The tragedy of J.R. Richard: A story seldom told
AUGUST 5, 1999
by BEN HOCHMAN
The Sporting News
J.R. Richard was baseball's most dominating righthander until a stroke ended his career in 1980.
On July 25, while pitcher Nolan Ryan was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, former teammate J.R. Richard was giving aide the homeless with fellow ministers at the Now Testament Church in Houston. Nineteen years ago, Richard appeared to be right beside Ryan on the path towards Cooperstown.
"But life is what it is. You can't change that," said Richard. "You can't worry about what happened yesterday."
The story of J.R. Richard is one seldom told. The tragic tale of the Richard, who was once baseball's most dominant hurler, shows the righthander's journey from the pinnacle of success to the depths of failure.
Richard, a Houston Astros pitcher at the zenith of his career, had stardom snatched from him by the effects of a near-fatal, career-ending stroke in July of 1980. In the years following the stroke, we see a broken man, a former All-Star plagued with problems, sometimes homeless but never hopeless.
Between 1976 and 1980, whether Richard was one of the best pitchers in baseball was never in question. The question was whether Richard was as good as other modern day greats, particularly Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. "I don't think there was no question," said Richard.
"I did things to exceed Gibson and I did things to exceed Koufax...I'm not trying to pat myself on the back, but I didn't talk too much, and I let the actions do most of my speaking."
Richard made his major league debut in 1971 but for the first five years of his career -- like Koufax before him -- the Astros' pitcher had trouble finding his control and a spot in the starting rotation. But in 1976, Richard won 20 games and emerged as a dominant starter. For the next five seasons, Richard proved himself virtually unhittable.
In 1977, Richard was 18-12 with a 2.97 ERA, 267 innings pitched and 214 strikeouts, second in the NL. In '78, he was 18-11 with a 3.11 ERA, 275 1/3 innings pitched and 16 complete games. His opponents batting average was a minuscule, league-best .196, and he compiled a league-high 303 strikeouts. He became the first National League righthander to ever eclipse the 300-strikeout mark.
With his 6-8, 240-pound frame and a blistering fastball which frequently exceeded 100 mph, Richard was feared across the National League.
"I remember Richie Hebner saying, 'How do you expect me to hit a guy when you can smell his breath?'," said former teammate Bob Watson in 1990. "So that puts it in perspective. The guy was just dominating."
But the year 1979 will standout in Richard's career -- and the record books -- as one of the finest single-season performances ever. Richard was second in the NL in wins (18), innings pitched (292 1/3), complete games (19) and shutouts (four) and was best in the NL with a 2.71 ERA, a .209 opponents batting average and 313 strikeouts, surpassing his own record of single-season strikeouts for a NL righthander.
Entering 1980, Richard continued to dominate. By the All-Star break, he was 10-4 with an ERA under 2.00. He was awarded the starting pitching job for the NL in the All-Star Game. Throughout the early summer of '80, however, Richard continuously complained of a tired arm. Yet, the validity of Richard's injury was questioned by some. "You know what gets me, they talk about me faking!" said Richard. "I'd pitched five years in a row without missing a start and they talking about me faking."
In his only start after the All-Star break, Richard was having trouble seeing the catcher's signs and had unusual slow movement on off-speed pitches. After 3 1/3 innings, he was pulled from the game and placed on the disabled list. From there, according to Richard, no other action was taken. "It was a bunch of junk," said Richard. "Why wasn't I taken to the hospital and diagnosed to see what was really wrong if I'd meant so much to the Houston Astros?"
On July 30, 1980, during what seemed to be an innocent game of catch prior to the evening's game, J.R. Richard collapsed while suffering a major stroke.
The stroke occurred during a time in which blood flow through main arteries in the right side of the neck was cut off. Richard had no pulse in his right carotid artery and blood flow was cut off for three or four hours. Nine hours after Richard collapsed, he underwent emergency, life-saving surgery.
Richard would never visit a major league mound again. In a spring-training comeback attempt in 1981, Richard showed signs of slow reactions and depth perception problems and didn't make the Astros club. By 1983, after a few seasons in the minors, Richard ended any hopes of a comeback.
"I didn't reach my prime! It was all taken from me when I was coming along," said Richard. "Who knows how much better I would have gotten or what kind of records I would have put up? ... I could have struck out 300 or more batters four or five more times... I do firmly believe I would of passed Mr. Nolan Ryan on strikeouts if I had stayed healthy."
He was never the same.
Richard's life became a tailspin of failure and pain. Bad business investments lost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Agents and attorneys turned their backs on him. He divorced twice, lost his suburban Houston home and was near-broke multiple times. In the winter of 1994, Richard was found homeless living under a bridge.
Reverend Floyd Lewis of the Now Testament Church in South Houston helped Richard during his days immediately following being homeless. "Even though he was J.R. Richard, when you are down and out, as they say, it applies to everybody," said Lewis.
"A lot of homeless people don't want to face the responsibility of society," continued Lewis. "But J.R. refused to be there."
With Lewis' aide and a strong sense of God, Richard overcame homelessness. "I always knew God was on my side," said Richard. "I just wasn't on my own side."
Today, Richard is a minister at Lewis' church. Together, they work closely with other homeless people and troubled youth.
"The only way to understand homelessness is to get out there under the bridge," said Richard. "I am very lucky. Anytime God has enough time to stop by me and put something on my lap and change me to make me a better individual, you have to consider yourself to be very fortunate. God allowed me to got through this to make me a better individual."
Richard is working hard to establish programs that help kids survive their troubled surroundings. "I want to help kids across the world and homeless across the world...but first they have want to help themselves," he said. "Knowledge-wise I have a great deal to offer to kids."
Richard is currently working with private donors in Houston to help establish baseball programs for kids. "If they can join a gang, then they can play baseball," said Richard. "Most times they join a gang because they don't have anything else to do"
Many of Richard's experiences can help him connect to those he is working with today. Along with his vast experiences from life in the majors to life without a home, Richard also has had past experiences with drug abuse -- primarily during his playing days. "Most everyone in the world went through a little phase," said Richard. "But I went through it and came out ahead. Today, so many people are looking for the problem, they never can see the solution."
For Richard, watching Nolan Ryan, the man whose records he believes he could have surpassed, inducted into Cooperstown was not painful. "I was happy for him and he deserved it," said Richard. "You can't take anything away from the man because what happen to me in my life -- his records speak for himself...sometimes God has to put different people through different things to get them to understand things. Unfortunately, I was the one."
Surprisingly, Richard seldom takes the time to ask himself "What if...".
"That's hindsight and that doesn't do any good to sit here and dwell on what could of been," said Richard. "It's part of my past and I'm trying to go further in life. I try to leave that alone and look at what's in front of me."
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