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Does José Altuve’s Bad Tattoo Explain His ALCS Celebration? A Ringer Investigation.

The ink on the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is dry. Or is it?

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I love bad tattoos, and I love a good cheating scandal. So you can imagine my delight when I learned the Astros had found a way to combine the two.

Part of the hilarity of this MLB offseason’s great sign-stealing saga has always been its low-tech nature: The 2017 World Series champions, purportedly run by the most forward-thinking front office in baseball, banged on literal trash cans to let their batters know what pitch was coming. But no sooner had news of the Astros’ illicit approach broke in November than subsequent reports emerged suggesting the team may have also used more advanced methods, with some noting that the talk around the league was that Houston had used electronic bandages to let hitters know what an opposing pitcher was about to deal. Players involved in the sign stealing have repeatedly denied using buzzers, and the most prominent account to the contrary—from someone who claimed to be former Astros outfielder Carlos Beltrán’s niece—may have come from Incarcerated Bob, a notorious internet troll who’s made his name stirring up shit in the sports world. With little evidence to back the buzzer rumors—and with the facts proving to be stranger than fiction in this affair—it didn’t seem like there would be much fruit on this electronic vine.

Until Saturday.

Shortly after MLB released its report on its investigation into the Astros in January, video resurfaced of José Altuve’s walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS. Every aspect of it suddenly seemed suspicious. How did Altuve know to sit on Aroldis Chapman’s slider? Did the Yankees reliever flash that instantly memeable smile because he knew the Astros were up to no good? And most curiously, why did Altuve appear to demand that his teammates not rip off his jersey in celebration as he crossed home plate? The last part was catnip for the tinfoil hats, who went into full Zapruder mode searching for evidence that Altuve had been wearing an electronic device. The celebration also raised eyebrows among fellow MLB stars.

But no one came up with the explanation that Astros shortstop Carlos Correa offered this weekend for why Altuve wanted to remain clothed on that October night: His diminutive teammate was hiding a brand-new, and apparently terrible, tattoo on his collarbone.

Correa’s comments, made to The Athletic and MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal, create more questions than answers. Just how bad could the tattoo be? How recently before the playoffs did Altuve get it? And would he be the first person ever to hide his newly acquired tattoo (non-hiding-new-ink-from-one’s-parents division, of course)? This is serious business, and demands a serious Ringer investigation.

First, a few words on my qualifications. I’ve been collecting tattoos for more than a decade. I currently have 21 of them. Some are big, like the sleeve on my left arm or the thigh piece that I always forget about until I’m at the gym. Others are small, like the bro tat I got with my friend this summer (hi, Ellie!) or the one directly above it on my calf that was inspired by a Modest Mouse song (pre-“Float On” stuff, of course). Some have taken three sessions when they should’ve taken one. (You gotta get ripped off a few times before you understand.) Others have taken one session when they should’ve taken at least two. (The artist who did the aforementioned thigh piece was massively hungover and booked an appointment to start four hours after mine; he was also a close friend.) I think some of my tattoos are excellent. On the other hand, my mother still asks why I have a donut inked on my left leg. I’m not the world’s preeminent tattoo expert, but as far as sports media goes, I may be your best bet. So, let’s dig in and see if we can determine whether the only thing buzzing on Altuve’s chest was a tattoo gun—or whether this tattoo is covering up something else.

What exactly did Correa say?

Perhaps my favorite part of Tattooghazi is how casually brutal Correa was in describing his buddy’s new piece. After explaining how Altuve’s wife had voiced her disapproval of her husband’s torso being exposed on national TV, Correa said that Altuve also had some ragrets about his new ink:

So when he’s running from third base to home plate, I’m the guy up front. The first one waiting for him. He’s like, “Don’t take my shirt off.” The second reason—he doesn’t want me to talk about this, but I’m going to say it, is because he’s got an unfinished tattoo on his collarbone that honestly looked terrible. It was a bad tattoo, and he didn’t want nobody to see it. He didn’t want to show it at all.

I’ve had plenty of friends get awful-looking tattoos, but I never dreamt of telling them that they “honestly looked terrible.” I can’t imagine I’d tell Ken Rosenthal as much either, but then again, I’ve never been implicated in an all-consuming sign-stealing scandal.

What has Altuve said about it?

On Monday, Altuve spoke to reporters for the first time since Correa told the world about this allegedly terrible collarbone tattoo. He said he got it in the “middle of the season in San Francisco.” When asked by a reporter how many sessions it took, Altuve held up two fingers.

More on this in a bit.

Has anyone seen the tattoo?

Shortly before Altuve spoke to reporters Monday, he walked into the locker room shirtless. This, presumably, was intentional. At the very least, it would appear that his wife has relaxed her rules on waist-up nudity.

What is the tattoo of?

According to the reporters who saw it, Altuve has “Melanie”—his daughter’s name—tattooed on his left clavicle alongside a pink heart.

Is it actually terrible looking?

Unclear, as I’ve yet to see a real review from a media member. ESPN’s Jeff Passan, in particular, has been of no help in this regard.

How big is the tattoo?

Based solely on the descriptions that emerged Monday, I would have to guess that the script is no longer than 3 inches wide. I’m not sure where the heart is placed in relation to the name, but I’d be shocked if the entire thing is more than 2 or 3 inches deep.

How many sessions would that take?

Unless I’ve seriously misjudged the size of this tattoo—could really use your help here, Jeff Passan!—this sounds like a two-hour job, max.

And that’s just one session?

I’ve never heard of a person splitting a tattoo like this into multiple sessions.

What about Altuve’s claims he got the tattoo in the middle of the season?

On July 29, 82 days before hitting his walk-off ALCS home run, Altuve posted two pictures to Instagram of him standing shirtless alongside several of his Astros teammates. The second photo in the set provides a clear view of his chest. He does not have a tattoo on his collarbone nor anywhere else that’s visible in the image.

It would appear the photo is from that day: It bears the caption “Off Day ,” and sure enough, the Astros had a break in their schedule on July 29. Whether the players were actually in the Orinoco River in Venezuela as the post’s geotag indicates is unclear; the team was between series in St. Louis and Cleveland, and a direct flight from St. Louis to Maiquetía, Venezuela, appears to take about five hours, according to this website.

So he got the tattoo shortly after this photo was taken?

Altuve said he got the tattoo done in San Francisco during the season. The Astros did not play the Giants in 2019, but did make one trip to the Bay Area after that Instagram photo was posted: a four-game series in Oakland from August 15-18.

That’s a short ride over the bridge. You’re saying he got it then?

Also unclear. Altuve certainly has the means to fly to San Francisco whenever he’d like, though it’d seem odd for him to do so on a random day in the middle of a playoff race.

Do we know for sure that Altuve got this tattoo during the season and not, say, on Saturday after Correa made his comments?

The only pre-scandal evidence of this tattoo’s existence is a photo from Game 6 of the 2019 World Series that appears to show the “M” from “Melanie” peeking out from beneath Altuve’s jersey. This would seem to indicate he had it by late October.

Elsa/Getty Images

Maybe he got it done earlier, but—and take this with a big tablespoon of salt, because photos can be doctored and angles are tricky, etc.—a closer examination of the broadcast shot of his ALCS walk-off reveals no proof of a tattoo on his left clavicle.

OK, so the timeline is up for debate. Do we know who did this tattoo?

A deep dive into Altuve’s Instagram follows doesn’t turn up anything conclusive. As far as I can tell, he follows only one tattoo artist on the platform: Nathan Cartiel, who’s also followed by athletes like Raiders running back Josh Jacobs and Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. Cartiel is based out of New York, but well-known tattoo artists routinely travel for work. There is, however, no indication on Cartiel’s Instagram profile that he visited San Francisco in August—or any time, for that matter.

(Side note: While Altuve doesn’t appear to follow many tattoo artists on Instagram, he does follow several wine accounts, including @wineenthusiast, @winelibrary, @wine_spectator, and, of course, @wine. He also follows Tiësto.)

Playing devil’s advocate: Let’s assume the above angle is bad, and Altuve got the tattoo over two sessions in the middle of the season, etc. How long would that tattoo take to heal?

If he finished it in mid-August, there’s no way that it wouldn’t have been healed before the ALCS.

So he’s lying?

Not necessarily! As I made clear above, I don’t definitively know when he got the tattoo. I just know that it wouldn’t take more than two months for a tat like this to heal, even if Altuve was slacking on the Aquaphor.

Would he be the first person to ever hide his (presumably) first tattoo?

When I started my sleeve, I basically wore nothing but basketball jerseys for that entire summer. But I am not a professional baseball player. Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow, for instance, has big “hiding my tattoo from my mom” energy.

How bad would Altuve’s tattoo have to be for him to want to hide it?

Athlete tattoos are a special kind of bad. Kevin Durant has a misspelling on his giant back piece, and Jimmy Kimmel roasted Lonzo Ball to a crisp over his sleeve. (There are a handful of other classic NBA examples; I’m partial to the Marcus Camby, Brad Miller, and Chauncey Billups ones.) So when you’re grading tattoos in pro sports, you’re grading on a curve.

Even still, there are lots of bad ones in baseball. Look at this back piece on Rockies pitcher Bryan Shaw. And this tiny neck tat on Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi. Marcus Stroman has words for his critics, doubters, and haters, but apparently not for his tattoo artist, who may be his true worst enemy. Mike Fiers, the whistleblower in the sign-stealing scandal, also has some questionable work, but at least he’s not hiding it. (Though given the beard he briefly rocked in 2019, he’s probably not the best arbiter of taste.)

For Altuve to feel like he couldn’t reveal his tattoo in this kind of setting—well, I guess Correa’s assessment may have been right.

Do any MLB players have good tattoos?

Look, I know that I’m self-identifying as The Ringer’s resident tattoo snob, but I’m not taking that bait. Most athlete tattoos just aren’t my style. With that said, Dallas Keuchel and Mike Clevinger appear to have had quality work done.

Wait, Keuchel got a sleeve but left his elbow naked? Why?

Because he is a coward.

OK, Justin, we get it. You’re the tattoo guy. So what’s your worst piece?

Have you ever seen the No Mas Dock Ellis cartoon? I got an image from that tattooed on my left leg.

Oh no. Why?

Long story. Just know that I debated getting a Larry David tattoo instead.

Fair enough. Have you ever hid it?

I’ve never hid any of my tattoos, but like I said, I’ve never been implicated in a massive sign-stealing scandal.