If you ask any old-time Astros fan -- that is the fan who existed before the Killer B's and the Rocket and Minute Maid Park -- who the greatest pitcher in team history is, the answer won't be Roy Oswalt or Roger Clemens or even franchise icon Nolan Ryan. The answer will be J.R. Richard.
But J.R. Richard is the pitcher that the Astros have forgotten. He was one of the most dominating pitchers of the 1970s, striking out 303 batters in 1978 and 313 in 1979. He won 20 games for a very bad team in 1976, and he won 18 games in each season from 1977-1979. In ten seasons he struck out 1,493 batters, and he had a career ERA of 3.90.
The stats don't do him justice. Paul Darst was the director of scoreboard and video operations at the Astrodome from the early 1970s through the 1999 Houston Astros season. He saw Larry Dierker and Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott and Randy Johnson and Joe Niekro. But Richard was the best of them all.
"He was so tall and menacing on the mound that from the press box it appeared he might be able to place the ball in the catcher's mitt instead of throwing it," Darst said. "His hands were so big he could hold eight baseballs in one hand. Opposing batters would buckle at the sight of what appeared to be a fastball coming right at their head only to watch his slider break almost into the dugout at the last minute. When it was one of his zinging fast balls, watch out! He was at times just wild enough to keep everyone guessing and on their toes. When he was on, he was more dominating than any pitcher I ever saw."
David Bering started working on the Astrodome scoreboard in 1974, and he was there through 1999 seeing all of those same pitchers. But they didn't compare Richard. None of them.
"I watched opposing batters knee quake like Jell-O when he pitched," Bering said. "It seemed everyone was intimated by his size and strength, and I'm talking about the premier hitters of the 70s. Batters didn't know whether to swing, take the pitch, or just wet themselves on national television."
J.R. Richard last pitched in the majors in 1980 when he was 30 years old. And as great as his previous seasons had been, 1980 was shaping up to be the greatest of them all. New ownership had signed free agent Nolan Ryan to the largest contract in major history. But Richard was the ace of the staff, not Ryan. Ryan was merely the number-three starter. And Richard was dominating. By July 30, Richard had started 17 games. He was 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA and 119 strikeouts. He was the National League's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.
But something was wrong. Starting in May, Richard said that he didn't feel right. He went to the Astros doctors, and they couldn't find anything wrong with him. The front office (i.e. Tal Smith) was letting it slip that it was all in Richard's head and that he was lazy.
On July 30, 1980 Richard collapsed on the Astrodome turf while playing catch. He had suffered a massive stroke. And for weeks, the question wasn't whether Richard would ever pitch again; it was whether he would live. He lived, and he tried to make a comeback, but he never made it back to the majors and retired in 1983.
Richard fell on some hard times resulting from bad investments, divorce, and at one point, homelessness. I'm bringing this up because the blog Bugs & Cranks had an extraordinary interview with Richard yesterday. And one of the topics, along with what happened to him medically, is why the Astros have never retired his number. They're retired Don Wilson's number, a good pitcher who was possibly on his way to greatness when he died. They've retired Mike Scott's number, who had three really good seasons. Of course Nolan Ryan's number has been retired.
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But not the number of the greatest pitcher in team history. And Richard doesn't know why.
If you read the interview, and if you read between the lines of the interview, I think you might figure out why the team hasn't retired his jersey. Richard pretty much nails Tal Smith and the organization of that time as racists. He says that if Nolan Ryan would have had his problems, the team wouldn't have accused him of being lazy and making it all up, and that they would have found the problem that led to the stroke. And amazingly, the Houston Astros organization, after nearly 30 years, has yet to apologize to Richard for their treatment of him before, and after the injury. No wonder the team has yet to retire his jersey number, they haven't even offered up an apology for nearly killing him.
There's one man who can make this right. And I'm not talking about Drayton McLane. Tal Smith was running the team in 1980. He's the team president now. Tal Smith was the guy who though Richard was faking his injury, that he was lazy. Tal Smith should do the right thing. Smith should apologize for the franchise. He should apologize for the team's treatment of Richard in 1980. He should apologize for shunning Richard now.
I'm one person who thinks that the Astros have retired way too many numbers, but if there's anybody who deserves to have his number retired, it's J.R. Richard. Not only is he the greatest pitcher in team history, he nearly gave his life for this franchise. He's suffered long enough. And now's the time to bring this suffering to an end.