My conversations with Tony Oliva date to 1974, when he was the Twins designated hitter and I was the beat reporter for the St. Paul newspapers. Forty three years later, Tony still ranks in the top one when it comes to my favorite sports figures in the Twin Cities.
Over those decades, I’ve asked Oliva for hundreds of assessments of ballplayers. I’ve discovered if you ask Tony about a player from Latin America, the odds are strong there will be an optimistic review.
On Tuesday night, the Twins were beaten 7-2 by Houston, with Jose Altuve collecting four of the Astros' 10 hits. He also had three in Monday’s 16-8 victory.
The second baseman from Maracay, Venezuela is now batting .439 in 23 road games and .320 overall.
There was a postgame visit to the visitors clubhouse at Target Field. Later, I was getting off the elevator at the press box. Tony and his partner Alfonso Fernandez had done a Spanish language radio broadcast for the Twins and were waiting for said elevator.
“What do you think of the second baseman, Senor?’’ I asked Oliva.
I knew that Tony-O was going to be praiseworthy of Altuve. I didn't know it was going to such spontaneous enthusiasm.
Tony’s eyes grew wide. He grabbed my left arm and gave it a yank. “That little man, that little hombre … he is one of the two best,’’ Oliva said. “He’s one of the top two players in the league.’’
Presumably, the other player in that twosome would be Mike Trout, the Angels’ center fielder. And with Trout out for weeks with torn ligaments in a thumb, that makes Altuve the best player in the American League in June and July, at a minimum.
,That’s the way he’s viewed in Oliva’s world, anyway, and I’m thinking it’s easy to agree with Tony.
Altuve is now 27. He was a rookie with the Astros for a couple of months in 2011. He was the second baseman in Houston’s last National League season in 2012 and made the All-Star team.
He missed the American League All-Star team in 2013, but has been part of it for the past three seasons. At season’s end, he has led the AL in hits in all three: 225 in 2014, 200 in 2015 and 216 in 2016.
Altuve was the batting champion in 2014 and 2016, and he’s batting a combined .331 over the past three seasons. He is listed at 5-foot-6. If anything, that’s generous.
We all have appreciated Dustin Pedroia for being an amazing second baseman and hitter with short, strong frame. Altuve is every bit Pedroia’s equal, and with great years ahead of him.
Don’t look now but this could be a cycle when the American League has a pair of Hall of Fame second basemen at 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-5.
Altuve was third in the AL’s MVP voting last season, when the Astros missed the playoffs. Now, Houston has the best record and most-impressive team in baseball, at 37-16, and Altuve is the leader of a fantastic lineup.
How good? Alex Bregman is a young third baseman who was so well thought of that he was part of the USA’s roster in the World Baseball Classic. He was batting ninth for the Astros on Tuesday (and hit a home run).
“Everyone knows he is not a ninth hitter,’’ Altuve said. “With our lineup, this was where A.J. batted him. It was perfect.’’
A.J. Hinch is Houston’s manager. I said to him after the game: “For those who don’t see your club regularly, the second baseman is amazing.’’
Hinch said: “I get to see him every day. He’s remarkable. He’s a great person and loves to compete. He represents what everybody aspires to in this game.’’