Once Ignored by MLB, 5'6" Superstar Jose Altuve May Now Be Its MVP

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 5, 2017

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve (27), Yuli Gurriel (10), J.D. Davis (28) and Cameron Maybin, left, celebrate after a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Houston. The Astros won 8-6. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

HOUSTON — Like gravity and Tex-Mex, Jose Altuve is a force of nature who tugs people in his direction. Old Houston Astros have felt this phenomenon for years. New Houston Astros, like Justin Verlander, feel it immediately upon arrival.

And Verlander's love for Altuve grew even more on Thursday, as he flexed his MVP muscle with an incredible three home runs in ALDS Game 1 against the Boston Red Sox—putting Verlander in line for a big postseason win.

Altuve's just the ninth player in MLB history to accomplish the feat in a postseason game, according to MLB.com's David Adler:

Verlander had barely touched down with his new team when he was talking with Dallas Keuchel in the dugout before a game early one afternoon, a couple of Cy Young Award winners strengthening their acquaintance.

As Altuve walked by, he made a point to stop.

"Hey, Justin," Altuve said. "I just want to let you know...I know you're good, but Dallas is the best. He's my favorite teammate.

"Don't worry. You're second."

Another pause.

"You're tied with everyone else."

Verlander and Keuchel roared with laughter, then continued their conversation as Altuve sauntered off toward whatever was next on his to-do list that afternoon.

And later, during a quiet moment amid the din of what could be stamped this month as the greatest season in team history, Keuchel laid out what regularly echoes throughout the clubhouse when you spend time with the Astros.

"The more you get to know him, the greater you think he is," Keuchel tells B/R. "Because it's not just about his MVP-type talent. He's a leader in the clubhouse. He's a guy who can make you laugh at any point in time. He loves music; he's always singing and dancing.

After almost not latching on with the Astros, Jose Altuve has become a beloved figure in the Houston clubhouse and to the team's fans in the city.
After almost not latching on with the Astros, Jose Altuve has become a beloved figure in the Houston clubhouse and to the team's fans in the city.Photo courtesy of the Houston Astros

"You hear about his tryout in Venezuela. That's been well-documented. To see the perseverance and work ethic he put into this game, into his job...you see a bunch of guys float toward that."

"I feel proud to have him as a friend," says teammate Marwin Gonzalez, Altuve's frequent carpool partner to Minute Maid Park and friend since they were 17 back home in their native Venezuela.

Adds Chris Devenski, Houston's All-Star reliever: "It's an honor to be in his presence. It's very humbling to know where he comes from. For him to have the heart and determination to follow his dream and not listen to doubters..."

At 5'6", Altuve is the shortest player in the majors since the 5'5" Freddie Patek, who retired after the 1981 season.

And at year's end, he may well become the shortest player to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award since the New York Yankees' 5'6" Phil Rizzuto in 1950. He led the American League in batting average (.346), hits (204) and the Baseball-Reference.com version of WAR (8.4).

This year he became the first player in history to lead either league outright in hits in four consecutive seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau. And during his seven-year career, Altuve has more multihit games (358) than oh-fers (239).

Seven years into his career, Altuve has won the American League batting title three times already.
Seven years into his career, Altuve has won the American League batting title three times already.Chris Szagola/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Now in his second season as Houston's assistant hitting coach, Alonzo Powell won consecutive Japanese Central League batting titles from 1994-96 at the same time Ichiro Suzuki was winning batting titles in the Japanese Pacific League.

"I know Ichiro well," Powell says. "And I never thought I'd say that I would see a better hitter than Ichiro.

"But three months into the season last year, I made that concession."

Ichiro, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn...both in the United States and abroad, Powell has seen and played against several Hall of Famers and legends, and he says Altuve is the best he's ever seen. His guy, Powell says, is a complete hitter: gap-to-gap, power, average. Take your pick. He can do it all. And often, he seems to. Altuve had more hits (1,250 in 982 games) than Pete Rose did (1,204) at the same stage of their careers.  

"Crazy," Altuve says. "That's crazy."

Yes. Crazy. But then, so, too, is the story of how the little guy with the jumbo-size heart even got here.

    

FIRST TIME ASTROS Hall of Famer Craig Biggio ever met Altuve, it was on Field 2 at the club's former spring training home in Kissimmee, Florida. Altuve was a teenage minor leaguer, and Biggio, already a legend headed for Cooperstown, was conducting an on-field seminar on baserunning.

They were discussing leads and breaks and angles and, when the group session ended, Altuve jogged over and shook Biggio's hand.

"Thank you very much," he said before trotting off to the morning's next drill.

Biggio was floored by the gesture.

Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was impressed with Altuve's lack of ego as a minor leaguer and as he matured into a star.
Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was impressed with Altuve's lack of ego as a minor leaguer and as he matured into a star.David J. Phillip/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I was like, 'Damn! I wish he was taller,'" Biggio says.

It was not the first time someone in the Astros organization reacted that way. The tale of Altuve's tryout with the club in Venezuela is outsize, but sometimes retold incorrectly. The idea, floated in some circles, that he was so little that the Astros sent him home because they didn't believe he had reached the legal tryout age of 16 is pure hogwash.

"This is what happened," Altuve tells B/R, beginning an inspirational yarn for the ages.

There were a bunch of scouts gathered on that day, and they absolutely knew how old he was because clubs do thorough and exhaustive research. As the workout proceeded, one man notable in his absence was Al Pedrique, who now manages Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, but then was a special assistant to Houston general manager Tim Purpura.

"So I run 60 yards," Altuve says. "I catch some ground balls. I hit some balls. And they decide to let me go."

There were maybe 50 or 60 players there, Altuve recalls, and the Astros invited roughly 20 back. Crushed but not surprised, Altuve went home.

This was not the first time baseball had thrown a fastball by him. Between the ages of 14 and 16, he says: "It was tough. Seriously, I was 5'5" and 140 pounds, so everybody used to say the same thing to me."

Hey, Jose. You can play. You can hit. But you're not going to make it because you're just too small. Sorry.

He heard this a lot. Heard it after tryouts with the Angels. Tampa Bay. The Chicago Cubs. San Francisco Giants. Atlanta Braves. Oakland A's. The Yankees.

"A lot of teams," he says. "I tried out with the Angels a couple of times. They watched me play the first time, called me back, I went to two or three more tryouts, and they didn't pull the trigger."

Altuve's diminutive stature didn't help him in workouts with seven other teams before the Astros decided to take a chance on him.
Altuve's diminutive stature didn't help him in workouts with seven other teams before the Astros decided to take a chance on him.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

He knew Pedrique was a key decision-maker in the Astros organization, and he knew the one scout who was in his corner, a man named Wally Ramos (who has since died), would lobby for him. He figured maybe Pedrique could see something beyond 5'5". Maybe he could see hustle and heart, desire and determination.

So the night Houston sent Altuve home, his head hardened from banging it against so many unopened doors, he did not pout and mope.

He went back to the Astros' tryout camp the next day, gambling that maybe the scouts there wouldn't remember or care that they had cut him the previous day and praying that Pedrique would be in attendance on Day 2.

"They were surprised when I showed up, but they let me go and do it again just because I did show up," Altuve says.

This time, Pedrique was there. And no small part of the reason they didn't shoo the kid away again was because of Ramos. Please let this kid go back on the field, Ramos pleaded with Pedrique. Please don't go by his size.

So Altuve did it all over again: He ran 60 yards. Fielded ground balls. Hit some pitches.

"I hit pretty good," he says.

As he watched, Pedrique, impressed, turned to Ramos.

"Does he play like this every game?" Pedrique asked.

"Yes, that's him," Ramos said. "Doesn't matter who's watching. Doesn't matter how many people are in the stands. He loves to play the game."

Pedrique loved the energy. Loved the smile. He could see the hunger, and the talent. Look, Pedrique told Altuve afterward, we only have $15,000. We don't have anything more for you. Are you willing to take it?

On so many diamonds in front of so many scouts, Altuve had had that carrot dangling in front of him yanked away at the last minute. Take it? You bet, he told Pedrique.

"And $15,000," Altuve tells B/R today. "It was more than I thought."

Says Pedrique: "The smile on his face was like a kid with new toys at Christmas. It was amazing. It was like, OK, I got it."

Altuve won over the Astros in a workout thanks to a seemingly boundless reserve of energy and a joy he brought to playing the game.
Altuve won over the Astros in a workout thanks to a seemingly boundless reserve of energy and a joy he brought to playing the game.Pat Sullivan/Associated Press/Associated Press

Eleven years later, Altuve is a three-time batting champion and the driving force for a team that could win the first World Series in franchise history, a title that would mean even more to the city the Astros call home.

"He's an incredible baseball player," says Biggio, who brightens noticeably at the mention of Altuve's name when speaking about him in September. "He has incredible skills. He's won a couple of batting titles, he's on his way toward winning another, and you'd never know it from talking to him. There's no ego."

No longer can you find anyone who wishes he was taller.

    

ON THE LAST Sunday in August, their city under water from Hurricane Harvey and their families stranded at home without them, the Astros finished a game in Anaheim, California, and then flew into a holding pattern in Dallas.

They could not get home; MLB was still unsure of the location of their next game. Whereas baseball once consumed nearly all his time, now Altuve's thoughts were on his wife, Nina, and the couple's 11-month-old daughter, Melanie Andrea.

"The thing that goes unnoticed is who he is as a person," Houston leadoff man and center fielder George Springer says. "He'll take a teammate aside and talk to him. What just happened with the hurricane, he wanted to walk back from Dallas to Houston to go get his family out of there."

Well, perhaps not walk all the way back. But as the storm raged and the Astros fretted, Springer listened as Altuve, starting pitcher Charlie Morton, reliever Luke Gregerson and others engaged in an earnest conversation while en route from Anaheim to Dallas, brainstorming about ways they could rescue their families.

For a time, the working plan was this: Once their off day came on Monday in Dallas, they would rent cars and drive as far as they could until they reached the point where the roads were flooded. Then, they would secure boats and take those as far as they could. Then, they would swim and walk the rest of the way home.

"When you see our captain, our leader, like that..." says Springer, whose sister dispatched three semitrucks loaded with supplies such as clothing, water, food and baby formula from their native Connecticut to Houston during that time. "You can say all you want about who he is as a baseball player, but a testament to who he is and what he means to us is that he was willing to put aside games to go get his family.

"That means more than he could ever do the rest of his career."

Teammates such as George Springer find that Altuve inspires them on the field as well as off, as Springer experienced in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Teammates such as George Springer find that Altuve inspires them on the field as well as off, as Springer experienced in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.David J. Phillip/Associated Press/Associated Press

As things turned out, MLB sent the Astros to Florida, rescheduling what was supposed to be a home series with the Texas Rangers, and the team went home after that. Thankfully, the players' families were safe, but so many others were not so fortunate. When the Astros returned later that week, Altuve and about half the team spent that Friday visiting with hurricane victims sheltered at a downtown convention center.

"He's just a lovable guy," Keuchel says. "You see it when he goes out in the community. Everyone's face lights up. Especially after the flood and Harvey, he was one of the bright lights for the city."

In May, Altuve teamed up with pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. for his first charity event, which raised money for their respective foundations. McCullers' works to raise awareness for pet shelters and adoptions; Altuve works with Sunshine Kids, a charity that helps kids with cancer.

"I feel like I just started my career, and I don't have a big contract or anything like that, so it's really hard for me to start a big, big charity," says Altuve, who signed a four-year, $12.5 million deal with the Astros in July 2013 that includes a $6 million club option for 2018 and another for $6.5 million for 2019. Talk about club-friendly terms: His is the 11th-highest salary on the team, even below that of reliever Tony Sipp.

But hey, $15,000 was enough when he was 16, and he's not complaining now. He figures he will do his second charity event next year and keep it going.

In the kids he's trying to help, he sees a little of himself, having grown up in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela.

He and Nina met there in school when they were eight and started dating when they were 15. Yes, they were together when Altuve's persistence at those tryouts in 2006 finally paid off, but he laughs when asked about her reaction at the time. She wasn't that into baseball, he says.

Now, she's a little bit more into baseball. And with a healthy daughter at home, well, maybe he's just a wee bit less into it himself.

Altuve sees a little of himself in the kids he helps through his burgeoning charity work here in the States as well as back home in Venezuela.
Altuve sees a little of himself in the kids he helps through his burgeoning charity work here in the States as well as back home in Venezuela.Photo courtesy of the Houston Astros

"She's the most beautiful gift God has ever given me," Altuve says when asked how his daughter has changed him. "Everything is for her now. You can go 0-for-4 or 3-for-4 and you get home and see her and it's the same feeling."

Always, there has been a tenderness within him, a tendency to identify with the small, the meek, the underdog. And it has stayed with him.

"I never doubted myself because I already had too many other people doubting," Altuve says. "I wanted to prove those people wrong. And not because one day I could tell them they were wrong. I wanted to prove them wrong for the guys behind me who are short, too. Guys who are not really strong, not really tall, guys who are 14 to 16 right now who are very small and want to get an opportunity.

"And I know maybe after that happened to me scouts now will think twice before telling someone, You're not going to make it. They're going to think, This guy is the same size as Jose, and if Jose made it, maybe one of these guys can make it, too.

"If I open at least one door, two doors, three doors for guys behind me, I'm going to feel like everything that I did, it was because of this, and that will feel good."

    

LIKE THE TEAMMATES and opponents who surround him on the diamond, Altuve's hits come in all shapes and sizes.

In addition to his now-annual appearance at the top of the AL hits leaderboard are the three batting titles, consecutive seasons of 24 home runs and an array of infield hits that both fuel the Astros and display a window into Altuve's greedy baseball soul.

"He's just never satisfied," Houston manager A.J. Hinch says. "He has some very innocent reactions to infield hits, to bloop hits, how much he needs them, how much he wants them.

"The guys give him a hard time because of all the people in the league who you feel don't need hits, it's probably Jose Altuve. Yet he loves every one of them."

First baseman Yonder Alonso played against Altuve all summer—first for Oakland and then, following a trade, for Seattle—and says the moments after Altuve beats out another infield hit are priceless.

"Man, I needed that hit so bad," Altuve will say, standing on the first-base bag.

"Everybody needs hits in the big leagues," Alonso will shoot back. "You're hitting .350."

"Yeah, but I've been struggling."

"Shut up."

"That was a tough hit. I've gone three or four at-bats without a hit."

"Some guys go three or four days without a hit."

With a level of hustle that sometimes amuses opposing players, Altuve has garnered 200 or more hits in each of the last four seasons.
With a level of hustle that sometimes amuses opposing players, Altuve has garnered 200 or more hits in each of the last four seasons.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

The long and short of it is that both Altuve's short and long games do damage. In a subtle nose-thumbing to the doubters of the past, this year he produced a slugging percentage (.547) that was the fifth-highest single-season mark by a player listed at 5'6" or shorter in MLB history, trailing only four separate seasons by Hack Wilson (1927-30).

Yet he harbors no bitterness toward all those men from all those teams who sent him packing all those years ago. Objectively, he says, he can see why they did.

"That was totally understandable because it's hard to believe that a guy who was 5'5" and 140 pounds could be on the same field with Aaron Judge, who's 6'7" and 250 [282] pounds," he says. "It sounds crazy. That's why I'm not mad at all about the guys who didn't give me an opportunity."

At dinner one day this spring, Altuve, Miami Marlins infielders Martin Prado and Miguel Rojas and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez were anticipating the season ahead. Martinez remembers the talk turning to Altuve's tremendous season in 2016, when he finished third in the AL MVP voting, and the second baseman accepting his friends' accolades but explaining that in this game, you need to improve every year at something.

To his friends, Altuve wondered: How am I going to do that?

"He sets [his goals] pretty high and achieves them," Hinch says. "When I got here, he had led the league in hitting the previous year, he had been on the All-Star team. The one thing he said he didn't have was a Gold Glove. So he put in a lot of time and work and energy with Rich Dauer [Houston's first base and infield coach and won a Gold Glove]."

Even before this postseason begins, Altuve already has earmarked areas of his game he wants to improve in 2018. Defensively, he says, he's been charged with a couple of errors that he never should have made.

"And I didn't get a couple of bases I wanted to steal because I didn't trust my instincts," he says. "And in a lot of situations where I didn't get on base, and didn't get an RBI, I want to get better for next season."

It's a delicate balance between high-level consistency and incremental improvement when you're looking at the across-the-board numbers of elite players, and Altuve studies this obsessively. Once you reach an elite level of consistency, he explains, it means you're getting better even if specific numbers don't jump dramatically.

While that is who Altuve is driven to be, his manager and his teammates will tell you that's already who he is.

Last Aug. 1, facing Marcus Stroman in Houston, Altuve took a called third strike in each of his first two plate appearances against Toronto's ace.

"He was super mad, and in the tunnel behind the dugout he told me he was going to look for a curve and hit a home run his next time up," says Carlos Correa, Altuve's All-Star double-play partner. "I'm like, A curve?"

Correa noted that Stroman's go-to options behind his fastball are his sinker and his changeup. Yet sure enough, in his third time facing Stroman, Altuve, in a 1-2 count, got his curveball and belted a home run into the Crawford Boxes in left field.

"He came back into the dugout and told me, 'If I tell you I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it,'" Correa says, still marveling.

As he cranks the music in the clubhouse and sings and dances to his teammates' endless amusement, Altuve refuses to allow them to forget other things, too.

"He's always picking on people—George calls him a big bully," right fielder Josh Reddick says, chuckling.

One seasonlong target has been Jake Marisnick who, at 6'4", 220 pounds, hit 16 homers but likely is done for the season with a broken right thumb.

"I have more power than you and I'm half your size," Altuve regularly chirps at Marisnick.

Marisnick knows it is said in good humor, and with an eye toward motivating his teammates.

"As good as he is on the field, off the field he's even better," Marisnick says. "I've respected him since I got here. He was one of the first guys to take me aside and get to know me."

    

THERE IS ONLY one height Altuve hasn't scaled in his career, and he will tackle that in earnest this month.

Minutes after Houston was eliminated in an American League Division Series by the Kansas City Royals in 2015, a distraught Altuve showed up in Hinch's office. The Royals had shut him down, holding him to a .136 batting average (3-for-22), .174 on-base percentage and zero extra-base hits.

"It hadn't even crossed my mind that he hadn't played well," Hinch says. "It was more that he was one of the main reasons we were there."

Yet there in that manager's office, an emotional Altuve apologized to Hinch. Told his manager he was sorry he didn't play better. Told him he felt like he let his teammates down, his manager down, the organization...everyone.

"It was a raw moment for him in what's been a spectacular career as an Astro," Hinch says. "And it was his first taste of leadership."

Two years later, things are different. Alutve has become one of the veteran leaders...and he is not alone.

"You know, I feel like this team is a little different," he says. "The feeling that I have about this team is, we have some veteran players [Reddick and designated hitter Carlos Beltran and catcher Brian McCann] that obviously we didn't have in 2015 that are definitely going to help us. I never feel like I have to carry us."

What he's learned is that the regular season is plenty long enough to allow someone like him to hang glitzy numbers but that the playoffs are short enough that "you just have to get on base, make a play; it doesn't matter how you do it. If you get zero hits but you get on base 20 times, that's what we're talking about."

So he is primed and ready. Whatever it takes—just like that day on the tryout field in Venezuela, way back when he seemed so much shorter than he does today.

"Obviously, the underdog story is very real whether it's the story of him getting signed, becoming an All-Star or everybody referencing his size," Hinch says. "But the growth that he's established ... people don't talk about his size anymore. They talk about his ability and his production. They talk about him being a middle-of-the-order bat."

And it's what Altuve intends to keep them talking about this month and beyond. Consider it one very tall order, filled.

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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