Player to preacher

By Dave Hollander

In 1980 an entire city—media, coaches, teammates, public figures—accused one of their brightest stars of drug use, laziness and malingering. They were wrong. At age 30, Houston Astros star pitcher J.R. Richard collapsed from a near-fatal stroke. How did Houston respond? They left him abandoned, unaided, destitute, forgotten and eventually homeless. He’s not happy about it. His life story is the subject of a major motion picture coming soon. Intimidating, dominant then brought low, the former Major League All-Star and 6’8” strikeout machine believes the Houston Astros would’ve treated him differently if he was Nolan Ryan, wasn’t surprised by Enron one bit, and says the only way to understand homelessness is to live hungry under a bridge like he did.

Richards says, “ At that time, I hadn’t thought about anything as far as being a major league pitcher. I just felt real good to be there. And, my whole thing was to be the best in the world. I was raised as young kid to just go out and be the best and don’t talk about what you’ve done. Let other people boast about you. His 103 mph fastball and 6’8” frame made him intimidating, but his 94 mph slider made you virtually un-hittable. Asked who else has ever thrown a slider that hard, he says, “In our lifetime? I don’t know of anybody.” Like Sandy Koufax, for the first five years of his career he was an average major league pitcher—winning almost as much as he lost—until he went 20-15 in 1976. In the next four years he became one of the game’s most successful pitchers, leading the National League with a 2.71 ERA in 1979 and in strike outs in 1978 and 1979, breaking the NL right-hander record twice with two consecutive 300-plus seasons. (1978: 303, 1979: 313)

What changed?

“If it weren’t for the stroke I would’ve struck out over 300 for another five years in a row. I don’t think anything changed. I just kept my goal in mind and kept on doing what I thought would get me to where I wanted to be to be the best. I think one of the major things that changed was my control. My control became better. I wasn’t walking as many guys, I was getting more guys out and I was throwing more strikes on a consistent basis. Of leading the league in both wild pitches (1975, ‘78, ‘79) and walks (1975, ‘76, ’78) for three years, he responds, “I’ll say it like this: I was just wild enough to be effective.”

In June 1980, he began complaining of “dead arm.” The media, fans, and some teammates accused him of being lazy (though he hadn’t missed a start in five years), cowardice (the Astros were in a pennant race), jealousy of Nolan Ryan’s bigger contract, and even drug abuse. Why didn’t the Astros believe him? He says, “I’d think you’d really have to ask the Astros for a correct answer because I don’t know. I do think that had it been Nolan Ryan complaining about something wrong, he would’ve been diagnosed earlier and checked more thoroughly than I was. But that’s the way the world is.”

On July 30th, 1980 at age 30 and just a few weeks after he started the All-Star Game—he suffered a stroke that not only ended his career but almost took his life. Nine hours after he went down, emergency surgery saved him. The first thought in his mind when he finally came to was “Lake Livingston and going fishing.”

As for the Astros response, he says they did check in, “to see if I could pitch again. That was the checking they did.” Asked if this experience damaged his faith in other people, his retort is, “I don’t have faith in other people. I have faith in God. Because I know that’s the source of my beginning and end. That’s the source of everything. It says in the Bible, man will always let you down. So why put faith in man?”

After the stroke, things went from bad to worse—an oil deal scam cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He lost his agent, his attorney, two wives, and his home.

He’s somewhat sanguine, “That happened over a period of time. I never really saw my agent after the stroke. I really turned to God then, because I understood what people are all about. I turned to God to make up for the inadequacy in people. Because you still got to understand, people are people. I understand this: When I married my first two wives it was something on their side. Mine was for love, but it was something on their side that went from love to finances. And when the money left, they left. My second wife stole about $100,000 from me, and she took off…I had an investment check that came from selling some stock. She was working at the the post office at the time. She short-stopped my mail at the post office, brought it home, got my check out, and forged my name.

He was homeless for about six months, but disputes that a Houston Post reporter found him under a bridge, explaining, “He did not find me under no bridge! What happened was that a guy at a church that I was going to, let a reporter know that I was homeless and it started from there. Then I started getting my baseball pension and things started getting better and better. But the Houston reporter did not find me under that bridge. That is not true. People are gonna say anything, and nine times out of 10 when we get to source it’s all a bunch of crap anyway.

“I didn’t get out trying to wash windows or get a dollar or two or get something to eat. I had friends like a guy named Patrick Taylor, who I’ll never forget as long as I live. I’d stayed at his house a couple of nights. Wash my clothes, eat, stuff like that.”

He’s said, “The only way to understand homelessness is to get out there under the bridge and be homeless.”

And he did, “No money, no credit cards, no nothing. Just to get out there yourself and to get homeless and you can really understand what it feels like to be homeless with no money, hunger, and nothing to eat.” Today, he’s a minister in his church, working closely with the homeless and with troubled youth. He tells them, “I realize this: You don’t live in homelessness. Homelessness lives in you. You make the first step. I’ll help you make the rest of them. How many people out there are stepping toward God? They’re stepping toward themselves, not God. And it makes a difference.” n