HOUSTON — Gerrit Cole was covered in champagne and beer Saturday night and puffing on a victory cigar as he recounted the inside story of how Jose Altuve sent the Houston Astros to a second World Series.
With Minute Maid Park was gripped by the tension of a tie game in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Cole, the Astros’ ace, peeked inside the video room near the Astros’ dugout. There was Altuve, calmly studying tape of Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees often-impenetrable closer, as if it were an afternoon in May instead of one of the biggest moments of the season.
A few minutes later Altuve stepped into the batter’s box and crushed a two-run home run off Chapman, ending the series in Houston’s favor. As the stadium heaved in celebration, Altuve coolly ran the bases, at first with his head down, giving an understated hand-slap to the first base coach Don Kelly — also as if it were just a routine game in May — until he reached home plate, where his teammates pounced on the player they love so much.
For Cole, it was another example of Altuve’s two essential characteristics: his hard work and his immeasurable determination. In a quieter moment on the field about 45 minutes after the game, Cole shed light on something else he feels about Altuve, a player so special that Cole sought more divine reasons for his success.
“He’s been touched by the big man, for sure,” Cole said. “Look, he had to beg for a professional contract, and now he’s taking us to the World Series. I hope they put him in the Hall of Fame. I’m already excited to tell my grandkids about him.”
There will be a lot to tell, like how Altuve won the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player Award, or how he had four consecutive 200-hit seasons, or the fact that he reached 1,000 hits in 786 games — more than 100 games faster than any other Astro (Cesar Cedeno did it in 889) — and always seems to be in the hub of the most important moments.
But there is so much more that makes Altuve, 29, so popular among his teammates, including his playful and infectious personality, his charisma, his modesty and even his clubhouse and dugout karaoke performances. Scott Boras, his agent, calls it the Altuve Aura.
“I said that to him once and he asked, ‘What’s that?’” Boras said. “I told him, it works in the clubhouse, it works in the dugout, it works on the airplane and it works in the batters box. He laughed, but he is really one of the greatest stories about how you handle success. He is so humble and is always looking to get better. He just instills confidence in everyone around him.”
Whether there is, as Cole suggested, any spiritual component to Altuve’s remarkable success may not be quantifiable. But there is no doubt that the 5-foot-6 second baseman has a knack for big moments, and that his outsized presence is genuinely cherished on the team, from the clubhouse attendants to the owner’s box.
“Altuve is just amazing,” said Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros. “He just continually does things you don’t imagine he can do, and then there he is again. He does it with grace. He doesn’t like the attention and he doesn’t talk much. But he just delivers, and we all love him.”
As Cole noted, Altuve essentially had to convince scouts that he could succeed despite his size, and the Astros finally signed him for $15,000 out of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, before his 17th birthday. A little over four years later he was in the major leagues, and now is Houston’s longest-serving player and unofficial captain.
But when Altuve joined the Astros, they were about to embark on the first of three consecutive 100-loss seasons, the so-called tank period that allowed them to rebuild the roster and add great pieces around Altuve. They slowly crawled out of the gutter of the standings before winning the World Series in 2017, the year Altuve batted .346 with a .410 on base percentage, 24 home runs and 39 doubles.
Altuve said the hardship of his first few seasons helped forge his and the team’s championship mettle. Last year, they lost to the Boston Red Sox in the A.L.C.S, and perhaps it is not a coincidence that Altuve was playing through a knee injury during that series and required surgery immediately after the season ended. Carlos Correa, who plays shortstop alongside Altuve, has a locker next to him and seems to be his baseball soul sibling, also played with a sore back in that series. But 2018 was Houston’s third consecutive 100-win season.
“I still remember when we lost a hundred games three years in a row,” Altuve said. “It seems like we were in the very, very bottom. So the only hope I have was to keep working hard because everybody keeps telling me, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win a championship, we’re going to be a really good team.’
“I wanted to be a part of that. It was hard to believe, but it happened. We couldn’t be here without being there.”
Even many among the sport’s old guard, like Craig Biggio, revel at Altuve’s talent and charisma. Biggio, a Hall of Famer, was the second baseman on the last Astros team to make the World Series before this decade, and suggested that Altuve was on his way to becoming the best Astro of all time, and perhaps the most popular, too. Biggio added that right now, Altuve is among the two or three best players in baseball.
“Absolutely,” Biggio said. “When he’s healthy, there nothing that he can’t do. He can beat you in so many different ways: his glove, his speed his power. He’s 5 foot 6 and he hit 31 home runs this year. Incredible. I think the best thing about Jose is just, it’s Jose.”
Altuve has had a number of dramatic October moments, including his epic sprint from first to home on Carlos Correa’s ninth-inning double that gave the Astros the win in Game 2 of the 2017 A.L.C.S. against the Yankees. There is also his three-run home run in Game 5 of that year’s World Series off Kenta Maeda, which was the conclusion of great at-bat, and his 10th-inning home run in Game 2 of the same series.
His game-winner off Chapman was his 13th home run in 43 postseason games, and will be added to the some of the best moments in playoff history. It ended the Yankees’ season and cemented the legacy of the Aura of Altuve.
“The game could have gone either way,” Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow said. “But we had Altuve and they didn’t, and that ended up being the difference.”