The Darkest Story in Baseball Couldn’t Dim Its Brightest Light


Baseball season is upon us.  Spring is in the process of springing, as even notably cold areas of the country might see highs in the 70’s today.  It is when most people find themselves at peak optimism and if even for a brief space of time, recapture feelings of youth.

Usually, this recapturing of youth is a warm feeling.  But not always.  Sometimes a story throws you back in time to the feelings of sadness that weigh you down with the twin tormentors of what if and could have been.

But that story does not always have to be about you to affect you.  Sometimes it is about a friend.  Sometimes it is about a hero.

Today, March 7th, one of my heroes would have turned 74 years old.  Covid took him.  But Covid had help.

It wouldn’t be fair to start this story in the beginning.  The narrator, me, is just a bit player in this drama.

RIP to Astros legend J.R. Richard, one of the most intimidating (and misunderstood) pitchers of his era. He died in a Houston hospital on August 4 at the age of 71. It has been reported, including by former teammates, that his death was due to complications from COVID-19. Richard played for the Houston Astros from 1971-1980.

J.R. died of Covid, having spent the back part of his life trying to reclaim a sense of stability, literally, and figuratively, and come to peace with his place in the world.  His place was everything from a high school three sport athlete, to a friend, a baseball star to a man living under an overpass ten years after he left baseball.  Let me rephrase that-after baseball left him.

Eventually, he would become an ordained Minister.

The sign stealing scandal aside, I will present to you a much better reason to question the history of the Houston Astros.

In the 1980 season, Richard was named to his first All-Star Game. Before the break he was just flat-out gas—three straight complete-game shutouts, 10 victories, 110 strikeouts, and an ERA of 1.96. Soreness in his shoulder and back would limit Richard to only two innings pitched in the All-Star Game however; foreboding of things to come.

As Richard’s complaints of dizziness, blurred vision, and arm “deadness” escalated, so did the zetetic position of the Houston Astros organization, as well as that of the media. Rumors of a lackadaisical attitude, drug use, and even jealousy of Nolan Ryan began to swirl about.

“You know what gets me, they talk about me faking!” said Richard. “I’d pitched five years in a row without missing a start, and they talking about me faking.”


Big J.R., to anyone with who reads between the lines can see here, is less angry than he was hurt.

The press, as was much more common in those times, towed the Astro company line, publicly shaming J.R. and adding pain to his heart to go along with the pain in his body.

The first baseball game I ever attended was in June of 1980 in the Astrodome.  Even being so young, it was memorable.  I remember J.R.  He was smiling and approachable.  At this point he was at his peak.  In his last great start he three-hit the San Francisco Giants while striking out 13.  At times Richard was so good his defense could have sat in a lounge chair drinking margaritas.

“I kid you not: If they took the radar gun that they’re using right now and they put it on J.R., when the ball left his hand like that, it was probably going 110,” the longtime outfielder Gary Matthews, who faced Richard more than any other hitter, said on 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. J.R. Richard doesn’t have to take a back seat to any pitcher that’s ever pitched in the major leagues.”

If J.R. doesn’t have that stroke, he is likely in the inner circle.  But this is the part that burns me up when I think of Big J.R.  Even now baseball historians talk about Richard like his life ended that day in July, 1980 on the Astrodome floor.

His baseball career did.  His true purpose was still some time away.

The ability to play baseball is a fleeting skill, one that decays with age.  There is no shame in this; it is a natural part of life.  But there are so many other tragedies that came from that stroke.  Yet the stroke itself could have been prevented.


Richard had trouble seeing the catcher’s signs and had been complaining for weeks of a dead arm. He had asked for a month to rest, but only after the Atlanta start was he placed on the disabled list. He was found to have a blood clot blocking the primary circulation to his pitching arm, but was cleared for workouts.

On July 30, he collapsed at the Astrodome while playing catch. Surgeons saved Richard’s life, but the trajectory of that life changed forever.

The Houston Astros, while in a pennant race, took one of their most prized assets and rolled the dice on his life.  Whenever the word “blood clot” is uttered, serious attention must be paid.  But J.R. was innocent, and truly, he wanted to pitch as much as the Astros needed him to.  So he went along.

He would never walk onto a Major League mound to pitch again.  And yet, the biggest tragedy has nothing to do with missing the Hall of Fame, or even the end of his career;  it was that J.R. was discarded by the Astros as simply as one might trash a busted fax machine.

Returning to Louisiana, Richard fell prey to various scams and endured failed relationships.  Eventually he was left with nothing but the memory of what he once could do.  And this is the “locked outside of the toy store” element of this tale-J.R. never lost his fastball, just his depth perception.  Simply put, a pitcher that throws over 100 m.p.h. has to have some kind of idea where the ball is going.  Lacking depth perception, his career ended at his literal peak.

When the Astros released him in 1984, they said he would be pursuing a career in something other than baseball.

By my research, they never even said “good luck” in the press release.

Eleven years later, the city would be awash in excitement, as the NBA’s Houston Rockets were in the midst of back-to-back championships.  The old Astros from 14 years prior had been replaced by younger names.  The near-do-well team, perhaps one dominating starter away from winning the franchise’s, and city’s first professional championship, had long been forgotten.

J.R. Richard had been forgotten.  Then one day a 18 year-old kid who had never forgotten “Big J.R.” read a blurb in a paper.

Richard told The Houston Post he lost his house two years ago because he couldn’t make the payments and has since lived with friends or under a freeway overpass. “Being homeless means you’re broke and you have no place to stay,” Richard said in a story published today. “It doesn’t mean you ever give up hope. I’m on the way back.”

Richard now works as a part-time solicitor for an asphalt company that provides him use of a truck and an apartment, but he hasn’t been able to make much money and friends told the newspaper there’s no telling how long the job or apartment will last. He said Friday that he had $20 to his name.

I was three years old, just like that.  The sadness I remember hearing my family talk about the man I watched pitch, lying on the Astrodome field, unable to speak or ambulate, washed over me.  The anger overwhelmed me.

But Big J.R. had one final comeback in him.

By 1995, Richard was eligible for his pension from Major League Baseball. He played in the Old-Timers’ Day game with the Astros in the same year. In the following months, after spending many nights under the overpass Highway 59 at Beechnut Road in Houston, he turned to the Now Testament Church and sought help from its minister, Reverend Floyd Lewis. Richard overcame his homelessness by working with this minister, with a belief that he “always knew God was on his side”. Richard started working at an asphalt company and later returned to the church as a minister.

The now ordained J.R. Richard would spend the rest of his life working for the less fortunate.  This man, this giant of a man on the field, had somehow managed to find a way to become even larger off of it.

Spending his holidays working the food banks and soup kitchens, he was well known throughout the community of the Houston forgotten for, well, never forgetting.

The most terrifying pitcher ever to have called the Astrodome home slowly pushes himself up from a couch and lumbers, at 68 years old, into a small room overcrowded with 100 of Houston’s homeless and neediest people.

They have come off the searing hot pavement to Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal Church and clinic on Fannin Street, for the free lunch, but first they must fill rows of foldout chairs and listen to uplifting testimonials from others like them.

Many in the audience do not know there is a guest speaker until the 6-foot-8 J.R. Richard wades through the aisle toward the pulpit.


J.R. could have matriculated back into some form of baseball as a coach.  He chose to pay forward to blessings that pulled him from the brink.

“I don’t have no psychology degree,” he says during a private aside, “but sometimes it don’t take that.”

Eventually, thirty-seven years later, the Astros would win their first title, although its legitimacy is forever tainted by various accusations of cheating.

In 2019, Richard would return to the mound as a guest of the club and throw out a first pitch in the World Series.

He would not get a chance to watch them win their second, and by all accounts, untainted championship in 2022.

Covid took that away.  Covid, the five letter word that denotes ugliness, and fear, and a line of demarcation in this nation’s history, took the towering giant at age 71.  In those years Richard took on many roles, and had his skills wrested away at the peak of his powers, only to discover a greater purpose.  The team management and press involved in his smearing, and disregard for his health have mostly passed on.

But at the end of all of it, stood a man who went from the mountaintop to the valley with stunning speed, but lived a life never too concerned with the view from either vantage point.  He didn’t blame others for a spiral that started with his illness.  He just moved on.  And while he left us a legacy of what-ifs and could-have-beens athletically, that is for the people paid to write about the game.

J.R. deserved more than to be written about in the context of the game.  J.R. deserved to be written about as the person he was.

Yes he could have been a Hall-of-Famer.  He could have broken records.  But like my grandpa, and my father-in-law, he earned a title far greater than something that could be reflected by a piece of jewelry:

He was a “Good Man.”

“I want you to love one another,” he says. “Love is contagious.”

-J.R. Richard

Indeed it is, Big J.R.

Indeed it is.


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