“Totally vindicated—at enormous cost”

J.R. Richard

J.R. Richard, who couldn’t convince anyone who mattered that something was seriously wrong with him before a trio of strokes almost killed him in 1980.

“The more money we make the less fans will be sympathetic with an athlete’s problems. I admit, players today are vastly overpaid. It blows my mind thinking about the salaries. But it seems like the money has taken away our humanity. Sign a million-dollar contract and you’re no longer a person. You’re supposed to be perfection.”

Let me guess: you just read those words and think they came from a replacement-level player, a jock-turned-broadcaster, or a sportswriter. If you chose the third, you’re half right. Thomas Boswell got those words out of the mouth of Deacon Jones—not the football legend, but the pitching coach of the 1980 Astros.

Jones spoke about the late James Rodney Richard. (That’s how broadcasters starting with Dodger legend Vin Scully identified him invariably on the first reference during a game.) What hitters couldn’t do to him at his best, what turned out a trio of strokes did. They took down and nearly killed the 6’8″ righthander who looked as though he could shake your hand from the mound without reaching before blowing you away.

Richard’s collapse during a personal Astrodome workout while on the disabled list embarrassed everyone in the game—from the Astros themselves on upward and outward. The ones who accused Richard of malingering. At best. At worst, well, you almost don’t want to know.

Jones and a few others with and around the Astros spoke to Boswell the day after. “Richard’s life and his career remained in danger yesterday in the aftermath of emergency ‘life-or-death’ surgery Wednesday for removal of the clot,” Boswell wrote. “However, Richard, whose reputation had suffered much public damage in the last month, was totally vindicated—but at enormous cost.”

For two months prior to that fateful workout and collapse, Richard struggled to pitch through an inexplicably dead feeling shoulder and arm that left his fingertips showing blood traces and his fingers feeling numb. Even in the 1980 All-Star Game, when he started the game and struck four batters out including Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Carlton Fisk.

“The saddest irony of Richard’s two months of pain,” Boswell wrote, “was that his fortitude and determination to pitch were what led to almost universal questioning of his motives.”

“”I hope the skeptics are happy now,” Jones said to Boswell. “J.R. has almost had to die before anyone would take him at his word.”

Every town where we went for weeks there were stories intimating that J.R. was a drug addict, or that he was jealous of [teammate/rotation mate] Nolan Ryan and wanted more money, or that he was just a rich, lazy athlete who was loafing.

This whole experience has felt sort of tragic because it’s so typical of our society to assume the worst about everybody. In J.R.’s case, they assumed the worst about the best.

“The world owes J.R. Richard an apology,” said a Houston radio editorial quoted by Boswell to open that essay. How often did that station’s sports people and others on the air and in the printed press of the time launch or jump aboard the lazy-J.R. wagon?

Think about Boswell’s words a moment. You can pitch or play your way through inexplicable pain and have your motives questioned. You can do something about that inexplicable pain before it turns to something worse—and have your motives questioned. In professional sports, it’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

Did we learn our lesson after what happened to Richard? Of course not. It’s bad enough that Joe and Jane Fan—and, too often, Joe and Jane Sportswriter or Joe and Jane Broadcaster—think losing is a sign of moral turpitude. It’s worse that, as often as not, they think injuries or illnesses equal character flaws. Including a penchant for theft.

Or have you forgotten how often people talked about the millions Albert Pujols “stole” from the Angels when—after he had a first Angel season reasonably close to a future Hall of Famer’s best when he’s about to hit a natural decline phase—a series of foot and leg and lower body injuries reduced him to a comparative shell who could still hit but couldn’t do anything else for the rest of his time in Anaheim?

It’s even worse than that when athletes who should be the first to know better see a struggling teammate who knows something’s grievously wrong with him and dismiss him as a malingering weakling—whether he’s a 6’8″ behemoth or a 5’10” shrimp.

Leo Durocher dismissed injured players as quitters. I’m racking my brain trying to remember which manager or coach was quoted as saying, “If you’re injured, you’re dead to me.” For a black athlete who only looked invincible on the mound enough that he seemed to be toying with hitters as if enjoying a private laugh, it was even worse.

“I hate to get into this,” Jones told Boswell. “Sure, being black is part of the way J.R. got treated. You won’t find a black player who doesn’t assume that. But, partly, it’s being rich and partly it’s being so big and indestructible looking.”

“The same people who cut [Richard] up so bad and said he is ‘jaking’ or having a nervous breakdown or even that he was getting a divorce,” fumed Richard’s Astros teammate and bestie Enos Cabell, “it’s like they’re down in a hole today with their shoulders hunched so low that you can barely see them. But they’ve done their damage.”

Don’t get me started on the graveyards worth of players who played through injuries or illnesses, made them worse, and cost their teams a lot more than what their teams lost with them on disabled lists. Who knows whether the 1980 Astros would have gone all the way, instead of being throttled in the National League Championship Series, if Richard’s early complaints were heeded, diagnosed properly, and treated accordingly?

Sports medicine has been a cesspool of willful ignorance and downright malpractice for a very long time—from long before what happened to J.R. Richard. In too many ways, it still is. It also works in reverse now and then. Who knows how often still a team receives  sound medical counsel and dismisses it the way George Steinbrenner once dismissed such counsel to make a dubious trade for a pitcher on the threshold of career over?

Steinbrenner wanted to trade for White Sox lefthander Britt Burns in 1985. The Yankees’ own team doctor, John Bonamo, told Steinbrenner not to even think about making the deal, because Burns turned up with a congenital hip issue that was likely to finish his career. After Bonamo left the room, according to Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees, Steinbrenner turned to others said, “What does he know about baseball? He’s a doctor. We’re baseball men.”

The Boss made the deal anyway. Sure enough, Burns never threw another major league pitch. Dr. Bonamo would have been within his rights to snort about what Steinbrenner and his “baseball men” didn’t know about medicine.

Competent doctors with the 1980 Astros would have suggested a neurologist and a thoracic specialist have a look when Richard complained about the continuing numbness in his fingers, ringing in his ears, and general fatigue in his shoulder area. But maybe that Astro administration would have sniffed that “baseball men” knew better, too.

Those Astro quacks—who weren’t just on their medical staff—just told him to shake it off and keep throwing those 100 mph fastballs. Just the way a few too many fans today tell Mike Trout to just shake off that calf injury, get back up there, swing, and challenge outfield fences again. Damn the prospective long-term cost.

You may or may not remember: Richard eventually won a $1.2 million malpractise suit against those Astro quacks.

Richard’s career was over for all intent and purpose after that trio of strokes. He hit rock bottom over the decade to follow, then picked himself up, dusted himself off, and resurrected himself with a little help from his friends. (And, a lot of help from his church and his third wife.) Among all baseball’s injury/illness-felled “what-ifs,” Richard’s at least in the top five.

And Joe and Jane Fan, Joe and Jane Sportswriter, and Joe and Jane Broadcaster, often as not, still don’t learn. The least-seeming injury can be and often is a lot more serious and obstructive than you think. To which the only proper answer should be, “If you think injuries or illnesses equal malingering, moral turpitude, or money theft, you’re dead to me.”

J.R. Richard, RIP: Redeemed

J.R. Richard

It was easier to square off against a Boeing 747 than to face J.R. Richard at his peak.

You couldn’t resist wondering when you saw him at his peak. Suppose 6’8″ James Rodney Richard’s career began early enough to give him a shot at pitching to 6’8″ Frank Howard. Paul Bunyan at the plate versus the Leaning Tower of Houston on the mound. Accompanying music, John Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps.”

There might have been one of two outcomes. Either Howard was going to hit Richard for a home run making first contact with the Delta Quadrant, or Richard was going to bust three strikes through Howard as casually as the Lou’siana fisherman Richard loved to be on his free time.

“(I)f you beat me,” J.R. Richard said in 2012, remembering his attitude on the mound, “I’m gonna die trying. I was willing to give my life for it.” He damn near gave his life for it.

What National League hitters couldn’t do once Richard finally harnessed his outsize ability, a stroke did, while he was on the disabled list after he’d started the 1980 All-Star Game by striking out three American League batters including Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Carlton Fisk.

It embarrassed everyone in baseball, too many of whom including his own team accused Richard—who died at 71 Wednesday night—of dogging it when he began complaining about feeling excess fatigue in his arm and shoulder areas before the All-Star break.

Not even renowned surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe could pinpoint the sources, after Richard visited him complaining of numbness in his fingers and ringing in his ears. Jobe and other doctors discovered obstructions in his arm and neck arteries—but decided they weren’t serious enough for surgery.

With the Astros on the road Richard gave himself a private workout at the Astrodome on 30 July 1980—and collapsed. The CAT scans to follow showed he’d actually suffered three strokes and also had thoracic outlet syndrome present thanks to his over-developed shoulder muscles. The strokes left his left side useless long enough.

Richard recovered enough to attempt a career comeback or two but it was futile. Now-retired Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell caught up to him during one of those comeback bids. “Richard is more pleasant, more outgoing, more generous with other people than ever before in his life,” Boswell observed.

Once he was the most forbidding Astro. Now he may be the least, signing autographs and seeking out chitchat. After a lifetime as the Goliath overdog, he is now everybody’s underdog, and he enjoys it. Richard may even have become the symbol of a decent, long-out-of-fashion idea: mutual tolerance.

““(W)hen people don’t understand who you are, when people can’t control you,” Richard told radio interviewer Bill Littlefield in 2015, promoting his memoir Still Throwing Heat, “they have a tendency to want to destroy you. But see, you got to realize this: Sports is a business. Nothing more or nothing less.”

Richard had signed a four-year, $3.2 million contract with the Astros the year before the trio of stroke took him down. His career ended for keeps in 1984 and he returned to his native Louisiana. He spent lots of time between there and Galveston fishing as if his life depended on it. He won a $1.2 million malpractise action against the Astros’ medical staff. He sold cars and recreational vehicles for a spell or two.

But then Richard, unlike his television namesake J.R. Ewing, discovered he had as much ability to navigate the oil business as hitters once had navigating his cruise-missile fastballs and his sweeping sliders. He lost $300,000 in what turned out an oil investment scam. Then he lost over $600,000 in his first divorce.

That led to a series of further business problems, a second failed marriage, and the loss of his home, finally bringing Richard so low that he lived homeless under a Houston bridge—until former teammates Jimmy (The Toy Cannon) Wynn and Bob Watson intervened.

Wynn called Watson, then the Astros’ general manager, some time in 1994. They reached out to the Baseball Assistance Team and together helped Richard back onto his feet. So did Richard’s church minister, Rev. Floyd Lewis, helping him stay on his feet and become a minister himself.

J.R. and Lula Richard

Richard with his wife, Lula: “My life is now better than ever because of the love of my life.”

He drew on his own homeless experience to help the homeless in particular, when not working with Houston donors to set up assorted children’s baseball programs where he’d teach the kids the game and a few hard-earned lessons of life, too.

“You see,” Richard told Littlefield, “a man could eat a whole whale, but it takes one bite at a time. Or he can walk a mile, but it takes one step at a time. So if you’re willing to take that step, [God] will make a way out of no way. See, God is the only one I know who can take a mess, go in a mess, clean up a mess and come back out and don’t be messy. Now you figure that out.”

Health and fate made that harder to figure out than he figured out how to strike fifteen Giants out in his first major league start—tying the rookie record set by Dodger legend Karl Spooner in 1954—or how to smash Hall of Famer Tom Seaver’s single-season National League record for righthanded pitchers.

Richard figured it out enough, too, to remarry happily. He met his third wife, Lula, when they shared a bus on a church trip. Maybe a little impulsively, Richard wrote his telephone number inside the cover of Lula’s Bible, and shared a steak dinner for their first date. They “courted” (Richard’s word) two years before marrying in 2010.

“She helped with a lot of stability, in every way,” Richard once said of her.

The man who once said he was the only man in baseball who could throw a ball through a car wash without the ball getting wet never lost his laconic wit, either, no matter what. Fans meeting him in later years and remembering their shock over his strokes often drew such replies as, “I couldn’t believe it, either.”

The Astros inducted Richard into the team’s Hall of Fame two years ago. They haven’t yet conferred the one thing Richard wanted most dearly when all was said and done, retiring his uniform number 50.

Nobody could believe what might have been the oddest game of Richard’s career. On 19 September 1978—the night he broke Seaver’s record—his mound opponent was Jim Bouton, Ball Four author, one-time Astro, attempting a quixotic comeback with the Braves. “The young flamethrower and the old junkballer,” Bouton described the matchup. Others called it David vs. Goliath.

Richard surrendered two earned run on three hits and three walks in seven inning; his money punchout came at the expense of Braves third baseman Bob Horner. Bouton surrendered two earned runs on five hits, walking five, striking out one. Lopsided as that looks, David and Goliath still fought to a draw. (The Braves won the game in the ninth.)

It wasn’t half as impressive as the battle Richard won after his career, the battle of life, after the kind of buffetings that would send lesser men into the Phantom Zone of walking death. May his beloved Lula, his family, all those who loved him for himself and respected his self resurrection, take comfort that the Lord in whom he devoutly believed welcomes him home with gentleness and kindness.

And, maybe, with a gentle joke Richard himself would appreciate—“About that car wash, J.R. . . . “