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José Altuve: A Love Letter

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Like Romeo and Juliet, if Juliet had five inches on Romeo

Milwaukee Brewers v Houston Astros
you’re as tall as you feel
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

I confess: I know he is annoying. I know we call him pocket Altuve, and the baseball elf, and Mighty Mouse, and whatever else, and I know he has been murder on the Mariners (.389/.457/.611 against us, with a wince-inducing number of his highlights on MLB.com coming against our boys in Northwest Green). I know these things, and yet I cannot help it: I freaking love José Altuve.

Jose Altuve grew up in Maracay, Venezuela, with a family that supported his love of baseball from an early age. After he got a ball, bat and glove one Christmas, he would wait on the corner every day for his dad to come home from work, ready to go play. And his father, no matter how tired he was, would take him out for a hour or so. They had one ball; his father shagged flies. When he hit a ball foul and they couldn’t find it they would have to scheme up how to get another ball, going to the Venezuelan league game, the Tigres, to ask a player for a ball. When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was playing with a bottlecap and a stick. “Sometimes, this is harder than Félix,” he says coyly.

José Altuve is officially listed at 5’6”; other sites list him at 5’5”. The difference isn’t worth remarking upon; it was still too short for the Houston Astros, who invited him to a camp in 2006 before telling him to go home after the first day and not come back. His father, who had traveled to the camp with him, pointed out that one scout, Al Pedrique, had not been at the first day of tryouts, and urged José to come back the next day regardless. He did, and he impressed Pedrique, running a 60-yard dash in 6.29. The Astros told him they had 15,000 dollars left over from their signings and offered it to him, if he wanted it. Of course he did. It was all he wanted: just a chance.

Like Altuve out of the box on a chopper hit to the third base line, things accelerate after that. As an 18-year-old, he had an okay start as a Rookie in the Appalachian League. The next year, he returned to the Rookie level and earned a promotion to short-A after a strong start that saw him named an Appalachian League All-Star. He would never again spend more than one year at any single level, rocketing up through the Astros’ system and eventually skipping straight from AA to MLB in 2011. He was 21 years old.

From there, we know the story: he’s been an All-Star every year except 2013 since he arrived in the majors; he won a batting title in 2014, the first Astros player to ever do so, and has won the Silver Slugger award at second base every year since; in 2015 he got his first Golden Glove. He’s the first player 5’6” or shorter to win a batting title in a century. José Altuve is a franchise player that the Astros got for taking a chance on a short kid for pocket change, a reminder that when you are willing to think outside the parameters of what’s been done, you can find something special.

And this is really why I love Altuve, in his own words:

“In basketball, you need to be a little taller and in good shape, in football you have to be a little brute, but in baseball you can see different players. You can see a player from six foot, five foot, almost seven foot, big player, skinny player, but they know how to play. That’s what is so beautiful about baseball, everybody that wants to play, he can play.”

José Altuve represents the egalitarian nature of baseball, more so than any other sport; even if you have to scheme for how to get a single baseball, even if you don’t stand as tall as other people, if you have the talent and the drive and the belief in yourself, you can make your dream a reality. You just have to hang in there long enough to get your chance. This sounds tired, shopworn, blindly idealistic—it’s easy to argue that of course Altuve would have gotten a shot eventually, he’s an elite talent. But he might not have. He might have gone home after that first discouraging tryout and decided not to come back. He might have been happy to be the best player on those dusty fields in Maracay, the best local boy playing against others chasing their dreams. But he held on, and he saw it through, and he willed himself into greatness, and for that reason, I will always admire José Altuve.

I’ll just have to remind myself of that when I’m watching him do something like this: