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April 21, 2009 at 1:22 am ET
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Jawin’ with J.R. — A B&C Interview with J.R. Richard

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Standing 6′ 8″ and 240 pounds, J.R. Richard was a little bit Randy Johnson. With a repertoire that featured a fastball clocked at better than 100 miles per hour and a slider that registered in the low 90s, Richard was a little bit Sandy Koufax. And with a menacing intensity on the mound, Richard was a little bit Bob Gibson.

In short, Richard was intimidation personified.

Just the second Houston hurler to win 20 games, and the first to win 18 in back-to-back seasons, Richard became the first National League right-hander to record 300 strikeouts in a season, and only the third pitcher in modern history to record that number in back-to-back seasons, joining Nolan Ryan and Koufax in 1979.

By 1980, Richard was entering his prime for the Astros at the age of 30. The Louisiana native was leading the league in wins (10), ERA (1.89) and strikeouts (119), and was the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.

But Richard wasn’t feeling right, he wasn’t feeling strong, and had informed the Houston staff as much. Following several tests that discovered nothing, Richard was told that  the weak, drained feeling was in his head. Some in the media even suggested that Richard was lazy, though he hadn’t missed a start in five years.

Then, on July 30, Richard collapsed on the Astrodome turf while playing catch, having suffered a massive stroke.

Richard was rushed to hospital and underwent emergency surgery focused on saving his life, rather than his pitching career.

After the stroke, Richard was not the same and never climbed a major league mound again. At 107-71, with a 3.15 ERA and 1,493 strikeouts in 1,606 innings, perhaps the most dominant pitcher in baseball quietly walked away from the game in 1983.

Richard fell on hard times. Bad investments, a divorce and financial exploitation all led to his lowest point, homeless life under a bridge in Houston.

Through the help of friends, though, Richard’s life didn’t end, but rather began anew. What he did in baseball, however, will never be forgotten.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan remarks to this day that “He had the greatest stuff I have ever seen, and it still gives me goose bumps to think of what he might have become.”

Richard was generous enough to answer some questions to discuss why his number 50 hasn’t been retired by the Astros, why he was better than Nolan Ryan, what helping others means to him, and the lasting message he’d like to leave as a legacy.

B & C is proud to give you, the loyal and learned B & C reader, James Rodney Richard.

*****

First of all, thank you for speaking with us. We really appreciate it.

Allright, thank you.

Five Astros pitchers have had their numbers retired, including two, Nolan Ryan and Don Wilson, who won fewer games with Houston than you did. Why isn’t your number 50 retired at Minute Maid Park?

That question I cannot answer. I do not have anything to do with that. Really, the same question has often been offered at me — why? But I cannot ask myself too many questions about that, I don’t try to seek the answers, because at this time, I really don’t know. And I have a lot of people, everywhere I go asking me the same question — why? And I have no answer.

Were you better than Nolan Ryan?

Yes. I think I was, but at the same time, I mean, Nolan Ryan’s statistics speak for themselves. He played longer than I did, but I firmly believe that, given the same richard-and-ryanamount of time, I would have broken every record he had. I think I could have re-written the history books.

You dominated every team that you faced, but you were particularly effective against the great Dodgers teams of the late ’70s and 1980, posting a 14-4 career record against them. What about Los Angeles brought out the best in you?

They didn’t bring out the best in me, I don’t think. They didn’t bring out the best in me, because I think I played the same against every team. I didn’t have a special team that I played differently. My ability did not fluctuate, it was the same all the time. I just had more success against the Dodgers.

In 1980, when did you first notice that you weren’t feeling right?

I noticed that I wasn’t feeling right early in the month of June. To tell you the truth, in May, I wasn’t feeling right in May. And there had been times before that where I wasn’t feeling up to par, so I told the Astros, “Something is wrong, something is wrong.” So they sent me to different doctors and all of this, and the doctors couldn’t find anything so they just said, “Oh, it’s all in his head,” but I knew it wasn’t all in my head. And the reason why was because I never did debate the issue about it being healed, being better, what was really wrong, because I didn’t know what it was. But I knew there was something wrong.

How many times did you bring it to the Houston Astros organization’s attention? Clearly this was not a one-time thing.

Several times. It wasn’t my first rodeo in going to them, I had gone to the Astros quite a number of times. You could look up the medical records, the history, I don’t know if they wrote it down, but I had specially consulted with the trainer at that time, so I’m pretty sure it was brought to the Astros’ attention a number of times, that I had confided in him about it.

If it had been Ryan complaining about those problems, do you think the Astros would have handled things differently?

I think they would have looked at it a little bit differently. And I’m like this, as long as I know I’m right, I’m not going to sit there and argue with you. Even though I was sent to the doctor, and they called it diagnosing, but they never could find a problem with what it was. It was a thoracic outlet syndrome, which simply means, a blood clot, in my shoulder, was blocking out a portion of blood to my right arm, and my right arm wasn’t getting the amount of blood it should. So, that caused the pains and aches.

What communication did you have with the organization U2013991following your emergency surgery?

They didn’t say too much of anything. I just got put in the hospital after I had a massive stroke on the field, and I was put in the hospital. What happened was, I went to the hospital, and a piece of the blood clot had broke off and had gotten lodged in my neck, in my vein right by my throat, and it got wedged in there, and was really cutting the flow of blood to my brain. And that was when I passed out. And then they finally found the blood clot, and I went out to San Francisco and had the operation with Dr. Ben Wiley, who amazingly died after that. I felt like, if I was given the chance, within this period of time, that I would have come back to play baseball again in the major leagues. But as I study more and more about stroke victims, it takes one heck of a lot to come back from a massive stroke. So you have to be looking at a time thing, I mean, you’re not talking about a couple of years, because you’ve got to realize, everything that I lost, I had to retrain my whole body all over again to what I lost. And that is going to take some time to retrain and regain.

So there was never an apology of any sort that came from the Astros front office for the mistake they made?

If there has been, I haven’t heard it.

Can you talk about what led up to your staying under a bridge in Houston? And how long were you there?

I was there about six months to a year, maybe longer. I didn’t mind it, something new, you know. I mean, I minded it, but I dealt with it. I actually learned a valuable lesson while being under that bridge. First of all, you find out about your friends, your so-called friends, et cetera, et cetera, but you really find out who’s on your side and who’s not on your side. So, like I said, I learned a lot from being under that bridge, so God has a reason and a place for everything. He may have wanted me to see certain things, which I know a lot of things happened, but again, I realized that people, they talk, but they don’t really give a crap about you. So you start thinking differently, and you start acting differently, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still under the bridge, because I realized that I let a lot of people misuse me, they took my money, especially my agents, took my money and squandered it, so as a result, that’s where I ended up, under the bridge.

How soon was it after you got out from under the bridge that you started doing camps, teaching kids about baseball and about life?

When the news media found out that I was under the bridge, of course they started doing interviews, but who helped me was a friend of mine that I’ve known for quite some time, named Chris Clark. He was passing by one night, he thought it was me, but he wasn’t sure so he made a circle, and he picked me up and he said “Come on, man, you can come stay with me till you get on your feet.” So I started living with him, and things just started happening in a positive manner, and I’m where I’m at today because somebody helped.

What do you get out of the baseball camps? What does it mean for you to help children?

It does a lot, because one thing I said was, somebody tried to help me, so I look at kids, and try to instill in kids, that it’s going to all be up to you. Don’t expect nobody to richard-todayhelp, nobody to do what you need for you, learn to do it for yourself. See, most kids realize, if you don’t do it for yourself, I don’t care how many friends they say they have, when the situation arises, the bottom line  is that it’s going to come down to you, and you alone. So you’ve got to keep your nose clean, do what’s right, and treat other people like you would like to be treated. And goodness will follow you all the days of your life. It’s still going to be up to you, you know what I mean? You can’t let any type of situation get you down, because this is what it is — life goes on — with you or without you. You ain’t going to stop nothing. Life goes on, the sun comes up in the morning, so I don’t care how bad you think about some people, how well they have done you or how bad they have done you, the sun still shines. See, because we didn’t put the sun in the sky, God put the sun in the sky, and you have to lived according to it, because it wasn’t put in the sky for your benefit, it was for God’s benefit. So life goes on, and you deal with it. Sometimes the way your hand is dealt, you learn to play with it, you learn to deal with things. And, of course, some things are going to be uncomfortable, but you learn to deal with them to the best of your ability.

Can you talk a bit about your work in the church?

The church has been beyond measure to me, it made me look at people and look at things a lot differently. At this time I’m the associate pastor at a church called Mary Olive, it’s on Delano and McGowen in Houston, Texas. I get a lot of pleasure from watching people, and talking to people, because I have found out that you have some messed up people out here. You have people out here who have no direction whatsoever, and it’s really sad that they have no direction. It’s real sad, because some people are just totally destroyed, they don’t know which way to turn, but I think it’s pretty simple. If you haven’t found a way of making it work in about 20 or 30 years, don’t you think it’s about time you changed? So if people just stopped, and looked at themselves, they’d realize that their way ain’t working, and it’s time for a change.

With everything that you have been through, be it with the Astros or being mistreated, you have done so much for other people and for children. What’s the enduring message, beyond baseball, that you would like to convey about J.R. Richard?

It’s this simple — if each one, could reach one. It’s not about the way somebody treated J.R. Richard, to me it’s not about that, I’m just a piece of the puzzle, I’m not the whole puzzle. I get enjoyment out of helping other people, because I realize that it’s not about me, or what they’ve done to me or how they’re doing me or whatever, because it doesn’t stop the sun from coming up in the morning. People are going to be people, and they’re who they are, you can’t change that. The only person you can change is yourself. You cannot change people.

J.R. Richard, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us, we respect you a tremendous amount and wish you nothing but the best of luck in the future.

Thank you very much, sir. It’s been my pleasure.

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9 Responses to “Jawin’ with J.R. — A B&C Interview with J.R. Richard”
  1. Cam Martin says:

    Outstanding. And I’m not just talking about those old Stros unis.

  2. dude abides says:

    A really great post. A name that doesn’t get as much recognition as it should.

    Those uniforms were really rockin’. ALmost as good as those cubs pale blue pinstripes.

  3. Matt Brown says:

    Linked from Rob Neyer! Great work Lando!!

  4. darrell cooper says:

    The Astros need to retire JR’s number. He proved himself to be a great and faithful to the Astros unlike some of these pitchers who can’t decide whether they’re an Astro or a Yankee.

  5. lee herron says:

    I believe JR has it right put the LORD first in your life don’t look at the past good things will continue to out weigh the negative .Hope the Astros org.reads this .I am a season ticket holder

  6. Bob Hulsey says:

    I believe the primary reason J.R.’s number has not been retired is that he sued the Astros after his career was over, claiming they were responsible – at least in part – for his misdiagnosis and eventual stroke. I don’t know if that suit was filed while the Astros were under McMullen’s ownership or McLane’s, but I suspect that there’s not been a warm relationship between Richard and the Astros ever since. When the All-Time team was introduced in 1999, Richard declined to appear even though he was one of the players chosen and was living in Houston.

    You’ll note that almost every number they’ve retired in the past decade were players that had close friendships with McLane. Right or wrong, I think that is the answer to why #50 is still available.

  7. chumpstain says:

    Great interview. I didn’t know he went through all of that after his career ended prematurely. Sad, but inspiring story.

  8. Jack Priggen says:

    Landon, great interview… a home run!!

  9. Valerie Salembier says:

    1980 was the year Rotisserie League Baseball was founded and I was one of the original Rotisserians. My strategy that first year was to get JR at all costs. I had to pay $39 for him and the other Rotissernuts laughed at me. His stats until his stroke were phenomenal.

    JR, I’m so happy to know that you’re doing so well. I was your biggest fan!

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