Jose Altuve tattoo

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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