THE RICHARD CASE
Houston Pitcher J.R. Richard collapsed during a workout last week and underwent emergency surgery for removal of a blood clot in his neck. Though the operation was deemed a success, Richard's left side was weakened, suggesting that he had suffered a stroke. He probably won't pitch again this season and his career may be over.
There are puzzling aspects to the Richard case. Until his collapse, many Astro observers doubted he was sick at all—except possibly in the head. When baseball players have unusual personalities, psychological problems or, as in Richard's case, injuries that can't be easily diagnosed, the tendency is to pass them off as "head cases" and take no action.
It's an unfortunate tendency at best. In 1977 a Milwaukee outfielder named Danny Thomas was obviously suffering from depression. At one point he swallowed several muscle relaxants, thinking wrongly that they were sleeping pills. Because Thomas belonged to a fundamentalist church and refused to play ball from Friday evening through Saturday, teammates merely laughed at him and called him "The Sundown Kid." Two months ago, in jail in Mobile on a rape charge after dropping out of baseball, Thomas hanged himself in his cell. In July, Giant First Baseman Mike Ivie returned from a brief retirement. Though Ivie had a history of personal problems, teammates whispered that he had better "produce." Particularly sensitive to such slights are high-salaried blacks—Richard, for instance, earns $800,000 a year—who are generally reluctant to complain for fear they will immediately be typecast as malingerers.
Richard, however, did complain, and in such fashion as to arouse considerable hostility among some of his teammates. He removed himself from many of his 17 starts, using explanations that ranged from a tired arm to an upset stomach. How tired could his arm really be, observers wondered, if he had a 10-4 record and a 1.89 earned-run average? After taking himself out of a game on July 14 because of a stomach problem, Richard consumed a large meal in the clubhouse. On another occasion, claiming his arm was dead, Richard visited orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe in Los Angeles and reported that Jobe asked him to take a month off, which wasn't true. Before collapsing last week, Richard was cleared for action following a week of tests at a hospital.
But Richard is a complicated man, and there is doubt as to how seriously the Astros attempted to understand him. Two weeks before the operation, team doctor Harold Brelsford suggested that J.R. "cut down on his social life." Some observers of Richard's vague behavior insinuated that he was a drug addict. And few reporters bothered to interview Richard's buddy, Infielder Enos Cabell—until after the operation.
"Jay can be arrogant, loving, hateful and mean," says Cabell. "The next minute he can be happy and buying everyone food. He has so many personalities. If you could talk to him, really get down with him, you could learn a whole lot about him. Nobody tried."
It wasn't enough that Jacksonville's Jay Birmingham set a world record last week by completing his run from Los Angeles to New York—a distance of 2,950 miles—in 71 days, 22 hours and 59 minutes. To set the record he was required to do it without a support crew.
But never having traversed the wilds of Brooklyn, Birmingham decided to accept some minor assistance as he neared the finish. The New York Road Runners Club arranged to have the lower level of the Verrazano Bridge closed, and The Runner magazine helped him map out the easiest route through Brooklyn.