Joe Morgan, who is 5-foot-7, on his way to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame weekend, took some time to talk about Jose Altuve, who is listed at 5-foot-6 and sure seems to be on his way to Cooperstown himself. Morgan was 27 when he played his last season in Houston. Altuve turned 27 in May. Of course, they're both second basemen. Morgan didn't become a star until he got with the Reds. Altuve is a big star of his sport already. Getting bigger and playing bigger and making a bigger name for himself all the time.
"I think he's the best all-around player in the game," Morgan said. "I know people say it's Mike Trout. But I think [Altuve] is. He hits for higher average. He steals more bases. He drives in runs and he scores runs. I don't know what more he can do on a baseball field."
Morgan was just getting going.
"It's more than just analytics," he said. "If you watch him day in and day out, and I've been watching him closely for years, you know that he passes the eye test. You watch him and you just know. I've been saying the same thing for a while: Man, this guy is good. And he just keeps getting better."
I asked Morgan if it is almost insulting to qualify high praise for Altuve because of his size, asking a 5-foot-7 baseball immortal about a 5-foot-6 guy well on his way to achieving that same status himself. Morgan laughed.
"I think you do insult him," Morgan said. "You know what they used to say about me? 'He's a good little player.' But then they look at Trout and say, 'That's what a great player is supposed to look like.' And trust me, this is nothing against Mike Trout. I love watching him play baseball, too. But right now, I honestly believe [Altuve] is the best all-around player. I don't know what box you don't check with him.
"I have to admit, the first time I saw him, I thought: 'Damn he's small.' Now I don't even think about it. I just watch him play. I don't think of him being small anymore. Because nothing about his game is small."
Going into this weekend, Altuve is hitting .365. He has 141 hits in 98 games, 32 doubles, 15 home runs and 59 RBIs. His on-base percentage is .430. His slugging percentage is .575. His OPS is 1.005. On a team that has Carlos Correa playing next to Altuve at shortstop and with George Springer having the kind of season he's having, Altuve remains the player to watch in Houston. If you add it up, and even underneath all the home runs being hit by Aaron Judge and everybody else, Altuve has been the American League MVP through the first 100 games.
"You know what's been the real fun with him?" Morgan said. "Watching him grow. He's better this year than he was last year. He was better last year than the year before. And at the end of every year, he's one of the last guys standing."
The player known as Little Joe paused.
"Whatever thing he needs to do to help his team win the game, he finds a way to do that thing," Morgan said. "I've met him a few times now. And on top of everything else, he's a gentleman of this game, one who understands the history of the game."
Morgan paused again and then said, "The real deal."
Altuve is. All ways. Every day. This is what he said to me in West Palm Beach, Fla., on a Spring Training morning nearly five months ago:
"Back in the day, when I am still in the Minor Leagues, I used to think about size, but only because I wondered if people would really be able to see what I could do. But I never doubted myself. Never. Never doubted what I could do. It didn't matter to me how tall I was. I just wanted to be great."
Now Altuve is truly great, in this great time for his sport, with this abundance of young talent. Still manages to get lost in the crowd, more than somewhat because of the abundance of young talent on his own team. It is because of Trout, the king of analytics in baseball even in a season when he has played 40 fewer games than Altuve because of injury. It is because of Judge. And Cody Bellinger. And because of balls flying out of ballparks the way they are, like Titleists.
Morgan knows what this is like. He once played on the same Big Red Machine team with Pete Rose and Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. And still made people see him. Still made it to Cooperstown, playing as big as he did in his time.
"Altuve does something every day," Morgan said.
Starting with the 2013 season, Altuve has more hits than anybody in baseball, moving up on 1,000 hits for that period. Since the start of the 2014 season, Altuve has 782 hits. It is 112 more than the next closest guy, Charlie Blackmon. Altuve has three 200-hit seasons and, if blessed with good health, is in the process of making it four. He has two batting championships and is working on a third.
"You just have to keep saying it," Morgan said. "Not a little player. Just the most complete player I'm watching this season."
Maybe what Altuve really needs to do is get more of the stage in October than he and his team have gotten so far. Maybe what he needs is to make the whole world really take a good look at him in October. Morgan, who played in Houston when the team was still called the Colt .45s, thinks they can do it this season whether they make a big Trade Deadline deal or not.
"There's always a lot of talk about how dominant pitching can be in a short series," Morgan said. "But take a look at the way the Astros play. They don't strike out. They put the ball in play. And they know how to play."
And they are led by the guy at second base. Springer has had a quad injury. Correa hurt a thumb and probably won't be back before September. So Altuve has been leading off. Keeps hitting. Two more hits on Wednesday night. Over his past 23 games, he is hitting .500 (49-for-98), with four home runs, 11 doubles and 23 RBIs. Twenty-three runs. Nine stolen bases. Just that.
"You keep coming back to the same thing," the great Joe Morgan said. "[Altuve] plays like a big guy. Very big guy."