March 2, 1981
At Spring training in 1981, some seven months after suffering a nearly fatal stroke, All-Star pitcher J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros tried to return to the major leagues. SI celebrated his valiant comeback attempt in a cover story, but instead of serving as a prologue to a triumphant reemergence, the article turned out to be an epilogue to Richard's big league career.
Before his stroke the 6'8", 240-pound Richard was the most fearsome flamethrower in baseball. A 100-mph fastball accounted for most of his National League-leading 303 strikeouts in 1978, and his 313 whiffs in '79 were the most by any righthander in the league until the Philadelphia Phillies' Curt Schilling fanned 319 last year. Through the first half of the '80 season, Richard seemed a lock for the Cy Young Award. His 10-4 record and 1.89 ERA earned him the nod as his league's starter in the July 8 All-Star Game, in which he lived a dream by striking out Reggie Jackson.
But three weeks later Richard collapsed during a workout at the Astrodome. Despite showing flashes of his old form during spring training in '81, he never returned to the majors.
Richard retired the following year and was soon broke. He lost $300,000 on an oil deal that didn't work out. A divorce cost him 700 grand. By 1993 Richard, who earned as much as $850,000 a year in baseball, was living under a bridge a few miles from the Astrodome. A Houston Post reporter discovered him there, and the ensuing publicity helped Richard land a series of part-time jobs. In '95 his major league pension kicked in, and he now lives alone in a Houston apartment. "You always think you'll never see hard times, but you never know what the future holds," says Richard, 48. "That rainy day is coming, and it will wash you away."
He often repeats such admonitions at the Now Testament Church in South Houston, where he is a minister. He is helping to establish the church's planned community for the homeless and spends his Sundays as a counselor. Richard shows no mercy when dispensing advice. "You can only help someone who wants to be helped," he says. "They have to understand that nobody's going to do it for them. They have to do it for themselves."
He's equally tough on today's major league arms. "Teams think guys throwing 94 mph are really doing something, because that's the best the big leagues have got," Richard says. "There just aren't many real power pitchers anymore.