The Ballad of J.R. Richard

There’s a thought that’s been sitting off to the side, like a book on a desk that’s forgotten under a pile of papers. It’s somewhat incomplete, but it has something to do with baseball*, and music, and the things we see — and mostly, the things we don’t see.

*I’m also stewing on a post about the baseball Hall of Fame. Well, it’s not about the Hall of Fame, per se, but it might as well be. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that Andre Dawson was just elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. Sounds fine. I don’t know too much about the guy. His best days were a few years before my time. But I’m going to wager a guess that we remember this Hall of Fame vote as the year Roberto Alomar got royally snubbed. At least, that’s how I’ll remember it. We’re getting to the point where there are Hall of Fame-eligible players, and people my age can actually remember watching these players for their entire career. And to me, that’s interesting. Anyway, the post is coming.

So the other day I was watching the MLB Network* and there was one of those “countdown” shows on. And upon further investigation,I guess MLB network has a show called “Prime 9’s”. This particular show was the about the top nine “Could Have Been Great” players in baseball history. Of course, that’s not what it was called. But you get the point. It was simply a list of the top nine players in baseball history who could have been all-time greats, but — for whatever reason — failed to be.

*The MLB Network really is underrated. It’s channel 199 on my cable provider, so I suppose it gets lost in the shuffle. But I really need to start watching the MLB Network and NBAtv more often.

Rick Ankiel*, the young pitching prodigy, not the average center fielder — he was on the list.

*You know, I’m not sure we celebrate Rick Ankiel enough. Here’s a guy who was a pitching phenom. He, of course, goes into tank and has his crippling control problems. Yet, he rebounds and makes it all the way back to the Majors as an outfielder. Sure, he’s not great. But, wow, what an athlete.

Tony Conigliaro, the Red Sox hitting prodigy from the 1960s who famously took a pitch to the face, wrecking his career — he was also on the list.

Sachel Paige, the Negro Leagues flamethrower who wowed people with the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1930s — he was on the list.*

*Paige was actually No. 1 on the list — and for good reason. But one of my friends made a good point. If Paige is No. 1 (and he’s at No. 1 because he has to pitch in the Negro Leagues during his prime) shouldn’t the rest of the top 10 really be Negro League players as well?

But there was one name on the list that caught my attention. His name was J.R. Richard, and I guess he was a pitcher for the Houston Astros in the late 1970s.

I say, “I guess”, because I’d never heard of J.R. Richard before. Seriously, I’d never heard of him. And it’s not like I’d heard his name in passing, but I didn’t know his story. And it’s not like I’d vaguely heard of him.

I’D NEVER HEARD OF HIM.

And, according to this Prime 9’s program, Richard could have been one of the greatest power pitchers that ever lived.

And, after looking at his stats on BaseballReference.com,
These MLB network folk don’t seem to be that far off.

Richard went 20-15 in 1976 with a 2.75 ERA and a 214 strikeouts. The next season, he nearly had the same exact line. Then in 1978 he went 18-11 with a 3.11 ERA and 303 strikeouts. He followed that up with an unbelievable year in 1979 — 18-3, 2.71 ERA, 313 strikeouts (313!).

But then tragedy struck. During the 1980 season, Richard would have a stroke while playing catch before an Astros game. He would be rushed to the hospital to have a blood clot removed from his neck, and he’d never pitch in the Major Leagues again.

And somehow, I’d never heard this story before.

So I suppose for some people this wouldn’t seem that strange. And I suppose it’s not that odd that a 23 year old wouldn’t know the story of a once-great pitcher who last played 30 years ago.

But for me, it’s different. When I was growing up — let’s say between the ages of 7-13, before I finally discovered girls — I read more about sports than any person could possibly comprehend. I would memorize baseball encyclopedias, I would devour books about the history of basketball, I would sit and memorize the World Series Champions dating back to 1972 (and I can still recite all that information today).

I knew that the Red Sox’s Fred Lynn was named MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1975. And I knew that legendary UCLA coach John Wooden was nicknamed the “Indiana Rubberman” while he was playing college basketball at Purdue. I knew that the NBA was originally called the BAA, and I knew that Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched the greatest game of all time and still didn’t earn a victory. This stuff was my life.

And somehow, I didn’t know who J.R. Richard was. His story was unique and tragic… and I’d never heard of it.

I was thinking about J.R. Richard a few days ago while I was visiting my older brother in Washington D.C. We were taking a break from watching KU play Temple in Philly, and it was freezing out, and so I was sorting through my iTunes. Somehow, I stumbled upon a song I’d never listened too.

It was by The Decemberists, and it was called “Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned). It was, of course, off their album, “Hazards of Love” from last year.

The song is slow and melodic and spine-tingling. I always sound like some kind of snobby hipster critic when I try to describe songs, but let’s just say the song is phenomenal.

And somehow, I’d never heard this song before.

If you know me, you know that I’m crazy for The Decemberists. I think they’re geniunely great, and I think their lead singer Colin Meloy is fantastic. I have dozens and dozens of their songs on my iTunes. And you know I’ve written about their album, “The Crane Wife”, before.

And somehow, I’d never heard this particular song.

Sure, I’d downloaded the album. I’d listened to a few songs, but I guess I’d skipped over this one. And the rest of the album had left me overwhelmed. So I’d stashed these songs away somewhere in the back of mind, and left them idle on my iTunes playlist.

There is no earthly reason for connecting J.R. Richard and The Decemberists.

J.R. Richard is a hard-throwing Houston Astros right-hander from the 1970s. He had a stroke and never played again.

“Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” is a song from an indie rock outfit from the 2000s. The entire album sold a few copies in places like Lawrence and Austin and Portland.

But both of these things made me think about the things we see — and the things we don’t see. The songs we hear — and the songs we miss. The baseball stories we know — and the baseball stories that are lost.

It seems like these days, we are exposed to so many different forms of media on a daily basis. Sometimes it seems like our senses are simply overloaded.

But what about the things we miss?

What about the stories we don’t hear? What about the books we don’t read? What about the beers we don’t drink? What about the songs we don’t hear? What about the friends we don’t meet?

Of course, most of the stuff we miss is probably inconsequential. Who cares if we miss out on thousands of average songs and books and friends?

But I have to think: There are probably things that are right under our noses, things we would love, things that should be in our lives, things that would are lives just a little bit more enjoyable, and somehow — we miss them.

Or perhaps I’m just floored that I’d never heard of J.R. Richard.

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2 thoughts on “The Ballad of J.R. Richard

  1. Randy says:

    J.R. and Nolan Ryan pitched on the same staff. Hitters dreaded this phenomenal 1-2 punch.

    Years later, J.R. ended up homeless living beneath an overpass. MLB takes care of their own, you know.

  2. Dave P. says:

    Excellent post. I like your broader point, but it’s especially fun to see a mention of JR Richard. I was a baseball fanatic as a kid in the 70s — a Cincinnati Reds fan — and JR Richard was just dominant. He was so tall and long that batters felt like his throwing arm reached halfway to the plate.

    Just a few years prior, Don Wilson, another great young Astros pitcher, committed suicide in his garage at age 29. Cesar Cedeno accidentally killed his girlfriend, and also never reached his potential. Cincy robbed Houston the trade that brought them Joe Morgan. Seemed like Houston was star-crossed back then.

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