By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Intimidating, dominant, then brought low, the former Major League All-Star and six-foot-eight strikeout machine believes the Houston Astros would've treated him differently if he were Nolan Ryan, and says the only way to understand homelessness is to live hungry under a bridge -- like he did.
DH: After your first game with the Houston Astros on September 5, 1971, when you struck out 15 San Francisco Giants including Willie Mays three times, what worries -- if any -- did you have about being a Major Leaguer?
JR: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 a 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.
DH: Like Sandy Koufax, for the first five years of your career you were an average Major League pitcher -- winning almost as much as you lost -- until you went 20-15 in 1976. In the next four years you became one of the game's most successful pitchers, leading the National League with a 2.71 ERA in 1979 and in strikeouts in 1978 and 1979, breaking the NL right-hander record twice with two consecutive 300-plus seasons. What changed?
JR: 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.
DH: You also led the league in both wild pitches ['75, '78, '79] and walks ['75, '76, '78] for three years. It didn't seem to bother you too much, as you once walked ten batters in a game and still pitched a shutout. Did your lack of control add to your intimidation?
JR: I'll say it like this: I was just wild enough to be effective.
DH: Your teammate Bob Watson once said of you, "I've never taken batting practice against him, and I never will. I have a family to think of."
JR: Bob has always had this idea that he'd never take batting practice against me. It was just something he wouldn't do. He'd say it would mess up his swing.
DH: With so many players hitting so many home runs these days, where has the fear factor between pitcher and batter gone in Major League Baseball?
JR: I don't think the fear factor has gone at all. The fear is gonna be there. You just got better hitters now. They're more consistent. One of the major reasons for the home run attitude is because guys have become stronger. Normal pop-ups are home runs now. And it don't make any difference about no steroids. Steroids do not make you hit the baseball. Your ability makes you hit the baseball. Everybody wants to enhance their ability to play the game. Steroids just happen to be one of those things that are available.
DH: Some people take steroids. Moises Alou urinates on his hands. What's the difference?
DH: He urinates on his hands to harden them.
JR: The bottom line is you still gotta hit the baseball. I don't care if you do whatever on your hands. You still got to hit the ball. Hard hands is not the solution. Hitting the baseball is the solution.
DH: In June 1980, you began complaining of "dead arm." The media, fans and some teammates accused you of being lazy [though you 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 you?
JR:That's a good question. 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.
DH: Was there anyone in the Astros organization that you went to directly?
JR:No, there wasn't. Because there wasn't anyone in the Astros organization I could go to -- for anything. That's kind of the name of their tune.
DH:On July 30, 1980 -- at age 30 and just a few weeks after you started the All-Star Game -- you suffered a stroke that not only ended your career but almost took your life. Nine hours after you went down, emergency surgery saved you. What was the first thought in your mind when you finally came to?
JR:Lake Livingston and going fishing.
DH:How did the Houston Astros organization help you during your recovery?
JR:I don't see anything they've done at all to help me recover.