Steve Sax has watched Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve “standing alone on an island” during the ALCS, and it breaks his heart.
Sax overcame one of baseball’s most pronounced cases of the throwing yips with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1980s, and the former NL Rookie of the Year is “reliving that nightmare” watching Altuve going through a similar situation.
“It really does pain me. I’m a big Jose Altuve fan. And I really hate to see this. Nobody deserves this,” Sax told The Post on Wednesday in a telephone interview. “I totally feel for him. You can tell that it’s been great pains for him to try to endure this.
“It’s terrible, because it’s happening at the worst possible time. The good news is that this thing is conquerable. He can conquer it.”
Sax committed 24 errors – many of them on wild throws — in the first half of the 1983 season, his sophomore year with the Dodgers. Fans sitting behind the first base dugout in various cities even mockingly began to wear batting helmets for protection.
Altuve, the 2017 AL MVP and the 2015 Gold Glove winner at second base, has committed four throwing errors in the 2020 MLB playoffs, including three costly ones with the Astros in an 0-3 hole in the ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Jose Altuve does not have anything wrong with him,” Sax said. “He does not have a mental block. He does not have anything wrong with his mechanics.
“The only thing that’s wrong with Jose Altuve that I would guess he has — like everybody else it’s happened to, like me, as well — a temporary loss of confidence. That’s all it is. The throwing is a symptom of confidence, the throwing is not the issue. You fix that in practice. Once his confidence comes back, that symptom will dry up as fast as it came and he’ll be back to being a Gold Glover again.”
Sax said he received similar advice during June of 1983 from his dying father, John. “It was the last conversation we ever had,” he said.
Sax, now an analyst for MLB Network Radio, quickly overcame the affliction and committed just six errors following the 1983 All-Star break. He later led the American League in fielding percentage among second baseman in 1989, his first of three seasons with the Yankees.
Another prominent Yankees second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, endured similar throwing issues during his Bronx tenure beginning in 1998. The Yanks eventually were forced to move him to left field.
“That was a guy who never overcame it. It wrecked his career,” Sax said. “I remember watching (Knoblauch) on TV and seeing it in his eyes. And I can see it in Jose Altuve’s eyes when they do close-ups on him.
“He’s got so much noise in his head right now, like a boxer in the ring that just got hit with a right cross, and he doesn’t know where the hell he is. He’s stunned right now. And I hate to say this, but he’s absolutely scared to death. Because I was the same way. I was the loneliest person in the world in front of 56,000 people.”
Sax said he once received a postcard from a 12-year-old girl in Washington that read “Mr. Sax, I’m 12 years old and play softball and I can throw it to first. What’s your deal?” He’s never forgotten it.
“It’s the worst feeling, the most embarrassing and horrible thing you can ever imagine,” he said. “I don’t wish this on my worst enemy. I really feel for this young man right now.”
While he never reached out to Knoblauch during his yips issue, Sax said if he’s asked, he gladly would speak with Altuve if his throwing woes continue.
“(Houston manager) Dusty Baker is a really good friend of mine. We were teammates with the Dodgers, and his dad and my dad got to be close friends,” said Sax, who now resides in the Sacramento area. “Dusty lives down the street from me. He’s like a big brother to me.
“He’s a great manager, and I think he can handle this. He has a great infield coach in Chris Speier, somebody I admire a lot. They have all the internals to help out Jose. But if they he reached out to me and wanted me to talk to him, of course I would.”
Sax stressed that he doesn’t believe Altuve’s problem has anything to do with the substandard COVID-shortened regular season or the fallout from the Astros’ uncovered sign-stealing scandal from the 2017 season.
“I don’t, but I think the issue he is going through is very serious. Because I know better than anyone what it’s like,” Sax said. “He’s got to jump on it, he’s got to own it, and he’s got to make it a personal quest to beat this monster.
“And I fully believe that’s possible for him. He can go from where he is now to being that Gold Glover again, no question in my mind. But he has to take hold of it.”