. From that moment on, he is nothing but a man.”
The Arizona State shortstop, now 21 years old, fulfilled part of his dream when he was drafted 24th overall in the first round by the Red Sox. He got the news at his home in Florida, where he was spending time with his family, but declined to speak to media.
The work he has ahead to make it to the major leagues—a feat his best friend Eric Hosmer has achieved with the Kansas City Royals—will not be easy. But for years, since his high school days with Hosmer at American Heritage High in Plantation, Fla., and during his Arizona State career, Marrero has shown maturity beyond his years and handled the situation better than anyone could have expected.
Highs And Lows
Marrero’s collegiate career was expected to be nothing short of phenomenal, but the low points often obscured the high points. The coach he thought would be his mentor, Pat Murphy, was removed in an NCAA scandal before Marrero played a game.
One Arizona area scout sees Marrero as having the tools to be an outstanding shortstop, citing a strong arm, soft hands, range and the knack for making an impressive play. He tempers that with a caveat: Marrero at times will mishandle the routine play or make a silly error. He committed 32 the last two seasons as the Sun Devils’ everyday starter.
“We look at that and think if he does that at the next level, we give up runs and might lose the game,” the scout said. “It adds up, which could cause you to lose the division by a few games. Deven came to ASU with high expectations . . . After his freshmen year, things have declined some.”
There is no doubting, however, that the potential is there for Marrero to be a rising star as a pro. The scout and his organizational peers have seen Marrero play at a high level in the Cape Cod League and on USA Baseball’s 2011 College National Team, but remain a bit puzzled as to why he has not had better results in college. That’s also true of his bat; the last two seasons, he has posted on-base plus slugging percentages of .786 and .776. Scouts’ best-case evaluations of Marrero’s bat peg him to peak at .270 with 10 to 15 home runs.
“Overall, he is a good kid with things you love to have,” the scout said. “The unknown makes us cautious—your (first-round) pick should be a future all-star player, an impact performer, and the jury is out on him. There is value in a defensive premium player . . . He may be the only player in this draft that scouts say can stay at shortstop and not be moved to second base or third base.
“Once you have seen something very special is there, the major question is, ‘Can you get that out of him more often? . . . In this business we all take the bad and blow it out of proportion. I took the (opposite) approach . . . and said, ‘What if he does not do the things we have seen at ASU and is motivated, adjusts his swing a bit, then what kind of package do you have? Pretty special MLB player—what if?”
He’s Already Been Tested
Now perhaps on the cusp of joining Hosmer as a fellow major leaguer, Marrero believes the mental toughness he acquired will serve him well. The challenge he overcame was life-changing.
“It helped me become a man,” he said. “It helped me grow up and become a man really early and take responsibility and take care of my family, and that’s one thing that I think I’ve used to my advantage in this game.”
He said his mother, who is an officer with the Miami-Dade police department, has been the biggest influence in his life and has helped him the most “because she’s one strong woman.”
“She’s been on her own for a while, and she’s the person who keeps everything together with my two sisters, and she handles them very well,” he said. “She’s tough, you know, she has tough love and she wants what’s best for us. She’s definitely the heart and soul of our family.”
Marrero credits family and friends with helping him move forward with his life. Topping the latter list is Hosmer, who despite being only one year older, has served as a mentor.
“He’s been my big brother in my life,” Marrero said. “His family has taken me in when I needed it, and they’ve done a lot for me. They definitely have been a big help in my life, and big influences in my life.
“I handle my life very differently than many other people do, and Eric sees that. He sees a real side of me, he sees beyond the baseball skills. He sees the person; that’s pretty cool.”
And for someone who has been as close to Marrero as anyone, respect is a two-way street for Hosmer.
“He’s a person I look up to with all the stuff he’s gone through and how good of a person he is,” he said. “We’re talking about a guy who’s been through a lot and every day you see the same person, he doesn’t change at all. And it’s going to be fun to see who takes him this year (in the draft), because whoever takes him is going to get a guy who’s going to be the leader of their team quick.”
It’s the mental strength Hosmer has seen from Marrero that has allowed him to progress as a player, person and team leader.
“He’s a type of guy that once he gets used to and is comfortable in a situation, guys automatically just feed off of him,” he said. “He just takes over and becomes a leader because people see how he goes about his business and just how good of a person he is, and he immediately takes over.”
Marrero is not just defined by his baseball abilities, Sun Devils coach Tim Esmay said, and that whatever personal hurdles he has overcome only made him stronger.
“He’s defined by being a very well-rounded young man who gets it because life isn’t easy, and there are things you go through on the field, off the field, all those things,” Esmay said. “And he’s been able to really handle all that with first class and he’s been a joy to have in this program.”
Born To Play Short
It was a combination of talent and intangibles, and perhaps the desire for a change of scenery, that led Marrero to Arizona State. Murphy and Josh Holliday, who was the recruiting coordinator at that time, made the pitch Marrero needed to hear.
When Holliday, now an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, first saw Marrero as a 15-year-old, he believed he was looking at a kid “who was born to play shortstop.” Further reinforcing his assessment was the fact that Marrero was on a high school team with talented older players like Hosmer and seemed extremely comfortable at a demanding position.
“I just thought that said a lot about his confidence and presence on the field,” Holliday said. “When I talked to people about him and heard people talk about him, they spoke in terms that very rarely you hear about someone.”
The more Holliday watched him play over the next few years, he saw what dozens of other college scouts did—”a remarkable player any college coach in the country would have told you they would have loved to have.”
Holliday’s early off-the-field impressions of Marrero were that he drew strength from his mother and he appeared to be a youngster who cared deeply about his family.
“I think it says a lot about him,” he said. “I think it tells you really all you need to know. I think at times when things are their worst, you find out then what people are made of, and Deven proved what a strong kid he was.
“He had the courage to move forward and pursue his education, pursue his baseball dreams, the courage to go away from home in order to do that, and I’m just really really happy for him that three years later he’s well on his way toward earning a degree and certainly well on his way toward someday playing in the major leagues.”
Murphy, who is now a minor league manager in the Padres organization, said Marrero’s work ethic foretold his baseball destiny. Murphy also credits the friendships Marrero has developed as a major turning point.
“The people he surrounded himself with . . . a friend like Eric Hosmer, I’ve never seen a friendship work so maturely at that age,” Murphy said. “They’re just great friends and really care for each other in the greatest sense of the word.
“I think having Hosmer and having other friends like that has really helped him through, and I’m sure having the guys in the program that he has, (they) have all rallied around him, they know his story. I think they’ve given him strength, and he’s given them strength.
“It’s a really special deal. Deven’s a special player and a special person.”
Marrero had chances to sign a professional contract coming out of high school—he ranked No. 123 on BA’s Top 200 that year and was the Reds’ 17th-round pick. But he admits he was not mature enough to take the step at that time.
When he arrived in Tempe, it did not take him long to realize he was a perfect fit both for the program and with his teammates, and the 2010 Sun Devils went 52-10 and reached the College World Series. He shared his story with them, and a bond was quickly formed.
“They reacted in a way of like, ‘This is why this kid is who he is, this is why he acts the way he acts, why he goes about his business the way he does,’ ” he said. “They realized that I take my life real serious, and baseball is like my therapy and they all see that I don’t let that affect me or what’s going on the field.
“They’re great about it. They’re are all great guys in this locker room, so it’s cool.”
ASU senior first baseman Abe Ruiz said it was a shock when he and his teammates first learned Marrero’s story. He called his teammate a stand-up person, and that’s one of the reasons underclassmen have looked up to him. He said Marrero is an ideal leader for the Sun Devils and admires how he told the squad about the past and the way he handles himself on the field.
“To see where he’s come from to be where he’s at and to be able to handle all that and still put himself in the position he’s in right now says a lot about his character and who he is,” Ruiz said.
Going To Graduate
Marrero also made sure he had a plan in place beyond baseball, and it borders on the ironic considering his father’s fate.
Several relatives on his mother’s side are involved in law enforcement, and Marrero’s major is criminal justice, a field he says he finds really interesting. He said a discussion with his academic adviser when he began at Arizona State started him on the right path.
“We had it set up to where . . . I have like 20-some credits left, and all those are online, so I can finish up online,” he said. “I’m taking summer classes this year, and I have some in the fall, so I’m going to get it done.”
Getting it done is something everyone expects Marrero to do once he begins his journey toward the major leagues. Hosmer is convinced Marrero will move quickly through the minor leagues, citing his knowledge of the game and how rapidly he can adapt to different situations. His value to a team, Hosmer said, will be widespread.
“Not only do I think he’s going to be a great player for a team, but he’s going to be a great role model for kids in whatever city he gets drafted in,” he said. “Every Little League kid in that city is going to want to play shortstop like Deven Marrero.
“I’m going to be the happiest person there for him because really me and him, baseball-wise, kind of graduated every step, except professional ball together, and he’s definitely ready for the challenge. I think he’s just waiting to get his opportunity, and he’s going to make the most of it.”
Esmay pointed out that the capacity to handle failure—the crux of that being how does someone who is knocked down get back up— is something Marrero has developed.
“That’s what he’s done, not only on the field but in life, he’s been knocked down,” Esmay said. “You got one of two choices—you can either run and hide or you can move forward, and he has that ability to move forward.
“I think his ceiling is tremendously high. He’s one of the better defensive shortstops to come through Arizona State, and that’s saying a lot. A lot of quality kids coming through here and I think just because of that and his maturity, and he’s prepared himself, envisioned himself (seeing) this opportunity, and I think he’s ready.
“He’s not going to be surprised by anything, and his work ethic and how he goes about the game will prepare him to go out and be successful in professional baseball.”
Esmay has noted the rapid maturation both in the classroom and on the field. Learning to balance the two has been a pleasure to watch, he said.
Marrero has been an ambassador of sorts for ASU baseball during his three years on campus, and he sees that as a way of repaying some of the people who have guided him. After having his own childhood ended abruptly, he’s happy seeing the excitement on kids’ faces when they meet an athlete.
“I know little kids, like me when I was little, wanted to see an ASU baseball player, and it’s cool when you get to help kids like that,” he said. “You put a smile on their faces; because they don’t get to smile a lot, so that’s definitely one thing I like doing, giving back to those kids.”
He said even in the dark times of his youth he never doubted things would work out, and that’s a part of the message he tries to convey to the youngsters he meets. Being surrounded by good people and great friends has done wonders for him.
He and the Hosmer family, along with a few others, have created special friendships that likely will last a lifetime.
“We’re really close, and they’re great people,” Marrero said. “They want what’s best for me, and we want what’s best for each other.
“It’s great to have those friends, to have that group, that just have been with you through your life struggles and they know the real you. You get new friends as you go on, but those guys have been there through the thick and thin.”
And despite all he’s gone through, family remains at the center of Marrero’s story, with his mother and sisters Lauren, 20, and Brittany, 19.
“I try to be a role model for them,” he said. “I try my best, and those are my little girls; they are the most important things in my life right now.”
Jim Gintonio is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.