The news on Saturday night, big news for one of the greatest little big men of them all, was that Jose Altuve had hit a home run in his fifth straight game, becoming the first player to do that this season. But the more important news, bigger news, is that Altuve is healthy again, and so in process of reminding everybody in baseball that when he is healthy he is on his way to being one of the best second basemen, and why he won the American League MVP Award not so very long ago. We always talk about Mike Trout. We spent a lot of last season talking about Mookie Betts, no giant himself, as he succeeded Altuve as AL MVP Award winner. It is still too easy sometimes to lose sight of Altuve.
Altuve suffered such a bad knee injury last summer, which sent him to what was then the DL and is now the IL. He was never the same after he came back, even though he kept playing, all the way through Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, when the Red Sox officially ended the Astros’ title defense. Even playing on one good leg, Altuve tried to make a huge swing in Game 4, hitting one over the right-field wall at Minute Maid Park before Betts tried to bring it back, and umpire Joe West finally did bring it back by ruling fan interference.
When the season ended, Altuve had surgery to repair what was officially called a patella avulsion fracture in his right knee. As his manager AJ Hinch said one day in Spring Training, on a back field at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, “The guy basically tried to play the second half of the season with a broken kneecap.”
After the surgery came all the winter mornings at Minute Maid Park, at least when Altuve was ready to rehab, when he would be in the fitness area at the ballpark, sometimes with his manager in the room with him, trying to get himself ready for the season; trying to get himself back to where and what he was when he beat out Aaron Judge for the AL MVP Award; trying to be the player he was when finishing off a rather epic four-year tear when he had 845 hits to lead the world, when he hit .341, .313, .338 and .346. Even last year, Altuve ended up at .316 in what was, for him, a short and painful and ultimately disappointing season.
Now Altuve has his legs underneath him again, and look at him go. I always remember what the great Joe Morgan, 5-foot-7, a Hall of Fame second baseman who started in Houston, once told me about Altuve, when I asked if it was insulting to talk about Altuve’s greatness only in terms of the fact that he is 5-foot-5 or 5-foot-6 (depending on to whom you’re speaking):
"I think you do insult him. You know what they used to say about me? 'He's a good little player.' But then they look at Trout and say, 'That's what a great player is supposed to look like.'”
Here is what Altuve said to me on a Spring Training morning a couple of years ago:
"Back in the day, when I am still in the Minor Leagues, I used to think about size, but only because I wondered if people would really be able to see what I could do. But I never doubted myself. Never. Never doubted what I could do. It didn't matter to me how tall I was. I just wanted to be great."
We are witnessing, in real time, a storied baseball career, for a middle infielder, for a second baseman, for a ballplayer. For anybody who wondered how long it would take him to come all the way back, Altuve is showing everybody. In real time. Already.
“It’s really awesome to see him happy and healthy on the field again,” Hinch told me late Saturday night from Seattle, after Altuve had launched another one to back up Justin Verlander and help the Astros to their eighth straight win. “He doesn’t ever ask for attention or look to be complimented. But he had a lot to do to be right again.”
Hinch added this: “[Altuve] was diligent and consistent when no one was around.”
Or sometimes when his manager was around. Hinch will always wonder how the outcome of the Red Sox-Astros series might have been different if Altuve was healthy last October, instead of moving up on knee surgery, and Carlos Correa was himself. They all move on now. They all try to come back from that. The Astros got off to a slow start, but now here they come. And here comes Altuve. Through the first 15 games of the new season, he had seven home runs, 13 RBIs, a .333 average, 20 hits, a slugging percentage of .717 and an OPS of 1.095. Big numbers for anybody.
Hinch on Saturday night: “I’m proud for him and of him. He’s easy to manage.”
It is even easier to watch him play baseball. At a time when there is so much young talent, all over the map and all over the sport, Jose Altuve is easy to miss sometimes. Big mistake. Huge mistake.