J.R. Richard’s Legacy Is the Reverence of The Batters He Faced
JR Richard never wavered. His penultimate start was at the All-Star Game in 1980. He was 30 years old, at the height of his power, when it all fell apart. He was the Sandy Koufax of his generation.
Richard died in Houston on Wednesday at the age of 71. He’s never been in the Hall of Fame, never won a Cy Young Award, never competed in the World Series. He may have done all of these things, but a stroke abruptly ended his career and changed the course of his life.
“If I had continued,” he said over the phone in 2015, “I would have rewritten the history books.
Instead, Richard’s career totals, all with the Astros, are modest: 1,493 strikeouts, the same as Larry Dierker, and 107 wins, the same as Edwin Jackson. His legacy is the respect of those who faced him, the wonder of what could have been.
“I’m not kidding: if they took the radar gun they’re using right now and put it on JR, when the ball left his hand like that it was probably going 110,” longtime outfielder Gary Matthews, who faced Richard more than any other hitter, said Thursday.
“If he doesn’t have that stroke, he’s in the Hall of Fame. He had Hall of Fame stuff and he would have had Hall of Fame stats. JR Richard doesn’t have to step aside in front of a pitcher who’s already pitched in the big leagues.
As a child in Ruston, Louisiana, Richard would pick up a pocket of rocks and go into the woods, targeting birds and rabbits. His fastball then came naturally, but he learned his slider by something of a miracle: as a teenager, as he was walking along US Route 167, he found a pitching manual thrown at the side of the road.
Richard mastered the new field so quickly that the Astros pulled him out of high school with the second overall pick in 1969. Two years later, he tied a strikeout record on his major league debut with 15 against the San Francisco Giants. He stoked Willie Mays three times.
“If you ask me who had the best slider I’ve ever seen, it would probably be JR Richard,” said Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame executive who spotted the Astros in the 1960s. was there when we signed him, and I thought he had the hardest, most difficult slider I can remember. “
But Richard, like Koufax, would take years to find his place – always difficult to touch, but prone to walks and wild terrain. Then, like Koufax too, he finished with a five-year bloom before his body gave way at the age of 30.
According to Baseball Reference, the player most similar to Richard, until the age of 30, was Bob Gibson. But there really wasn’t anyone like him, at least until Randy Johnson came along, as the fastpitch bully who stood so tall. Richard was 6 feet 8 inches tall, the tallest baseball pitcher in his career.
Richard faced 16 Hall of Fame batters for a total of 548 batting appearances, the equivalent of a full season of a batter. Collectively, they hit him .245, with 150 strikeouts. All the others combined to reach 0.209.
“He was unique in that he was so tall, so tall, and his slider was so hard, like his fastball,” said Mike Schmidt, who was 7 for 41 without any homerun from Richard, on Thursday. “On the right side of the batter’s box it was very, very intimidating. You almost had to go into defensive strike mode – do whatever you could to just make contact. It was a very unusual night when he pitched.
Perhaps Richard’s career would have gone like Johnson’s. The two led their league on the steps three times until the age of 28, but won crowns on strikeouts at 28 and 29.
In 1980, Richard had just completed consecutive seasons of 300 strikeouts. He was 10-4 with a career best 1.90 earned points at the time of his stroke. He had allowed just two homers in 17 starts and the hitters were up to .166 against him. He dominated the American Leaguers in the All-Star Game.
“I don’t think I was even in my prime when my baseball career ended,” Richard said, in that 2015 interview. “I just got better and better with each passing year. I think I would have taken out 300 batters on strikes four or five more years.
He added: “And something else, as I look back on my career? I should have gone to the New York Yankees. I would have a few World Series rings myself at the moment.
Richard could have had one with Houston in 1980, his first season with Nolan Ryan as a teammate. The Astros lost to the falling Philadelphia Phillies in an exciting best-of-five National League championship streak, with four of five games reaching extra innings. It’s safe to think that Richard could have made the difference.
“Think of Richard and Ryan in the same rotation,” said Schmidt, then the centerpiece of the Phillies. “Crazy.”
In this case, Richard had started his last game on July 14, when he left a shutout against the Atlanta Braves in the fourth inning in Houston. He had an upset stomach, but there was a lot more going on.
Richard was having trouble seeing the receiver’s signs and had been complaining for weeks of a dead arm. He had asked for a month’s rest, but it wasn’t until after leaving Atlanta that he was put on the disabled list. A blood clot was found to be blocking primary circulation to his pitcher’s arm, but was allowed to train.
On July 30, he collapsed at the Astrodome while playing wrestling. The surgeons saved Richard’s life, but the trajectory of that life has changed forever.
“After the stroke he was never the same again, because of the laughs, the manners, you can tell,” said Matthews, who was on deck when Richard threw his last throw and stayed. a close friend. “He would try, but as far as I’m concerned, to know him since we were in the minor leagues, he was a whole different person after the stroke – and who wouldn’t be?” He was almost lucky, by the grace of God, that he could live.
Richard attempted a comeback in the minors, and later in the Senior Professional Baseball Association, but he was too wild to stay. He sold cars and mobile homes for a while, lost money on bad investments, went through a second divorce. He lacked the stamina to stay in shape and struggled with depression. He had no health insurance and was too young to start collecting his major league pension.
In late 1994 and early 1995, Richard was sleeping on a plank under the viaduct of a bridge at 59th and Beechnut Streets in Houston.
“You get used to the sound of cars passing overhead, because you get so tired, so tired – when you put your head down you go,” Richard said in the 2015 interview. “I had it. people I knew when I played ball and went to their house to wash my clothes and eat, maybe spend a night or two. But some of these people had families, and I just didn’t feel right to walk in. So I was going under the bridge, and that’s it.
“At that point, everything became a point of survival. You are trying to survive, you have no transportation, no food, no finances. You often wonder, where do I go from here? “
Richard made it out, with the help of friends and the help of the baseball support team. He worked in construction and became a minister. He remarried and did a lot of fishing, his lifelong hobby. The Astros inducted him into the team’s Hall of Fame.
In 2015, he wrote a memoir, “Still Throwing Heat”, with Lew Freedman. On the back cover is a photo of Richard smiling in his Astros uniform – tequila sunrise style, with an orange rainbow – while casually holding eight baseballs in his right hand.
Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench is famous for holding seven at a time. Richard had eight. It sounds impossible, but that’s what Richard should stand for: the ability to surpass anything you can imagine.
His career will always be unfinished. He will never be forgotten.
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