No Escape From New York

The Winter of Weird Al

Small Ball

The towering rise of tiny Jose Altuve

It is an awkward thing to play a game of baseball with one foot already out the door. Yet every summer, generally around the second or third Sunday in July, the sport seems to be made entirely of seventh graders looking anxiously at the slow progress of the minute hand of the clock on the classroom wall. This can make for some baroquely bad baseball games, which is what the Houston Astros had on Sunday, losing 11-0 at home to the heretofore largely punchless Boston Red Sox. Houston starter Brad Peacock never got out of the first. Five other Astros pitchers followed him with varying degrees of mediocrity. Meanwhile, Houston was held to three hits by Boston starter Clay Buchholz, who pitched the whole nine innings and was never in even the slimmest facsimile of trouble. And, as an added statistical fillip, the Astros had exactly as many hits as they had errors in the field, which is quite often not the proper ratio as those things go.

There was kind of an odd sweetness to the rout, however. The last-day-of-school vibe hung over everything and, by the time Boston had run its lead to 7-0 halfway through the seventh inning, the home crowd seemed more than willing to hang around just for the pure fun of being at the ballpark, giving even Minute Maid Park, the echoey aquarium in which the Astros play, the feel of a Sunday afternoon at the county fair. It was a game that counted in the standings, but that didn’t seem to count for anything else, a little sliver of spring training in the middle of the regular season, an exhibition just for the fun of it.1

None of the Astros had as bad a day as second baseman Jose Altuve. He fit himself with an 0-4 collar at the plate, and he contributed one of the errors when he ranged deep behind the bag and tried one of those backhanded jai alai flips with his glove. It sailed wide of shortstop Marwin Gonzalez, who was covering second. Two Red Sox scored on the play. There is no little irony to this because, while none of the Astros had as bad a day as did Jose Altuve, no Astro has had a better season than has Jose Altuve, for whom the All-Star break means only that he’s playing again on Tuesday in Minneapolis.

He has 130 hits already, more than any Houston player ever by the All-Star break, and 41 stolen bases. At .335, he’s in there with Robinson Cano and Adrian Beltre for the American League batting title, and, two weeks ago, against the Tigers, Altuve put up his fourth consecutive multihit, multisteal game. This forced the statistics people to abandon their computers and search through box scores apparently written on papyrus. It was discovered that Altuve’s feat had not been done since 1917, when Ray Chapman turned the trick. If Altuve can force the game down that kind of statistical time tunnel, he can rightly be said to be having a season for the ages.

“We have to separate the first part from the second part,” Altuve said. “We have to come back in the second half and try to win as many games as we can. Just working hard, doing my routine every day. Same thing I’ve been doing.”

“Even from last year to this year, he’s made tremendous strides,” said Houston manager Bo Porter, whose clubhouse is so thickly festooned with motivational slogans that it looks like the whole team has died and gone to Tony Robbins’s house. Some of them — like “INTEGRITY!” and “PRIDE!” — are listed on a large carny wheel of fortune just inside the clubhouse door. He also is fluent in an exotic dialect of MBAspeak. “He’s always been able to hit. But now we sat him down and talked to him about who he is as a hitter and use it to get the most out of his ability. A lot of it was about ‘mental strike zone.’ To his credit, he has taken all the information that has been given him, and he’s turned himself into one of the best players in baseball.”

And he’s done it, if not in complete obscurity, then certainly in the shadows. Houston is rebuilding, as it seems perpetually to be, and Porter has a youngish roster that can sweep a series with the Rangers and then come home and drop a series to the cratering defending world champions. Altuve plays second base, which has not been a media-star position since Joe Morgan hung them up. So he can be easily overlooked. He can also be easily overlooked because he can be, well, easily overlooked. He stands at a genuine 5-foot-6. He is not bulked up. His aspect demonstrates nothing that appears to have been grafted on from a larger person. He is proportionately wiry for his height, like a jockey is. Unfortunately, that has been one of the most easily remarked upon things about him. “I call our guy the big guy,” says Porter. “Size is one of those things that some people look at and they might come up with their own thought process. I’ll take him.”

Altuve-Dos-Tri

In its recent history, and in many cases, as the use of performance-enhancing drugs forced baseball into a whipsaw between improvisational biochemistry and insufferable puritanism, size often came to imply guilt. If your hat size increased, that came to constitute a de facto confession. Bulk up your biceps and some MLB Nick Danger is ringing your pharmacist’s doorbell. However, there have been fans remarking about how big baseball players have become since at least the 1980s because many people were invested in the notion that baseball players were supposed to be “normal-size” human beings. This even though every sport you can name has experienced the phenomenon of big people who are fast. When he first hit Wimbledon, Boris Becker looked like a strong safety compared to the people he was playing. Karl Malone was 6-foot-9 and could run like a deer, which is why he wasn’t a butt-in-your-gut, on-the-blocks player, and it’s also why almost nobody else is anymore, either.

According to Baseball-Reference, of the 167 major league players since 1901 who were 5-foot-6 or shorter, only 14 of them played during the last 50 years. Baseball seemed to come to this development slowly, but it came to it long before anyone had ever heard of BALCO or Biogenesis. One of the reasons the sport’s reaction to those enterprises was so hysterical was that, while it was assumed that you needed some help to be big enough to play professional football, it also was assumed that baseball was a game for all body types, large and small — that there was room for everybody to play.

“Baseball, it doesn’t matter how big you are, you just have to play hard every day, you know?” Altuve said.

Over the weekend, of course, it was a celebration of talented short people at second base. On the other side of the diamond was Boston’s Dustin Pedroia, a former MVP who stands a generous 5-foot-9, and who dialed himself in over the weekend, rapping two singles to left and scalding two deep line drives on Sunday. Both men play the same position, and both of them are talented players who approach every play as if it were their last, but their competitive demeanors are different. Pedroia carries himself bigger than he is, with a swagger and a presence that radiates around him. Except while he’s playing, Altuve doesn’t have that. Not yet, anyway. But the comparisons between the two were inevitable as the weekend went along, and Altuve long has said that Pedroia was one of the players after whom he modeled himself coming up.

“He was one of my favorite players coming up, too,” Altuve said.

“Dustin Pedroia’s one of my favorite players,” Bo Porter said. “I’ll take both of them.”

It is good to have them both, if only as antidotes to the cynicism and hysteria that have made size suspicious and muscles into circumstantial evidence, especially this week, with the Home Run Derby as part of the All-Star festivities and everybody at home will play amateur detective on the case of who’s doing what. Jose Altuve will be there, watching. The best thing about that is not that he’s normal, but that his presence can let us all calm down and go back to being normal as well. 

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, Dustin Pedroia, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Jose Altuve

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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