Richard Justice: Jose Altuve’s commitment to greatness is part of what makes these Astros special

HOUSTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 06: Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros reacts after hitting a solo home run during the third inning against the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park on September 06, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Richard Justice: Jose Altuve’s commitment to greatness is part of what makes these Astros special

   Way back at the beginning for Jose Altuve, in the spring of 2007, long before the batting championships and 200-hit seasons and Gold Gloves and All-Star appearances, before he reinvented his offensive approach to make 2022 one of the best seasons he has ever had and certainly before he became arguably the most beloved player in Astros history, there’s an important part of his story that sometimes gets overlooked.

   He was 16 years old in 2007 when he signed for the paltry sum of $15,000. Considering he’d have trouble getting teams to offer a dime, he was thrilled at what it meant. When his dad wondered if the Astros could pony up a little more, Jose interrupted with: “Please, dad, I just want a chance.”

   Less well know is what happened after that, the thing that convinced staffers at the Astros Venezuelan academy that this kid was different. There was no way to predict the Hall of Fame career arc that would follow, but looking back on it, there surely were hints then and there.

   Within days of his signing, as he settled into the baseball life, Altuve quickly became more than a player. He became the player of that signing class.

   “He was making sure guys were getting to the English classes on time,” former Astros scout Al Pedrique remembered. “He was helping organize the workouts. A lot of these kids are overwhelmed. Jose was a leader even back then.”

   That $15,000 offer came from the Astros after Altuve had been rejected by every other major league team that had a presence in Venezuela. Scouts loved his lightning-quick hands, but his size (5-foot-6) frightened them.

    The Astros also told him no thanks a couple of times until one day they needed an extra player for a pickup game. There was Jose Altuve hanging around, hoping to be asked.

   A day later, Pedrique telephoned his boss, Astros executive Tim Purpura, and asked, “What can we give this kid?”

   “Wait,” Purpura said, “I thought you weren’t interested in him.”

   Pedrique, currently third base coach for the Miami Marlins and one of the game’s great gentlemen, doesn’t remember precisely what he told Purpura, but it boiled down to this: “Sometimes you just know.”

   Purpura said Astros first base coach Omar Lopez was also in on the signing having been part of the Venezuelan staff that year. But when I asked Lopez, he laughed.

   “I think you have to give Al Pedrique all the credit for that one,” he said.  Like others, Lopez simply could not envision the greatness that was to come.

   Four years later, Altuve made his debut for a franchise that was undergoing massive change. Drayton McLane had begun the process of selling the team to Jim Crane, who oversaw stripping the team to its bolts and starting over.

   In those early years, amid three consecutive 100-loss seasons, Altuve was the best reason to show up at Minute Maid Park. His energy and joy could light up a ballpark.

   And then something else happened. In 2014, his fourth season, with the help of then-hitting coach John Mallee (now with the Angels), Altuve became a superstar, collecting the first of three batting titles and the first of four straight 200-hit seasons.

   He’d batted .283 the previous season, but Mallee challenged him to get in better shape and to focus on the details. Altuve took everything to heart, and years later, Mallee can still be moved to tears—same thing with Pedrique—when he talks about his pupil.

   “He’s like a son to me,” Mallee once told me.

   Fast forward to 2022. Altuve began this season as a seven-time All-Star, a three-time batting champ and a former American League Most Valuable Player (2017). He received MVP votes in seven of the previous nine seasons.

   But he wasn’t happy. In a game now focused more on on-base percentage and power, 200-hit seasons no longer mattered as much. Even after hitting 31 home runs and compiling an .839 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) in 2021, Altuve wasn’t satisfied.

   The Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome recounted in Wednesday’s newspaper a spring chat with Altuve in which he bemoaned the lack of a “really, really good season.” 

   Altuve wondered if he could put together a season with a .900 OPS and a .300 batting average. That, he told Chandler, would be his goal for 2022.

   “You go to 2019 and I think when I hit 30 or 40 points less, I got to a .900 (OPS). That’s what I describe as a good season for me. Obviously you want to do both — .900 and .300,” Altuve said.

   “I think .900 is the new .300 for batting average. I don’t want to say I don’t want to hit .300 — I do, I want to hit .400 — but 2019 was my last really, really good season.”

   With seven games remaining, Altuve is on the cusp of doing what he sat out to do, which he hasn’t accomplished since 2017 when he batted .346 and had a .957 OPS.

   He homered twice on Tuesday—his 27th and 28th—and finished with three hits and a walk in a 10-2 victory over Arizona. He’s hitting .298 with a  .387 on-base percentage and .919 OPS. His 12th leadoff homer tied George Springer for the team record.

   “Mentally, he knows what he needs to do right now. He has known for a long time, but he’s adjusting,” hitting coach Alex Cintrón told the Chronicle. “He’s working walks, not (focusing) so much on hitting the ball out. He has 28 homers, but he’s not trying to hit homers like he was in the past.”

   Those of us lucky enough to have witnessed Altuve’s entire career sometimes take for granted how good he is and how absolutely committed he is to his craft. To get to this place, he has spent thousands of hours in batting cages and studying video and lifting weights. Years from now, when his No. 27 is retired at Minute Maid Park and his plaque hangs in Cooperstown, we’ll be telling our grandkids about this guy. We were the lucky ones.

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1 Comment

  • Intresting article. Appreciate the early career insights. Altuve is one of a kind.

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