There are a lot of reasons baseball is delightful. It’s played amid the smell of cut grass and the knowledge that you can stay up late because it’s not a school night. Its obsession with its own history ties fans to their parents and grandparents. There is a childlike fairness in the idea that the game is decided not when time runs out, but when everyone has had the same number of chances to win. But I think the reason we love it so much is that it’s played by people who look like your plumber.
Pro football and basketball players bear no resemblance to the mortals with whom they share the earth. We love to watch the sheer art they create with their bodies, and maybe we even love to play their sports recreationally, but we know by about the seventh grade that we will never live among them.
Baseball players are different. Half of these guys have potbellies. Most of them are utterly unremarkable-looking out of uniform. Even their tasks seem manageable. You watch Angels DH Albert Pujols ambling to first base or Royals lefty Jason Vargas gently tossing baseballs to the catcher and you think, I could do that. Of course you couldn’t! Pujols is averaging 16 mph on his dashes to first base; Vargas is touching 90 mph with his fastball. And these are the worst numbers in the majors! You couldn’t do any of it. I’m 5’4” and use a device called a ChuckIt to play fetch with my goldendoodle. I certainly couldn’t do it.
And yet … I watch José Altuve and I think maybe there’s hope.
He’s listed at 5’6”, 165 pounds, which was nice of the Astros to do. He stands next to the Yankees’ 6’7”, 282-pound behemoth Aaron Judge and Twitter just about melts down. He looks like he needs help to reach his helmet from the rack in the dugout. He inspired a website that uses him as a unit of measurement.
Altuve is good-natured about the fact that no one ever discusses him without mentioning his size. He has said that he doesn’t blame people for assuming he couldn’t play when he was young, because he would have thought the same thing.
But he knew better. So when Houston sent a 16-year-old José home after the first day of a tryout camp in his native Venezuela, he showed up the next day anyway. Eleven years later, he’s led the league in hits for four straight seasons and won three batting titles. He is a good defensive second baseman and, while not particularly fleet of foot, a smart baserunner. Only 19 other players Altuve’s height or shorter have played as many games as he has. He has a good chance to be this year’s AL MVP.
That’s all amazing, but it’s amazing in the sense that only an infinitely small percentage of humans on this planet have played major league baseball successfully. He’s a fraction of a fraction. It’s a miracle. But if you were going to allow for the possibility that someone of that size might be able to stick at this level, this is the skillset you would expect him to have: excellent contact hitter with good on-base skills due to his tiny strike zone, nimble defender, high baseball IQ to make up for whatever physical gifts he lacks.
You would not expect him to hit three home runs in Game 1 of the ALDS. Only eight other players have hit three home runs in a postseason game. One of them is Babe Ruth. They were not Judge-style moonshots—they traveled 389, 415 and 402 feet, respectively—but it was an otherworldly performance. Houston beat Boston 8–2; the rest of the lineup barely needed to show up. It turns out José Altuve isn’t really a mortal either.
But he looks like one. On a night when he shared the field with Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and rightfielder Mookie Betts (both 5’9”), while 1,500 miles north Ronald Torreyes (5'8") and Sonny Gray (5'10") faced the Indians, it was a nice chance for the rest of us to recognize ourselves in our heroes. Maybe tomorrow I’ll throw the ball to my dog myself.