On Saturday night, the Houston Astros secured the team’s second pennant in three years. To get there, they had to drive a stake through the heart of a Yankees team that did not want to die, and the person who hammered it in was José Altuve.
In the bottom of the ninth, just after the Yankees—who had been narrowly trailing the entire game—managed to send a two-run homer into the stands at Minute Maid Park to tie the game at the top of the inning, Altuve stepped to the plate. The Yanks’ fearsome closer, Aroldis Chapman, was on the mound after securing two outs. George Springer, the outfielder who had leapt as the home run ball soared over his outstretched glove moments earlier, was on first, having taken a walk.
Facing a 2-1 count, Altuve swung at an 84 mph pitch. He sent the ball to the fans in the cheap seats—the standing room only section in left field—for a game-winning walk-off homer. Of course José Altuve did that. He’s the greatest Houston Astro of all time.
Altuve would almost certainly bristle at that description. If anyone made this claim to his face, he’d shake his head and deny it. “Jeff Bagwell,” he’d probably say. “Craig Biggio.” He’d maybe even say Nolan Ryan, whose seasons with the ‘Stros included several of his worst as a pro. Just look at how Altuve responded when asked about what was going through his head after securing the team’s entrance to the World Series.
“We won the game not because I hit a homer,” Altuve told Fox Sports One’s Ken Rosenthal. “Yuli [Gurriel] hit a three-run homer. Michael Brantley made a really good play. Springer just walked and put some pressure on them to get some momentum going. We were working as a team. We don’t rely on one player.”
To even be in the conversation for a superlative like “greatest of all time,” a player needs to be capable of both sealing a World Series appearance with two outs in the bottom of the ninth after his team surrendered a huge momentum swing and eager to deflect his well-earned glory onto his similarly deserving teammates. There are players who can deliver in the clutch, and there are players who embody sportsmanship. Altuve, the diminutive Venezuelan who debuted with the Astros in 2011, epitomizes both.
There are, of course, other great Astros. Bagwell and Biggio, both of whom are enshrined as statues in front of Minute Maid Park, have been #1a and #1b on that list for years, following long careers that never saw them suit up in anything other than an Astros uniform. And they are great, both Hall of Famers who earned their statues. But Altuve has done things that they haven’t.
It’s not just that Altuve was the MVP during the team’s first World Series season—although that and that alone would be an argument worth making. It’s that he suffered through the worst stretch in the team’s history at the start of his career to get there. Bagwell’s rookie season was on a bad Astros team—they lost 97 games that year, for a .401 win percentage, and he still earned Rookie of the Year honors—but Altuve was the cornerstone of one of the most extensive teardown-and-rebuilding projects in sports history. The Astros, in his first four seasons, lost 106 games, 107 games, 111 games, 92 games. For years, Altuve put on his cleats every day having known for his entire career to that point that, two times out of three, they were going to lose.
And then, they didn’t. Altuve’s legend is wrapped up in the story of Houston over the past several years—which inevitably includes Hurricane Harvey. There’s a storybook quality to the Astros 2017 World Series win. Fans watched the team earn the trophy while sitting in their ravaged homes or in cheap hotel rooms. The Astros provided hope, distraction, and inspiration at a time when the city desperately needed it.
Altuve accepted the responsibility of representing a city that had been through the ringer. (And even in that moment, he deflected the credit—instead, he honored his fellow Houston athlete J.J. Watt for his contributions to the city in its time of need.) He gave the team—and the city, in its own way—an identity that felt right, and felt like Houston. He’s an immigrant in a city where immigrants make up nearly a quarter of the population. He’s hardworking, charitable, joyful, and absolutely dominant at what he does best.
Houston’s a unique city in that many of its biggest cultural figures are also extremely civic-minded—from J.J. Watt to Bun B to Travis Scott to Mattress Mack—and Altuve is that, too, hosting charity events and never shying away from recognizing the role that he plays in Houston. His spirit of sportsmanship—the generosity with which he makes sure his teammates are celebrated even in his biggest moments—plays like a recognition of that role. Athletes who push back against the idea that they’re meant to represent something bigger than themselves have a fair point, but the ones who accept that people will look to them for inspiration, and respond accordingly, carry a certain ineffable greatness to them.
Altuve’s legend is not yet fully written, but that only affirms that he’s worthy of being honored as the greatest Astro to ever put on a uniform. In just nine seasons, he’s earned a ring, given hope to a devastated community, endured more sustained losing than any Astro before him, and sent that game-winner to bring the Astros to their second World Series in three years, one of the great baseball moments in recent memory. He may help them win this one, too—and maybe several more in the years to come—and remove all doubt that he deserves this distinction. But given the career he’s had so far, he could retire tomorrow and still be remembered as one of the greatest of all time.