Jose Altuve proved himself a worthy Yankees foil

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Jose Altuve should have punctuated his three-run homer Thursday by dramatically turning to all corners of Yankee Stadium, and doubling over in an exaggerated series of bows. He had been treated all afternoon like a pro wrestling villain, and he had earned the right to mock the people who had spent the afternoon mocking him.

The Yankee fans cursed Altuve’s team. They cursed Altuve’s name. They even cursed Altuve’s 31st birthday.

If he were wearing an electronic device beneath his jersey, the fans would have cursed Altuve’s buzzer, too.

But as he faced Chad Green in the eighth inning with two on and the Astros down a run, Altuve was the embodiment of a story Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson used to tell about the advice his father had given him on the subject of baseball and adversity. As long as that bat is in your hands, Jackson’s father would say, you can change the story.

The bat was in Altuve’s hands. On a high, full-count, 96 mph fastball, he would change the New York baseball story of May 6, 2021, with a blast that sent Yankee fans back in time, back to the very place that whipped them into a frenzy all series long — the 2019 ALCS, won by Altuve on that forever walk-off homer against Aroldis Chapman, before the second baseman famously motioned to his teammates that they absolutely should not tear off his jersey.

And, perhaps, dislodge something that might be beneath it.

“It was just a great feeling,” Altuve said of his swing that broke the Yankees’ five-game winning streak, and broke a few hearts too. He clearly wasn’t in the mood after the game to celebrate the payback, or to do an end-zone dance for reporters via Zoom. Maybe Altuve didn’t want the fans know just how much they got to him these last three days. Maybe this was his way to remind people that he’s been doing this for a long time — hitting baseballs where opponents can’t catch them — whether the fans have been cheering for him, or chanting against him.

“I’m just trying to do my best to play the game,” Altuve said. “You don’t like to get booed by anybody, but that’s part of the game. I was just going out there trying to do my best to help my team win.”

The Yankees did a lot of winning things out there Thursday, starting with Altuve’s former teammate, Gerrit Cole, who surrendered only two solo shots to Yordan Alvarez over seven quality innings. Giancarlo Stanton and Clint Frazier homered. Gio Urshela turned a single into a double with some opportunistic hustle. And Gleyber Torres turned an Aaron Hicks infield hit into a victory lap for every man, woman and child who despises the shift, delivering one of the most fascinating dashes from second to third to home you will ever see.

On almost any other day, the Yanks take this game and sweep this series. But then Altuve stepped into the box in the eighth, one out, with the crowd of 10,000 chanting “CHEA-TER … CHEA-TER,” sounding like a crowd of 40,000. They had loudly booed the Astros star from the pregame introductions, and had profanely told him in the first inning what he could do with that little birthday of his that he shares with Willie Mays.

And then Green threw his fateful four-seamer toward Altuve, a pitch, Houston manager Dusty Baker said, “that was over his head.” What pitch isn’t over Altuve’s head? He is listed at 5-foot-6, which is its own tall tale. Not that it matters. Altuve sent the ball sailing over the left-field fence, and did a purposeful jog around the bases. He crossed the plate, pointed to the sky, and then walked into a receiving line of giddy teammates outside the dugout. Baker grabbed both of his shoulders and playfully shook him; the manager had encouraged him in the pregame to hit one out on his birthday.

“He couldn’t have scripted that any better,” Baker said.

The story is still storybook, even if it’s been defaced. As a teenager attending a tryout in Venezuela, Altuve was told to go home because he was too short. He returned the next day, anyway, and eventually convinced an Astros scout to sign him for $15,000. Altuve would not only grow up to win an MVP, a World Series, and three batting titles; he would prove to be one of the more remarkable athletes of his generation.

He would also prove to be a cheat, like the rest of his teammates, during that 2017 championship season, which included yet another ALCS victory over the Yankees. So that’s why a Yankee fan came dressed as a trash can to this series, and why so many others screamed for the Astros’ heads. And that’s why Altuve’s revenge was so meaningful. Payback is a pitch.

“It quieted the fans for a little while anyway,” Baker said. “I can’t tell you how happy everybody in the dugout was for Jose. He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet in this game.”

Maybe, maybe not. But Altuve just shut up a New York crowd, with Spike Lee in the house, like Reggie Miller once did. He is a hell of a ballplayer and, better yet, a worthy villain.

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