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Jose Altuve, Sebastian Giovinco: Coming up short

Saturday 4th November 2017

Reaching the MLS Cup or World Series is a tall order. Yet, in 2017, shorties Jose Altuve and Sebastian Giovinco have led the way in their respective sports.

Much to Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey's chagrin, Americans are combating their long held, deeply rooted prejudices more vigorously than ever. Race, gender, and sexual orientation top the list, but there are others. Concerned activists are resisting the current administration's under-publicised efforts to roll back the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Ageism has been targeted, too, as has body shaming. As evidenced by Randy Newman's current immunity to ostracism, bias against stature is well down the list.

Since releasing Short People in 1977, Newman has distanced himself from the song because too many detractors vilified him for all the satirical, nonsensical criticisms included in the lyrics, as though the sentiment was heartfelt.

They got little baby legs

And they stand so low

You got to pick 'em up

Just to say hello

Well, I don't want no short people

'Round here

The Archie Bunker-esque lyrical style uncompromisingly characterises a bigot. It offended listeners incapable of subtle thought. The bridge, which wholeheartedly rejects the unreasoned hate, was entirely overlooked.

Short people are just the same

As you and I (A fool such as I)

All men are brothers

Until the day they die (It's a wonderful world) 

Similarly overlooked are all but the most insanely talented athletes of limited height in most team competitions. Don't let your partner fool you, guys, size definitely matters.

Cricket is perhaps the lone exception to the rule. Legion are the short batsmen and bowlers who have been immortalised in the game. India's Sachin Tendulkar was 5' 4". As was Pakistani Saeed Ajmal. Kruger van Wyk was just 4' 8". Englishman Tich Cornford towered over the South African-born New Zealand international, standing exactly 5' tall. Indian Parthiv Patel, 5' 3", and Bangladeshi Mominul Haque, shading Patel by a half-inch, are still playing.

In other sports, short players are few and far between.

NFL is land of the giants, save for the field goal kicker occasionally summoned on the field to maintain the tenuous link to the game's name by actually putting foot to ball. Hockey's physical nature encourages a bias towards bigger, stronger players, although every generation has had its smaller stars, from 5' 6" Theo Fleury through 5'8" Martin St. Louis to current standard bearer, 5' 9" Johnny Gaudreau.

Basketball is almost exclusively reserved for athletes well over six feet. Steph Curry is considered small at 6' 3". At least two truly short players have made their mark in the game, however. In the late '80s and early '90s, Spud Webb and Tyrone 'Muggsy' Bogues thrilled fans by weaving their way through the game's looming redwoods. Webb, at 5' 7", notoriously won the NBA Slam Dunk competition at the 1986 All-Star game. At 5' 3", Bogues was the shortest player ever in the NBA. Yet, he was such a skilled ball handler, he carved out a memorable 14-year career with four teams.

Baseball and soccer, two sports traditionally promoted as games anyone can play, have been surprisingly skeptical regarding smaller players.

Bill Veeck, a baseball owner renowned for creative promotions to put asses in seats, once signed 3' 7" Eddie Gaedel to a playing contract for the St Louis Browns. He gave him the number '1/8', then sent him in to bat against the Detroit Tigers. With baseball's strike zone defined as the area over the plate between a batter's armpits and knees (while in a natural, often crouched, stance), Gaedel was walked on four straight pitches. Upon arriving to a standing ovation, he was substituted at first base for a pinch runner, ending his 'short' career.

More serious owners and managers signed short-but-not-that-short-players to man the middle infield positions, which demanded quickness and lateral range. It was therefore long an accepted consequence that second basemen and shortstops would be light hitters. Then bigger players, such as Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, and Ryne Sandberg began bringing home run power to the positions. Beginning in the 1990s, smaller players became a rare exception in the game.

Football (soccer) is presently going through a similar era.

Barcelona, which ruled the European game under Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola, and the late Tito Vilanova, famously built their dynasty around three 5' 7" players: Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi. The five-time Ballon d'Or winning Argentine, who was diagnosed with a growth deficiency during childhood, required hormone treatments just to reach that height. With Xavi now playing out his string in Qatar and the 33-year-old Iniesta's minutes being micro-managed to squeeze every remaining bit of world class from him, the next generation has been decidedly taller. Six foot tall Ivan Rakitic and 5' 11" Cesc Fabregas have been auditioned as Xavi's replacements. Sergi Roberto, 5' 10", and Rafinha, 5' 9", are now being sized up and, no surprise given the precedent set, found wanting. Gerard Deulofeu and, when healthy, Ousmane Dembele, both 5' 10", are absorbing minutes Iniesta once owned.

Five-foot-seven seems to be the glass floor that clubs in elite leagues have set for talent. When he was managing at Juventus, Antonio Conte decided 5'4" Sebastian Giovinco didn't measure up to his requirements. Despite the hometown boy playing 'over his head', making an impact whenever given an opportunity, he was continually given short shrift. When Giovinco sought a fair shake with Toronto FC in Major League Soccer and Conte moved on to coach the national team, the manager rarely considered him for international duty. Conte's successor, Gian Piero Ventura was blunt regarding his reason for excluding the emigrated player.

I have done everything to help him but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn't count for much. 

Ventura may be insensitive, but he isn't wrong. In comparison to top UEFA leagues, MLS does not rate. Its clubs are still short of neighbouring Liga MX's level. There comes a point, however, when an athlete simply wants to play. Giovinco has always demonstrated the skill to feature for a big club but was never given the chance. Were he still at Juventus, Gian Piero would be ruling him out for not playing regular club football. In that context, Giovinco can't win.

With Toronto FC, however, that is all he has done. Since his transatlantic crossing, the Italian has been Major League Soccer's best player while, despite the current Azzurri boss' doubts, improving markedly. Not only has he dominated in attack during run of play, he has become a set-piece wizard, displaying magic at BMO Field that the ageing Andrea Pirlo never did for NYCFC at Yankee Stadium.

Giovinco led TFC to the MLS Final last season, but couldn't deliver the silverware against resolute Seattle Sounders. This season, he appears intent on getting it right. The Reds are up 2-1 on New York Red Bulls going into the home leg of their MLS Eastern Conference semifinal tie. Their diminutive striker has played an important role. If he can carry the team through to the MLS Cup in December, however, he won't be the first short person to be his team's top star in a championship run this year.

The Houston Astros won Game Seven in Major League Baseball's World Series on Wednesday night. Centerfielder George Springer was the big hitter in the playoffs, but 5' 6" Venezuelan, Jose Altuve, carried the team through the 162-game regular season. A consummate contact hitter, Altuve batted .346, scored 112 runs, and stole 32 bases. Yet, he also has power beyond his stature, belting 24 home runs and driving in 81 runners. He is the odds-on favourite to win American League MVP honours over main rival, 6' 7" NY Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

Americans love everything big. That isn't likely to change anytime soon. Despite that bias, its sports fans have a romantic penchant for ignoring the frontrunner and pulling for the little guy. There are five weeks and four games between Toronto FC and an MLS Cup triumph. Yet, if Sebastian Giovinco can emulate Jose Altuve by completing the journey, it will give coming up short an entirely new meaning.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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