This week, I sat down for a casual chat with Vin Scully.
One name he brought up without any prodding was J.R. Richard’s. Vinny was recounting the many brilliant young pitchers the Astros ushered into the ‘Dome back in the day. He bemoaned the truncated career of Larry Dierker, the tragic end to Don Wilson’s life and then stopped at the thought of J.R. Richard.
“He broke your heart.” -Vin Scully
He certainly did. Anyone who ever witnessed him pitch wanted to see more. None of us got enough.
I was just a kid in small-town Nebraska back then. My older brother and I thought J.R. was the most dominating player who ever walked the planet. He was six feet, eight inches tall with a wingspan at least as freakish as the Celtics’ Robert Parish.
Maybe it just seemed that way.
Richard’s fastball hit 103 mph. He could hold four or five baseballs in one hand. He brought Bob Gibson’s glare and intimidation to a new generation of hitters. When he got down to business, he was flat-out dominant.
In Richard’s first big league start against San Francisco, he struck out 15 Giants hitters. Willie Mays fanned three times that day. So did All-Star catcher Dick Dietz, aka “The Mule.”
ASIDE: The Mule made for excellent copy. Remind me to tell you about the day in which he showed me how he got the nickname. Let’s just say it involved me flying from the mound into foul territory.
Mays was later asked by his mentor, Monte Irvin, what it was like to hit against J.R. Richard. The Say Hey Kid summed it up in one word:
I’m pretty sure he was serious. J.R. Richard went on to become the starting pitcher for the 1980 NL All-Star team. His legend was only in its infancy, and a place in Cooperstown seemed a reasonable goal.
“In my mind, he was as fearsome a pitcher as ever played,” said Scully.
Back in Nebraska, my brother and I played a lot of pick-up games in a vacant lot up the street. The other kids wanted to be Pete Rose or Dave Parker or Steve Garvey. We wanted to be James Rodney Richard.
My brother always got his way. In protest, I’d be Biff Pocoroba.
That meant my J.R. Richard moments played out in private. I’m sure the neighbors wondered about the gangly 80-pound kid throwing imaginary 100 mph fastballs against the wall. That same goofy kid spent hours trying to palm as many baseballs as his larger-than-life hero.
My fastball never touched two-thirds of Richard’s velocity. I never palmed more than a couple baseballs. But today I got the last laugh on my brother.
The Astros honored J.R. Richard tonight at Minute Maid Park. They unveiled his star on the new Astros Walk of Fame. He threw out the first pitch — as hard as he could — before the game.
J.R. Richard crushed my hand with his grip. He spent a chunk of his busy afternoon telling me stories and basking in a day designed to honor him. He told me about a high school game in which he hit four homers and pitched his team to a 48-0 shutout win. Turns out, he never lost a game prior to playing professionally. He also offered loads of optimism and insight about today’s Astros.
Sure, my brother always got to be J.R. Richard when we were kids. Today I got to be with J.R. Richard.
Richard broke a lot of fans’ hearts when his career came to a terrifying halt in 1980. We wonder what he could have accomplished, had he not fallen to the Astroturf while having a stroke.
Through many tough breaks, poor decisions and lonely moments after his career, J.R. Richard never lost his enthusiasm or competitiveness. He’s an associate pastor now. He helps young players learn baseball. Optimism percolates with every smile.
He broke a few hearts, no doubt. His hurt for a time, too.
Tonight the Astros and J.R. Richard made bold steps toward mending a sadly fractured relationship. He was emotional. Fans were reassured. Baseball proudly sung his praises.
I didn’t get a chance to tell J.R. during our broadcast, but I suspect I speak for many when I say that my heart burst with joy to see him in a rainbow uniform.