Culture / Sporting Life

Jose Altuve’s Magic Moment With His Daughter, Gerrit Cole’s Cigar Lectures and Russell Westbrook’s Championship Education — Inside the Happy Aftermath of a World Series Worthy Walkoff

How the Astros' True Leader Never Let Them Get Deflated by the Sudden Shock of DJ LeMahieu's Epic Home Run

BY // 10.20.19

Josh Reddick does not even want to look around at his teammates. He definitely does not want to look into the suddenly silent stands. Not after the New York Yankees DJ LeMahieu hits one of those no-way, game-tying home runs that can damage the psyche of the team that gives it up.

“I just sort of kept my head down,” Reddick admits later. “Just stunned.”

Everyone in Minute Maid Park is. Well, everyone except for perhaps one man.

For almost as soon as he gets back into the Houston Astros dugout when the top of the ninth mercifully ends, Jose Altuve retreats up the tunnel to watch video of Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman. Gerrit Cole, the man who will start Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night and become the highest paid pitcher in baseball this offseason, watches Altuve as Altuve watches Chapman.

One baseball craftsman to another, Cole marvels at Altuve’s demeanor in the moment.

“His indifference to success and failure,” Cole says, shaking his head in wonder. “I’ve seen him do that so many times. But to see the same look in May as in Game 6 of the ALCS takes a lot of preparation and a lot of guts.”

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Everyone else may feel like the world is falling apart around them in the madness of a Minute Maid Park seemingly knocked off its axis. But Jose Altuve is going to get ready for his at-bat.

Altuve is more than ready when Chapman tries to sneak a backdoor slider past him. He turns on the pitch and sends the Astros screaming right into the World Series. Walkoff! Game over. Heavyweight American League Championship Series won. So much for LeMahieu’s epic home run damaging baseball’s best team.

Jose Altuve will never let doubt settle in.

“He’s been here since the beginning,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow says of Altuve as the celebration goes on around him on the field. “For Jose Altuve to hit a walkoff home run to send us to the World Series. . . that’s story book stuff.”

It happens because Jose Altuve does not believe in October horror stories. He just believes in his next at-bat, his next chance to grab a game.

When he ends this one with that soaring shot to left center (“I knew it was gone as soon as he hit it,” Luhnow says), delivering the Astros into the Fall Classic with a 6-4 Game 6 win, Altuve finds himself turning into a human piñata. Everyone wants a piece. George Springer lifts Altuve off the ground and spins around with the ALCS MVP in his arms. Carlos Correa grabs Altuve and pulls him on a happy trot, sharing a moment with his buddy/mentor.

The best moment may be when Altuve picks up his little daughter Melanie (who turns three this month) and asks her for a hug and she playfully grabs his cheeks. It does not get any sweeter than Jose Altuve celebrating sending the Astros to their second World Series in three years his way.

“We’re not going to the World Series because of me,” Altuve insists. “We’re going to the World Series because of everybody inside of the clubhouse.”

This is Jose Altuve, too. He never wants the moment to be about him. He wants to share it. So Altuve brings up George Springer drawing a walk against the 100 MPH throwing Chapman with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, allowing Altuve to step to the plate. He talks about how big Yuli Gurriel’s first inning three run homer that has the Yankees playing from their heels all night long is to the win.

“He’s a special person and a special talent,” Astros outfielder Michael Brantley says of Altuve. “People don’t see behind the scenes at all the things he does to be a great teammate. I was blown away by the guy from day one.”

Brantley played on some uber talented Cleveland Indians teams before signing with the Astros as a free agent this winter. He knows how invaluable — and rare — a leader like Altuve is.

Jose Altuve’s Greatness

Houston Rockets guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who watch the game from the front row with Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, a few seats from Kate Upton, would be wise to take some mental notes. For Jose Altuve, the 5-foot-6 battler who just kept showing up after people told him he couldn’t be a big leaguer, is the walking personification of a true championship will.

Altuve likes to say that he is not a home run hitter. He often jokes with his teammates that he is past his prime at age 29. But no player in baseball has more home runs in these 2019 playoffs than Altuve’s five. No else has more than three.

Make no mistake, the Astros are back in the World Series in part because they have the best October player on the planet.

“It’s crazy,” Astros opener Brad Peacock says in a Budweiser and champagne soaked — and cigar smoked — Astros clubhouse. “But he’s still so underrated.”

If Jose Altuve still isn’t underrated, there is no way Chapman would have pitched to him in that situation. Especially not with the light hitting Jake Marisnick on deck, two outs on the board and the Astros down to the last two pitchers in the bullpen.

Then, Gerrit Cole might not have been able to break out a special cigar. “This is a Romeo and Juliet,” Cole says. “It’s a mild smoke. Medium bodied.”

It is that kind of night at Minute Maid Park. One where the Astros go from joy to dread to party like it’s 2017 all over again. And then some.

“A little bit of everything,” Springer says when someone asks what he is feeling. “I’m tired. Hungry. Shocked. Speechless.”

This day becomes a test of everything these dynasty chasing Astros are made of. The earlier rainout in New York forces both teams to fly back to Houston overnight after the Yankees’ series-extending Game 5 win. It is still dark when the Astros get back to Minute Maid, but the birds are starting to chirp. Peacock will retreat to the Astros nap room to catch five hours of fitful sleep.

Peacock will become the first pitcher since Firpo Marberry in 1924 to start a playoff game the day after finishing one.

“We all knew what the deal was,” Peacock says of the Astros bullpen game approach to Game 6. “We all just wanted to do our job and get it to the next guy.”

There are a lot of Next Guy Heroes on this night. The Astros defense goes next level with the World Series in reach. Reddick races over to make a diving snare of Brett Gardner’s low screaming shots to right field in the sixth. Brantley makes an even better catch in the seventh. He goes low to catch a Aaron Hicks’ sinking shot — and comes up firing to double Aaron Judge off first base.

The Yankees cannot get the big hit to fall. The Astros will not let anything fall.

In the eighth inning, it’s reliever Joe Smith getting Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez to ground into an inning ending double play orchestrated perfectly by Correa. Defense, defense everywhere.

Then, LeMahieu goes Albert Pujols in a 10-pitch at-bat against Astros closer Roberto Osuna that includes fouling off four straight pitches with two strikes. Springer leaps for LeMahieu’s shot at the right field wall. Springer thinks he has it. But the baseball lands in the first few rows of the stands. Minute Maid Park is stunned. But Jose Altuve is ready to go back to work.

Cole watches Altuve watching video and just knows. The ace tells a few of his teammates that Altuve is going to end this if Chapman gives him anything to hit. Retelling the story, Cole stops. He knows this is a tale that will live on in many late nights to come over the years. Right now, he has other priorities.

“Guys, my cigar is out,” Cole says to the scrum of reporters surrounding him. “And I would like to light it and go enjoy it.”

With that, Cole happily bounces into a more secluded area of the clubhouse.

The psyche of these Astros could not be better. Having Jose Altuve on your side will do that. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em. The World Series is coming.

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