When pint-sized Alexi Amarista hit a grand slam home run in Houston the other night to lead the San Diego Padres in a come-from-behind victory, it made me put on my thinking cap. You just don’t see many little guys on the ball diamond anymore.
My grandpa used to say that he was a baseball fan because he “hated a sport where you have to be a freak to be good.” I think he was referring to basketball, although Bob Cousy and Guy Rogers weren’t exactly giants. Baseball had its share of scrappy mighty-mites in the old days, such as Billy Martin, Pee Wee Reese, Nellie Fox and Freddie Patek. But when David Eckstein retired a couple of years ago, it seemed like the smaller pro athlete was near extinction.
Amarista, a 23-year-old Venezuelan infielder, is 5′-6″ and weighs 150 pounds, even while wearing his uniform and cleats. Since scouts look for the biggest, strongest beasts these days, the handful of undersized players who squeeze through the ranks are usually undrafted, foreign-born Latinos. They are signed as amateur free-agent teenagers, often accepting less bonus money than their counterparts here in the USA. Then begins the long journey through the minor leagues while adjusting to the Americanized style of the game.
A couple of old-school players still around are Cesar and Maicer Izturis, 32 and 31 respectively, who broke into the majors as 5′-8″, 150-pound midgets. The Venezuelan brothers have made millions of dollars from the game, and the good life has made their frames and pockets a bit heavier now in their twilight years. Another veteran still hanging around is Wilson Valdez, who remains lean and mean at 5′-11″ and 160 pounds. The 34-year-old Dominican has suited up all over the world, has played all nine positions and still earns about $1 million a year with the Cincinnati Reds.
Most of the new era, mini-players hail from Venezuela, led by potenial super star Jose Altuve. The Houston Astros second baseman is crazy good with stats to prove it, but is currently sidelined with a hamstring problem. Altuve, 23, is 5′-5″ and tips the scales at a bulked up 165 pounds, which could cause groin and other upper leg injuries down the road.
Jonathan Herrera, the Colorado Rockies super-sub, is a childhood friend and teammate of iconic outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Both were Maracaibo sandlot heroes in their youth, but CarGo is bigger and a millionaire home run hitter. Herrera, at 5′-8″ and 165 pounds, plays for minimum wage. And the New York Yankees have big plans for Eduardo Nunez, their string-bean infielder who is currently playing triple-A ball. Nunez stands at nearly 6′-0″, but weighs even less than Valdez and still possesses plenty of pop in his bat.
Alright, I’ll be fair and admit that there are a few “gringos” on this profile list. I’m a big fan of Will Rhymes, the 5′-9″, 155-pound infielder with the Tampa Bay Rays. Speedy, switch-hitting Jemile Weeks of the Oakland A’s also puts on a good show. But the few athletes I’ve mentioned here make up less than 1% of today’s major league players.
So, if you’re the type of fan who appreciates the efforts of the underdog, you might want to cheer a bit louder for these gutsy guys when they come to town. You may need your binoculars to spot them on the field, but you’ll enjoy the entertainment.