Wednesday, March 27, 2013

#522 - J.R. Richard

JR is back. JR Richard had a rookie card in the ’72 set but then got shut out in ’73 because he spent just about all the previous year in the minors. And he comes back strong with an action card. After spending the first month-plus of the ’73 season in Triple A JR – I am eschewing the periods – came up in June and had a pretty good run that summer in the rotation, going 5-1 through mid-August with an ERA under 3.00. He got roughed up a bit his next two games and then his season ended in early September after he got in a motorcycle accident. That event was the last straw for manager Leo Durocher, who’d already admitted he had a tough time with “modern” ballplayers, and shortly after he resigned, effective at season’s end. But JR was just beginning and after a couple middling seasons he’d become one of the dominant NL pitchers the last half of the decade before becoming one of baseball’s tragic figures.

James Rodney Richard was a big basketball and baseball star at Ruston High School in Louisiana. He was set to go to Southern University on a hoops scholarship but when the Astros threw him big money as a number one pick after a senior year in which he went 7-0 with 89 K’s in 43 innings – 21-0 his whole career – he opted for baseball. JR threw heat and could be wild so that first summer in Rookie ball was a bit sloppy. In A ball in ’70 his record was ugly but it sure wasn’t his fault as he reined in his walks and threw a couple shutouts and improved his ERA by four runs. He followed that up with a similar year in Triple A in ’71 in which his record nearly reversed itself and he maintained his well over a K an inning ratio. That summer he made a high-profile debut up top – more on the back – and threw some good ball the rest of the way.  In ’72 things in Houston weren’t as pretty and he returned to Oklahoma City where he had another good season. After his injury to end the ’73 season he did ’74 time in Double A and Triple A – 4-0 in four starts and 33 shutout innings – before he settled in at Houston in mid-July and did spot work the rest of the way, going 2-3 with a 4.18 ERA.

In ’75 Richard made the rotation full-time and went 12-10 with a 4.39 ERA on a pretty crappy team. He led the NL with 138 walks and again led the league in ’76. But that year he also went 20-15 with 214 K’s and a 2.75 ERA. At 26 he had become the dominant pitcher Houston hoped he’d be. In ’77 he went 18-12 with the same number of strikeouts and a 2.97 ERA. In ’78 he went 18-11 with a 3.11 ERA and a Nolan Ryan-esque 303 K’s to lead both leagues. In ’79 he went 18-13 with an NL-leading 2.71 ERA and 313 strikeouts while shaving his walk totals by a third. Each year JR was getting better and in ’80 a 10-4 start with a 1.90 ERA got him named to his first All-Star game.

And that was it. Shortly before the ’80 All-Star game, Richard had experienced pain in his shoulder and light-headedness. When he had to come out of his first start early following that game he complained of the same ailment. Back then despite his big numbers and never missing a start he was viewed by some in management and the local press as being lazy – some thought that perception was a racial thing – and that he was in no real pain. He was also a recreational drug user, which was an open secret. But the non-pain theory got slammed when during a practice in Houston JR collapsed from what turned out to be a stroke. It had also turned out he probably suffered a few of them and they were never diagnosed. While the stroke primarily affected his non-throwing side, his balance suffered and he wasn’t able to react fast enough on the mound to hits up the middle. He attempted a couple come-backs – none above the minor level – and after his final attempt in ’83 he was done. He finished with a record of 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA, 76 complete games, 19 shutouts, and 1,493 strikeouts in 1,606 innings. He is 24th all-time in strikeouts per nine innings.

Richard had a rough go of things after baseball. He did a gig selling cars but went through a ton of money in bad investments, did some drugs, got divorced, and lost his home. He remained based in the Houston area for most of that time and by ’95 was homeless and living under a local bridge. That discovery went national, the Astros and some local civic and religious leaders got involved, and JR was helped back to his feet. Since then he has done work with local religious groups and non-profits. He also does community work with the Astros on an irregular basis.

There's JR's big first start against San Francisco in '71. The other star bullets are pretty good as well. 
So let’s get JR with Ken the manager:

1. Richard and Enos Cabell ’75 to ’80 Astros;
2. Cabell and Milt Wilcox ’82 to ’83 Tigers;
3. Wilcox was managed by Ken Aspromonte on the ’72 to ’74 Indians.

Now for Aspro as a player:

1. Richard and Tommie Agee ’73 Astros;
2. Agee and Ken Berry ’66 to ’67 White Sox;
3.  Berry and Leon Wagner ’68 White Sox;
4. Wagner and Ken Aspromonte ’61 Angels.

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