Do the Right Thing, Astros. Retire J.R. Richard's Number

Let's stipulate that the Houston Astros have retired too many numbers, especially for a franchise that's been to just one World Series. Let's also stipulate that most of the retired numbers are for players who, while fan favorites, really didn't do anything to deserve having their numbers retired. Let's further stipulate that if it were not for Drayton McLane's addiction to large crowds without fielding good teams, many of these numbers would not have been retired.

One of the things the Astros have started under new owner Jim Crane is the Astros Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame allows the Astros to celebrate the players of the past, the greats and the fan favorites. It also honors the team broadcasters, and hopefully it will honor others who played significant roles in the history of the team.

The thing about the Walk of Fame, about what the Astros appear to be doing with it, is honoring players who deserve recognition by the team, but don't always deserve to have their numbers retired. And tonight the Astros are adding another name to the Walk of Fame, that name being J.R. Richard.

During the Aeros playoff run last year, I found myself driving through Philadelphia. So of course I had it on a sports talk station, and the hosts, for some reason I can't remember, were speaking to Atlanta Braves great Dale Murphy (and bitch all you want about Jeff Bagwell not having made the Hall of Fame, but I still can't fathom why Murphy's yet to be inducted when Jim Rice and Andre Dawson were inducted).

But while I can't remember why Murphy was being interviewed, I do remember one question he was asked. And that question was who the toughest pitcher he faced in his career was. Without hesitation he answered J.R. Richard. And this is coming from a player who faced Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Don Sutton on a regular basis.

You've read my thoughts on Richard before. It's my belief that he's the greatest pitcher the Astros have ever had, greater even than Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt. So it's nice to see that the Astros are finally honoring him. It's nice to see that they're going to let him enter their Walk of Fame and that they're going to let him toss out the first pitch tonight.

But frankly, that's not enough. For a team that's seen fit to retire the number of Mike Scott, a good but not great pitcher, and Jimmy Wynn and Jose Cruz, good but not great outfielders, it's not enough merely to induct Richard into the team's brand-new Walk of Fame. It's time that his number goes up over the huge scoreboard in right field. It's time that the Astros allowed Richard to join the pantheon of Astros legends like Ryan, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.

The youngsters out there probably don't remember much about Richard, and with the way the Astros treated him after his stroke in 1980, it's pretty evident that there were people in the organization who wanted fans forgetting about Richard. And that's probably because Richard suffered a stroke while trying to prove to Astros brass, primarily Tal Smith, that he had a severe medical issue and was not faking an injury.

Richard had made 17 starts in what would be his final season and his record was 10-4 at the time of his stroke. He'd started for the National League in the All-Star Game. He had a 1.90 ERA and 119 strikeouts in just 113.2 innings pitched. From 1976 through the 1979 season, he averaged 18.5 wins a season (on teams so bad that last year's Astros squad would have looked good) while averaging 281 innings pitched a season. The opposition hit only .209 against him during that time. And during that span, he twice eclipsed 300 strikeouts in a season.

Earlier this week, I was sent an e-mail by a longtime fan wanting to know who to contact regarding Richard, and regarding getting his jersey retired. Frankly, I'm not sure. But if you really wanted to make this happen, if you really want to get their attention, there are two people I would suggest. Those two people being new owner Jim Crane and the new team president, George Postolos.

Unlike the previous owner, who acted like the carnival barker trying to fleece the fans at every opportunity, Crane and Postolos actually seem to give a damn about the Astros fan. I like the idea of the Astros Walk of Fame, and it's nice they're finally finding some way to honor Richard because not even this would have happened were McLane and Smith still around. But it's not enough; they need to go that one extra step and retire Richard's number.

The Astros can't right the wrongs of having retired too many numbers. However, they can right the wrong of having treated Richard like a nonentity for so long. Tonight's a good start. But let's get them to go all of the way. Let's get the team to retire the number of J.R. Richard, the greatest pitcher in team history, the guy who almost died trying to prove to the team that he was, indeed, injured.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal