“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.”