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Hello again, J.R. Richard

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 18, 2009 11:36 PM

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No exaggeration -- he was that good, and his reputation was enhanced by the reality that he was just wild enough to be completely terrifying. Once, when asked about standing 60 feet 6 inches away from Richard and his 100 mph fastball, a pretty good hitter named Bill Buckners replied, "What you do depends on whether you value your life more than you value one at-bat."

Hitters who transparently requested a day off when Richard was scheduled to pitch were said to have "J.R.-thritis." It seems appropriate that his most similar pitcher through age 30 is the great intimidator Bob Gibson. Perhaps it's even more appropriate that his top pitching similarity overall is another tragically unfortunate former Astro, the late Don Wilson.

No, Richard wouldn't have been featured on this episode had there not been an element of sadness to his story, and his takes a particularly lamentable twist. On July 30, 1980, in the midst of a season in which he had gone 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA and started the All-Star Game, he suffered a stroke while working out at the Astrodome. While doctors saved his life by removing a clot from the two major arteries that was obstructing the flow of blood to his brain, he never pitched in the major leagues again. Adding a layer of sadness to the story was this: Richard had been complaining for a few weeks of a tired arm and fatigue -- symptoms of what was to befall him -- but according to a story titled "Now They Believe Him" in the Aug. 18, 1980 issue of Sports Illustrated, the teammates and media instead portrayed Richard as a malingerer or worse. Wrote William Nack:

Richard had never had a problem with his arm, and thus had never endured the pressures of handling one. Eventually, he grew defensive. Now everybody wanted to know what was wrong with his arm, but he could not explain. He made apparently conflicting statements about his condition. And the Houston media went after him because of the inconsistencies. The media, the fans, even teammates accused him variously of loafing, gutlessness or being jealous of teammate Nolan Ryan's more lucrative contract. There were intimations that he was into drugs. With their pennant chances in jeopardy, some of his teammates sniped at him in print -- often anonymously. It was complex and confusing, and ultimately tragic.

And later:

. . . how could anyone have believed that Richard was dogging it? That he was gutless or lacked personal pride? This was a man who had been a workhorse for as long as he had been on the pitching staff. Until the clot weakened him, he hadn't missed a start in five years.

Richard never made another start, of course, his career abruptly halted at 30 years old, with 107 victories, a 3.15 ERA, and three top-seven finishes in the Cy Young voting to his name.

With better luck or an accurate and early diagnosis, so much more -- perhaps a place alongside Gibson, Ryan, and eventually Johnson in Cooperstown -- could have been accomplished.

But we'll leave the brunt of the wistfulness for another day. Because a few nights ago, it was just nice to get a reminder of all that J.R. Richard did accomplish. What a pitcher he was.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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