A little awkward: Altuve faces Astros for first time

March 9th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Jose Altuve smacked the first pitch thrown by Astros pitcher Brandon Bielak into left field for a single. The entire crowd at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches -- Astros and Venezuelan fans alike -- cheered loudly as Altuve trotted to first base.

“I think they knew I was going to swing,” Altuve said. “I got it good and happy I got my hit.”

One of the most decorated and accomplished players in the history of the Astros, Altuve is also a native son of Venezuela and had an entire ballpark pulling for him Wednesday night. And for the first time in his career, Altuve suited up and faced the franchise he has helped win two World Series titles for an exhibition game.

Instead of the orange and blue of the Astros, Altuve donned Venezuela’s maroon and yellow jerseys and went 1-for-3 in Venezuela’s 9-8 win over Houston before a crowd of 4,698 in a tune-up for the World Baseball Classic. Altuve has said he wants to be an Astro for life, so playing in a different uniform and against his current team was a little bit awkward.

“It was,” Altuve said with a laugh. “But obviously, I was excited, and I think it was a great game.”

Altuve, who has at least double-digit hits against every other team besides the Astros in the Major Leagues in his career, registered his first against Houston, though it won’t go down in the official record books. Altuve batted leadoff in a star-studded Venezuela lineup that included Ronald Acuña Jr., Salvador Perez and Miguel Cabrera, whom Altuve worshipped as a teenager.

“I asked him right away before the first pitch, ‘How do you feel?’” said Venezuela manager Omar López, who’s the Astros’ first-base coach. “He said, ‘I don’t know but I’m happy.’ He was enjoying being around us. It’s hard when you are trying to put together a lot of superstars in two days to work as a team, to play as a team, to be in tune inside. And we made it because Altuve had already turned the page to be on our side.

“He’s enjoying spending time with our guys, teaching, learning from others, teaching somebody else, helping me with the leadership inside the clubhouse. I think he’s having fun and he’s going to be good for us.”

Altuve returned to his native Venezuela in the offseason this winter for the first time since the offseason following the 2017 season -- also a year in which the Astros won the World Series. He spent a month and a half in his homeland and visited family while laying low on the beaches and in the mountains.

On the day Altuve was born, his father was watching a baseball game at a field next door to the hospital where his wife was giving birth in Venezuela. Carlos Altuve would spend time the next few years throwing baseballs to Jose with hopes he would inherit his father’s love of the game.

Altuve first caught Houston’s attention while playing second base for the Venezuelan 16-and-under national team. López, who was then a scout, was there to see another player, a shortstop named Angel Nieves, in Venezuela. López drove four hours to watch Nieves, but he couldn’t take his eyes off “the little guy.” The Astros wound up signing him for $15,000.

Perhaps the only player who could give Altuve a run in a popularity contest Wednesday was Cabrera, whose two-run single in the fifth inning tied the game. Cabrera got a loud ovation when Venezuela sent in a pinch-runner to first base.

López said it’s a night he won’t forget but it’s only the start for Team Venezuela, which opens the WBC against the Dominican Republic on Saturday.

“We’re noble, well-educated and enjoy the game and we’re having fun, but at the same time, we’re locked it in and focused on the game, too, and that’s what allowed us to come back and give us this win,” López said.