HOUSTON — Arriving at first base brings Jose Altuve back to the beginning. The same face that greeted him in Guacara, Venezuela 16 years ago now stands inside the coach’s box, ready to strategize after a seeing-eye single or slap Altuve’s hand following another first-pitch home run in a career full of them.
There are few constants in Altuve’s journey from castoff to cornerstone. Omar López is one of them — the first man to manage Altuve and, now, the first man he sees after a base hit. Saturday night, after Altuve laced the 2,000th hit of his career into the left field corner, López sent pointed toward second base. Altuve could not slide in ahead of Cade Marlowe’s throw, but the aggression felt fitting. From the time Altuve entered the organization, López always told him to play hard. For the last 13 years, he has obliged.
“Sometimes I see him and it gets me back to when I was 16 years old in the Venezuelan Summer League back in ‘06,” Altuve told The Athletic recently. “We often talk about it, the players we played with, the other coaches, the league — we won that league that year. We have a lot of memories together.”
Altuve’s ascension to Astros icon is circuitous: a story of chance, commitment and circumstance that López has lived firsthand. Scouting and signing Altuve required an army of advocates willing to afford the undersized second baseman a chance. López is the lone example still left in the organization, a final connection between Altuve’s origin story and the superstardom that ensued.
Few in the Astros’ organization predate Altuve’s arrival. López does. He was in the room while scouts negotiated Altuve’s $15,000 signing bonus and welcomed him into professional baseball after he accepted. Spending the last four seasons on Houston’s major-league coaching staff has allowed López to re-enter Altuve’s life at a different stage as he builds a lasting legacy — one López helped to facilitate.
“He’s the same kid. He’s 33, but he’s a kid. And he’s still playing as a kid,” López said this week. “Obviously more mature, which is what you should (be), but when the show time comes up, he’s enjoying it, he’s happy.”
Houston hired López in 1999 after his three-year minor-league playing career concluded. López started as a Venezuela-based scout and, in 2006, attended a tournament in Barquisimeto to watch a shortstop named Angel Nieves. The small second baseman playing beside him caught López’s eye.
López asked to stay an extra night so he could watch both players face a Cuban team with higher velocities on their pitching staff. Altuve handled it with ease inside a massive ballpark. López became one of the biggest advocates for signing the undersized teenager. Yet he wasn’t the only booster Altuve had in those early days, which was fortunate for Altuve when it came to money. Wolfgang Ramos — the area scout in Altuve’s hometown of Maracay — vouched for him. So did former Astros international scouting director Al Pedrique. Pedrique, according to López, wanted to offer Altuve a $25,000 signing bonus as a 16-year-old. Others in the room pushed back, claiming they could go even cheaper.
“That kid is a chance. Give him $5,000, he’ll sign,’” López recalled them saying. “And Pedrique said ‘No, come on, we have money.’ Al Pedrique is such a great human being to use his power, kind of get in between and come up with ($15,000).’ Altuve was willing to sign. The rest is crazy.”
After the Astros did, Altuve played his first 64 professional games in the now-defunct Venezuelan Summer League in Guacara. López managed the team — the first skipper for a soon-to-be superstar.
“There are some differences in the game in Latin America coming here. We never played in college. We’re coming from summer leagues as 16-year-olds,” Altuve said. “He definitely helped that transition to know about the differences. I feel like as a 16, 17, 18-year-old kid, you’re making a lot of mistakes. He taught (me) how to play the game the right way and that’s something important in today’s game.
“He’s a firm believer that playing the game hard is the right way,” Altuve continued. “I remember him, when I was in the minor leagues, saying ‘Hey, don’t let anyone play the game harder than you.’ He still says it: let’s go out there and play hard.”
The numbers that summer should surprise no one. Altuve took 243 plate appearances across 64 games. He slashed .343/.429/.441, worked 28 walks and struck out just 16 times. Teammates called him enano, which means “midget” in English. López likened him to a spectacle that the entire league lined up to see.
“The little one. He was basically the attraction for everybody. The little guy,” López said. “ … And he’s hitting balls all over the place.”
Altuve advanced to full-season affiliated ball after that summer. At the same time, López started a 12-season managerial tour across six different Astros affiliates. He never managed Altuve in the Astros system again, but caught up with him during spring training and stayed aware of his progress.
In July 2011, before managing a game for the rookie-ball Greeneville Astros, López got word from his farm director of Altuve’s impending major-league promotion. López returned to his office after batting practice and received a phone call. It was Altuve on the other end, asking for advice on adjusting to the major leagues.
“Jose, I wish I could tell you something, but I didn’t play in the big leagues,” López said with a smile, recalling a conversation that contained one overarching theme:
“Be yourself, man, because you’re such a great kid.”
That infectiousness and spirit stayed unchanged. In his 28th major-league game, Altuve led off against Madison Bumgarner and struck the second pitch the lefty threw into the left-center field gap. Third-base coach Dave Clark put up a stop sign when Altuve reached third base. He ran right through it and scored standing up to secure his first big-league home run.
The smile he wore on the way to the dugout has persisted for more than a decade. Altuve has transformed his body and tapped power he didn’t possess early on. Fly balls like that one against Bumgarner are now leaving ballparks, sometimes to win a pennant or silence a crowd seething at his association with Houston’s sign-stealing past.
“He has the mental toughness to kind of survive and finish through,” López said.
“The other day in Baltimore, (he went) 410 (feet) for a homer. As soon as he stepped on the plate, I said to myself ‘How does this little guy hit the ball so hard and deep whenever he can?’ It’s unbelievable. He’s gifted. He’s gifted by God and it’s going to be hard to see another kid like that.”
In March, López managed Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, his first time actually managing Altuve since the Venezuelan Summer League. Altuve lauded his ability to bring a collection of superstars together and propel them to a deep run. If not for Altuve’s fractured right thumb in the quarterfinal game against Team USA, perhaps there could have been a different outcome.
“I felt like I got shot right in the middle of my chest.” López said. “ … As a first-base coach, I can sneak out and go upstairs to check how he is, but I was managing and I couldn’t leave the dugout.”
“We took the lead in that inning and I was excited, I was trying to push the whole team because it was like someone switched off the light (in the dugout). Dark, dead dugout. One of our big guys went down.”
The injury forced Altuve to miss Houston’s first 53 games of the season. An oblique injury in early July cost him 17 more. Couple that with the pandemic-shortened season in 2020 and Altuve’s chances at reaching 3,000 hits have dwindled, even though he’s stated a desire to play until he’s 40.
Altuve has made a career out of exceeding expectations, so discounting anything is silly. He is one of just seven active players with 2,000 hits. Only he and Los Angeles’ Freddie Freeman are younger than 34.
Altuve is the ninth Venezuelan-born player to reach 2,000 hits. Two of them are still active: Miguel Cabrera and Elvis Andrus. When Cabrera retires after this season, Altuve should succeed him as Venezuela’s most venerated big leaguer and the face of baseball for an entire country.
“For all the stories known about this little guy, accomplishing 2,000 (hits) is one thing that he’ll feel proud of himself,” López said. “Everybody in Venezuela should be proud — that another little guy, another native, another player from my country accomplished something at one of the toughest levels in baseball.”
“It’s cool to see Altuve accomplish something that probably no one, no one, no one thought — even myself — that he’d be the type of player he is right now.”
(Top photo of Altuve and López: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)