“All of Venezuela was rooting for the Astros,” Walfer Silva, 26, told The Washington Post after the game.
But in Silva’s town of Maracay, “it’s all about Altuve.” In Maracay, Altuve’s hometown, the middle infielder’s name is up there with the pope.
Altuve, the 5-foot-6 superstar, is a top candidate for the American League’s most valuable player. His boundless energy, lightning speed and fierce yet joyous competitiveness won the hearts of thousands of people who had never seen him play before the World Series.
He was already an inspiration to every small kid trying to prove that baseball stardom isn’t just for those who tower.
And his native Maracay, about 70 miles west of Caracas, is known as a breeding ground for legends of the game. The town has produced at least 31 Major League baseball players, including Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera.
Baseball is king across Venezuela — baseball terms even weave into daily conversation, as the Associated Press reported in a 2012 story. People say “pitch here” if they want a friend to throw in some money. If a person is teetering on success, people say “you’ve got a three-two count.”
This is especially true in Maracay, where a network of youth leagues and baseball schools mold 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.
Altuve had his start in Maracay, playing catch as a kid with his father every day on a patchy field, he recalled in one interview. They would sometimes play with no gloves.
As the story goes, it was also in this town where a 16-year-old Altuve was sent home from an Astros tryout camp, rejected because of his size. The team’s scouts thought he was lying about his age, USA Today reported. The next day, Altuve returned with a birth certificate, and signed a contract with the franchise.
“The Astros back then, they looked for big players, physically strong and tall. Altuve definitely wasn’t that guy,” said Al Pedrique, the former big league player, told ESPN. Pedrique served as special assistant to the Astros’ general manager in 2006 when the team signed Altuve for $15,000.
“I always tell my wife, ‘Who was going to believe then, when we had Altuve at 15, that he was going to be a superstar?’” Pedrique said.
Omar Lopez, the Astros Venezuelan Summer League manager in 2007, recalled to ESPN how players called him “enano,” Spanish for “the midget.”
“Probably the second part of the season, everybody started to talk about Jose Altuve, and everybody started to say, ‘This midget, he can hit,'” Lopez told ESPN. “Everybody started to respect him.”
Indeed, Altuve’s earned that respect. As The Post’s Dave Sheinin wrote:
A 27-year-old Venezuelan, he is a wizard with both the bat and the glove and a speeding blur on the bases, a three-time AL batting champ, the first player in history to lead his league in hits outright four straight seasons. He hit three homers in Game 1 of the Division Series against Boston — joining a short list, which includes Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols, of players who have done that in a postseason game — and almost single-handedly willed the Astros to victories over the Yankees in Games 1 and 2 in Houston, scoring the go-ahead runs in each with daring baserunning and robbing the Yankees of hits in the field.
He won the American League’s batting title this season with a .346 average, hit 24 home runs and stole 32 bases. The National League’s leading hitter, Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies batted .331.
But even as he became one of baseball’s best hitters, Sheinin wrote, “Altuve has had to deal with inherent doubts, puzzled looks, whispered jabs and even outright jokes about his size.”
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 Wednesday night’s game, “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.
“In our country, it is a day to day fight,” Arroyo said.
Stricken with the world’s highest inflation rate, Venezuelans are currently dealing with an extreme cash shortage. A cheap meal in Caracas costs about 30,000 bolivares, as The Post reported, so Venezuelans have to carry around backpacks full of bills to simply pay for daily food. Residents will spend hours waiting in ATM lines.
“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.”
That is, watching baseball. Actually playing the sport has become a financial challenge for Venezuelans. Most of the country’s eight teams are dealing with money troubles, and many fans can’t afford tickets, NPR reported. Homeless residents have even moved into stadiums.
In the midst of this crisis, Rodriguez, the Maracay resident, told the Post, festive celebrations for events like the World Series “are few.”
Indeed, there were a few groups of families and friends in Maracay who gathered to watch their “Astroboy” play throughout the World Series. Residents of Altuve’s former neighborhood, Caña De Azúcar, had set up a large screen against a building wall for neighbors to watch the games together, he said.
But instead of attending a victory party Wednesday, Rodriguez watched the late-night World Series Championship game from her bed.
And many others across the country weren’t that lucky. Only those with cable operators were able to watch the game, through international ESPN and Fox channels, Arroyo, the sports broadcaster, said. With scores of families strapped for cash, cable TV is an expensive luxury.
“There are many who only have national television that couldn’t watch it,” Arroyo said Wednesday after the game. “They will find out first thing tomorrow from a friend, or from the news on the radio, TV or newspapers.”
Still, those in Maracay who did watch the game flaunted their hometown pride on social media, cheering that their “pequeño gigante,” or “little giant,” was taking home a championship ring.
“It had to be Altuve who made the last play,” Arroyo, the sports broadcaster, tweeted as Altuve closed the game and helped secure the win.
“The native from Maracay brought the Venezuelan flavor to this spectacular series,” one fan posted on Facebook.
“Congratulations to the workhorse, the MVP…of Maracay, Jose Altuve AstroBoy !!” a Maracay resident posted.
“Jose Altuve, a little Giant leaving the name of Venezuela and his city Maracay on a high note, exemplifying perseverance, consistency and that nothing is impossible when we aim to reach a goal,” another Venezuelan fan wrote on Facebook. “Venezuela there is hope and a better future.”
Across social media, Venezuelan fans used one word over and over again to describe Altuve: “grande,” the Spanish word meaning “big”— and, in this case, “great.”
“You deserve it more than anyone,” Silva tweeted, “the great one from Maracay.”