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?
JR: Excuse me?
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.
DH: They didn't check in on you at all?
JR: Yeah, to see if I could pitch again. That was the checking they did.
DH: They weren't interested in J.R. Richard the person?
JR: No, they were not. I think it was pretty self-evident how they were interested in me. If they had been interested in me and I was such a valuable asset to the ball club, why wasn't I checked earlier? Why wasn't I checked all those times I was complaining?
DH: On November 21, 1980 -- four months after you'd gone down with a stroke -- CBS aired the "Who shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas, which at the time was the most-watched TV show in history. Did that get anybody in Texas, or elsewhere -- or even in the Astros organization -- asking the question, Who's taking care of the other J.R.?
JR: I don't think the way I was treated down here [Houston] that they were really concerned at all. Not even my agent was concerned. I never heard from him since then. But I'm not amazed at that. That's the way people are. People don't really give a shit about you as long as they get what they want from you. Then they're done with you. They don't really care nothin' about you.
DH: How has this experience damaged your faith in other people?
JR: I don't have faith in other people. I have faith in God. Because I know that's the source of my beginning and end. That's the source of everything. As it says in the Bible, man will always let you down. So why put faith in man?
DH: I know there's no sense in looking back. But as you know, the 1980 Astros team won an exciting one-game playoff for the NL West title over the Dodgers, before bowing to the Phillies in the LCS. That Astros team had an all-star pitching staff of Joaquin Andujar, Joe Niekro, Ken Frost and Nolan Ryan. Do you think you and Nolan Ryan alone could've beaten the Phillies?
DH: What did Nolan Ryan or other Astros do to help during your recovery?
JR: Nothing. Not a thing.
DH: After the stroke, things went from bad to worse for you. An oil-deal scam lost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. You lost your agent, your attorney, two wives and your home. Did it all happen at once, or was there one event that took everything?
JR: That happened over a period of time. I never really saw my agent after the stroke. He kinda, like, disappeared. You know -- don't want nothin' to do with you. I really turned to God then, because I understood what people are all about. I turned to God to make up for the inadequacy in people.
DH: Business investments are tricky, but the business of love is another thing. After two wives, did the old saying "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me" take on new meaning for you?
JR: No, it did not. Because you still got to understand, people are people. I understand this: When I married my first two wives it was something on their side. Mine was for love, but it was something on their side that went from love to finances.
DH: In the winter of 1994 you were broke, homeless and living under a Houston freeway bridge. Was there no one you could turn to?
JR: There may have been, but there wasn't anyone I knew of.
DH: What about the Astros?
JR: The Astros? As a matter of fact, the Astros stole $300,000 from me.
DH: How'd they do that?
JR: My deferred compensation. I needed some money, so I went there [to the Astros] and got some money. And, they took $300,000 because I got the money.
DH: So they penalized you for taking the money early?
JR: Right, which is some BS. I'll tell you about the Astros. I went to them to see if I could do some public relations for them. They said, "Okay, we'll get back to you," and time passed and passed and passed. Nothing. Then, I see they hired Nolan Ryan. Now what does that tell you? They retired jerseys for Mike Scott and Larry Dierker. I got a better record than both those guys. What does that tell you?
DH: What about Nolan Ryan or your old teammates -- do you keep in touch with them?
JR: No, I do not.
DH: How long were you homeless?
JR: About six months.
DH: A Houston Post reporter found you under that bridge. What was he doing there?
JR: He did not find me under no bridge! What happened was that a guy at a church that I was going to let a Houston reporter know that I was homeless, and it started from there. He did not find me under a bridge. Matter of fact, when the Houston reporter found out about me being homeless, I had left from out under the bridge. Friend of mine named Chris Clark had come by to pick me up. Then I started getting my baseball pension and things started getting better and better. But the Houston reporter did not find me under that bridge. That is not true. You see, people are gonna say anything, and nine times out of ten when we get to the source it's all a bunch of crap anyway.
DH: What was a day like then for J.R. Richard, being homeless in Houston?
JR: I didn't do the normal things a lot of homeless guys done. I guess it was because of pride. I didn't get out trying to wash windows or get a dollar or two or get something to eat. I had friends like a guy named Patrick Taylor, who I'll never forget as long as I live. I'd stayed at his house a couple of nights. Wash my clothes, eat, stuff like that.
DH: You've said that "The only way to understand homelessness is to get out there under the bridge and be homeless."
JR: That's right. No money, no credit cards, no nothing. Just to get out there yourself and to get homeless and you can really understand what it feels like to be homeless with no money, hunger and nothing to eat.
DH: You've also said, "I am very lucky. God allowed me to get through this to make me a better individual." Today you're a minister, working closely with the homeless and with troubled youth. What do you tell people to help them make their lives better?
JR: I realize this: You don't live in homelessness. Homelessness lives in you. You can't sit there in your life and feel sorry about what has happened in your past. Quit dwelling on it. Quit looking for it, because it's gone. Look toward the future. God will help you get out of any situation you're in, but you have to be willing to get out of it yourself. God's not going to fly a turkey to your door. You got to get up and go to the supermarket, and then God will help you. If you want to sit there in your feces and your urine, God's going to let you sit there. He said, "You make the first step. I'll help you make the rest of them." How many people out there are stepping toward God? They're stepping toward themselves, not God. And it makes a difference.
DH: What's a day like now for J.R. Richard?
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JR: First thing, I get up in the morning and I pray. I read my Bible, which is a dedicated effort. I have to spend some time with God. The day don't feel complete if I don't. Then maybe I go fishing, see my daughters, go to meetings, et cetera, et cetera.
DH: Homelessness is certainly a problem in this country. When you were homeless, George W. Bush served as govenor of Texas [1994-2000]. Are there any politicians who you would recommend get under that bridge and know what it's like?
JR: I recommend all of them get under there.
Freelancer Dave Hollander has been a columnist for the maverick New York Sports Express. A book of his signature sports interviews is scheduled to be published next year by The Lyons Press.