The Improbable Journey of Houston Astros' Jose Altuve: From Venezuela Sandlot To World Champion
Few know the true story of how the Astros' tiny dynamo got from his Venezuelan neighborhood to become an MVP, a 3-time league batting champ, and a World Champion.
Before being crowned a World Champion in 2017, Jose Altuve went through four straight losing seasons with the Houston Astros, three of which had at least 106 losses. Being a major contributor on an Astros team that went from scorned as perennial losers to the 2017 World Series Champions (and 2021 AL Champs) is a screenplay-worthy story on its own.
But, the 2017 American League MVP has overcome some well-documented adversities, none more so than his 5’5″, 160-pound stature, which was exaggerated to 5’7″, 170 lbs from day one, to make his baseball projection more palatable and the player more easily signable.
But, like so many origin stories, the convergence of Altuve and the Astros didn’t have to happen like it did. It didn’t even have to happen at all. In fact, if not for a couple of fellow dedicated and persistent Venezuelan countrymen who believed in him, plus seven MLB teams with deep pocketbooks and a myopic vision of the human spirit, the Astros may not have snatched the World Series from the Dodgers, and a rookie from New York might have escaped with the AL MVP vote.
To paraphrase The Atlantic‘s assessment: Almost no one saw Jose Altuve coming; but as of the last out of the ‘17 World Series, everyone knows he’s here.
Let Me Know When He Gets Here
Jose Carlos Altuve was born in Maracay, Aragua, Venezuela (about 70 miles west of Caracas) on May 6, 1990, growing up not far from the Torreón de El Limón (Tower of El Limón monument), the remains of an old sugar mill near Maracay’s center.
Jose’s father, Carlos, loved baseball, a fixation that became evident on Jose’s actual birthdate: While mom, Laste, was in labor, Carlos was nearby watching a Tigres de Aragua baseball game at Maracay’s José Pérez Colmenares Stadium…quite visible to Laste from her hospital room!
“They ran from the hospital to the stadium to tell my dad, ‘Hey, you have your kid already!'” Jose Altuve said in a September 11, 2014, MLB.com article by Astros beat writer, Brian McTaggart. “He said, ‘OK, OK, let’s go!’ He was a big fan of baseball.”
In this video, Altuve, in 2015, meets the newly-signed Venezuelan infielder, 17-year-old Miguelangel Sierra. Sierra, since then, has stair-stepped his way up the Astros’ organization, and played his 2021 season with Houston’s Triple-A Sugar Land Skeeters.
Venezuelan Kids, After Venerating Cabrera, Now Hope They Can Be the Next Altuve
Venezuela in general, and Maracay in particular, are widely-known as teeming breeding grounds for MLB stars. The town, itself, has produced at least 31 Major League Baseball players, including the Detroit Tigers’ seven-time All-Star and two-time AL MVP, Miguel Cabrera.
Baseball rules across Venezuela. This is especially true in Maracay, where a network of youth leagues and baseball schools nurture children into stars from a young age.
“The kids dream of playing in the major leagues, and their parents want to plant their children in this field hoping that seed might become the next Miguel Cabrera,” the director of one baseball training school told the Associated Press in 2012.
Carlos Altuve, an assistant engineer at a chemical company, spent much of his free time during Jose’s childhood, throwing baseballs on a patchy, dirt-covered field to his eldest son, often without gloves (Carlos, by the way, is also the name of Jose’s brother, three years his junior). The hope, of course, was that he would inherit his father’s love of the game. Reaching the major leagues was the ultimate dream.
“He always told me,” Jose said, “you’ve got to hit to make the Major Leagues.”
One can easily picture a 9-year-old Jose Altuve, on a sweltering June day, kicking rocks down Calle Los Acuarianos in his Caña De Azúcar neighborhood, on his way to the field for a pick-up soccer game, or a marathon catch and pepper session with Dad.
It’s Who You “No”
In 1988, the Houston Astros became the first MLB team to open a baseball academy in Venezuela. Former Astro outfielder (1996-1997) Bobby Abreu and ace left-hander Johan Santana were two high profile players who got their start at the Astros’ academy in that South American country.
The Astros closed the academy in spring of 2009, with external strife reportedly not impacting that decision. In fact, Houston club officials at the time insisted that “the changes have nothing to do with on-going political unrest in Venezuela, or the flailing economy in this country. This is instead an effort to develop players at an earlier age and accelerate their ascension to the big leagues, using the bulk of their resources on signing players while saving on operating costs.”
From McTaggart’s MLB article: “Altuve first caught Houston’s attention while playing second base for the Venezuelan 16-and-under national team. The Astros had actually sent Omar Lopez, their then-manager at Class A Quad Cities, to see another player in Venezuela, an infielder from Caracas named Angel Nieves.
“‘I drove five hours and I watched a couple of games, and we ended up signing the kid, Angel Nieves,’ Lopez said. “He was good and had some tools, so we took a chance. But I put my eyes on Altuve, the little guy.’
“The late scout, Wolfgang Ramos, vouched for Altuve and wanted him to come work out at Houston’s Venezuelan academy. Altuve was small, but he had great hand-eye coordination and consistently put the bat on the ball. And he could run.”
Enter the Former Major Leaguer
The long-repeated Altuve lore of looking underage and being sent home from the workout is apocryphal, according to a recent Bleacher Report piece, in their exclusive interview with Altuve. Several MLB scouts were present on the day, and as all clubs do thorough background checks and exhaustive research, every team official present was aware of the age of all the players.
One man conspicuous by his absence at the workout was Al Pedrique, who recently managed the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders, the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, but then was a special assistant (specializing in evaluating Venezuelan talent) to Houston GM Tim Purpura.
“My second time back in the country, Pablo Torrealba, the director of the academy, and Omar Lopez said the kid showed a lot of improvement,” Pedrique said about arriving in time for the second day of tryouts. “I wrote my report, and the issue I ran into at the beginning was they weren’t sure about his size.”
“‘So I run 60 yards,” Altuve says. “I catch some ground balls. I hit some balls. And they decide to let me go.
“There were maybe 50 or 60 players there,” Altuve recalls, “and the Astros invited roughly 20 back.” Dejected, but hardly stunned, Altuve went home.
As an early teen spending a lot of time on the city’s dirt diamonds, Altuve heard enough rejections of his size and playing ability that would turn away lesser kids. “It was tough,” Altuve remembers. “Seriously, I was 5’5″ and 140 pounds, so everybody used to say the same thing to me: ‘Hey, Jose. You can play. You can hit. But you’re not going to make it because you’re just too small. Sorry.'”
Jose has been quoted as saying he’d have signed with a team for nothing. He came close. “When a player tells you that and you look in his eyes, you get that read that this kid really wants it,” said Pedrique.
“I remember our first conversation,” Pedrique told MLB.com April 27, 2018, as the Astros and Athletics prepared to open a three-game series at Minute Maid Park. “I asked him, ‘Can you play?’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’ll show you.'”
At the urging of Pedrique, the Astros signed the wide-eyed Altuve for $15,000, a near-embarrassing sum, but missing out on the eventual three-time batting champ and MVP were these teams, no doubt wishing all they felt was embarrassment: The 2021 NL Champs Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, and the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I love his bat, I love his speed,” Pedrique said. “We don’t have anything to lose.”
“I was putting that money in my pocket before I answered that (would you like to sign with Houston?),” Altuve has said. “I always believed the hardest thing for me was an organization giving me the opportunity. “I will sign the contract,” Altuve said. “I just want a chance.”
“Coming to us was his last shot.”
“Coming to us was his last shot,” said Pedrique. The Astros hired Pedrique as bench coach on October 31, 2009, after previously serving as their Minor League Field Coordinator and third base coach. Altuve had just finished a season combining rookie ball and full season Class A competition. This meant Pedrique was Houston’s bench coach when Altuve made his MLB debut in July, 2011. 2012 was Pedrique’s last season in Houston.
Pedrique was a career .247 hitter with 111 hits and one homer in 174 games at shortstop for three MLB seasons with the New York Mets (1987), Pittsburgh Pirates (1987-88) and Detroit Tigers (1989).
In 2014, the New York Yankees hired Pedrique as the manager of the team’s Advanced-A Tampa Yankees affiliate. In January 2016, Pedrique was tapped as the manager of the Yankees’ Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. In his first season as manager, he won the North Division.
Prior to the New York Yankees filling their manager position with Aaron Boone in December 2017, Pedrique was in discussions as a possible contender for the job (as was now-retired World Series Champion, Carlos Beltran, Altuve’s 2017 teammate). Pedrique was hired by the Oakland A’s to be their first base coach starting with the 2018 season.
Pedrique was tapped in April 2021 to be the manager of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, the Oakland A’s Triple-A minor league affiliate.
Pedrique, himself a relatively undersized middle infielder (6-feet, 155-pound shortstop) hails from Valencia, Venezuela, 32 miles west of Maracay. He turned out to be lightning strike #2 in the unlikely finding and securing of Jose Altuve, only slightly behind his determined father, Carlos, in cementing the life course of “pequeño gigante,” or “The Little Giant.”
Countrymen Reflect on Their “AstroBoy”
Again, from the Washington Post: “‘All of Venezuela was rooting for the Astros,’ Venezuelan radio personality Walfer Silva, 26, told The Post after 2017 World Series Game 7 in Los Angeles. But, in Silva’s Maracay, ‘it’s all about Altuve.’ In Maracay, Altuve’s hometown, the middle infielder’s name is up there with the Pope.
“It is this narrative — of the little guy coming out, quite literally, on top — that has energized Venezuela, and Maracay, at a time when it needs it most.
“He’s a hero,” Maracay resident Edilyng Rodríguez told The Post after Series Game 7, “an example for all of the kids in baseball schools across the city.
“His name has become synonymous with overcoming adversity,” Venezuelan sports broadcaster Luis Arroyo told The Post. It’s a concept Venezuelans know well, especially amid a severe economic crisis spurred by declining oil prices and widespread complaints of government mismanagement.
“‘We’re in tough times, but we can still enjoy life,’ said Silva, the 26-year-old Maracay resident. He lives not far from the neighborhood where Altuve grew up. Silva’s cousin even played baseball with Altuve back in the day, he said.
“‘We don’t have medicine,” Silva said, “but we have baseball.'”
Jose Altuve Reminisces
“I got to the big leagues, you know, I don’t know how. They just called me up, and in 2011, we lost 100 games, 2012 and 2013, too. But I cannot lie – I believe in the process. I believe in what [former] GM Jeff Luhnow and (owner) Jim Crane used to tell me, like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna win one day. We’re gonna become a really good team.’
“‘So I was like, OK, now I want to get better every single day to be part of that team when they become good. And then in 2014, they signed [current Toronto Blue Jay] George Springer, 2015 Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman (in 2016), and I was like, ‘Wow, we’re gonna be a good team.’
“This year , I felt something in spring training in the locker room – like, you know, a lot of talent but … I saw a good chemistry between everybody – players, coaches everybody. And we only talked about winning, winning, winning. That’s all we wanted to do, and now we’re here.”– USA Today, November 2, 2017.
“I feel like I need to thank him every single day.”
“When not too many people were willing to give me the opportunity, he was the one who believed in me,” Altuve said of Al Pedrique. “I feel like I need to thank him every single day for what he did.”
All you wanted was a chance, right?
“He gave me more than a chance,” Altuve said. “He pushed for me all the way through the Minor Leagues. I thank him every time I talk to him. This guy was the one. He really helped me to develop and become a better player.”–MLB.com, April 29, 2018