James Rodney Richard is sitting up in bed in his room at Methodist Hospital in Houston last Friday afternoon, staring at a bowl of vegetable soup and stirring it with a spoon. He has just finished his second dish of mashed potatoes, leaving the asparagus and rolls, and now Kathy Burke, his private nurse, moves to his side. The nurse steadies his right hand as he raises a container of milk to his lips. "Now sip," she says. He sips slowly through a straw. "That's it," she says. She turns and walks away. Lunch is over; a little party is about to begin.
"You been here long enough," says Tom Reich, Richard's attorney and longtime friend. "Let's have a hurricane party." Hurricane Allen isn't far away.
"Ready to get out of here," J.R. says softly out of the right corner of his mouth.
Chuck Berry, Richard's associate, steps forward with a case of wine. "Something for the party?" he says.
"Let's have some wine," Richard says.
This is the first festive moment in J.R. Richard's life since the morning of July 30, when he collapsed during a workout at the Astrodome. Richard, the best righthander in baseball, had suffered a major stroke. Surgeons subsequently removed a clot from the junction of two arteries in his neck. A few days later he was moved from the intensive-care unit to this private suite, into which only a few close friends and relatives have been allowed.
On the door is a sign: PROTECTIVE ISOLATION. The patient's name on the door is not Richard's. The suite is spacious, its view commanding. The windows to his left overlook the tree-shaded campus of Rice University. J.R. can see the running track, with joggers circling in the sun. Below the window, Fannin Street, bustling with noonday traffic, extends toward the distant skyscrapers of downtown Houston. The windowsills overflow with stacks of mail. On the wall in front of Richard is a handmade sign: GET WELL, J.R. A book, Where Is God When It Hurts?, lies below the sign. Flowers in pots are here and there. A giant basket of fruit is on a nearby coffee table, and there is an eight-foot-high fig tree, a gift from Reich, in a corner.
"Oh yeah," says Reich, laughing, " Dave Parker is going to be in town with the Pirates soon. He wants to come and see you. He says this is the only way he can get a hit off you." Only the right side of Richard's face can smile now, but it is beaming. He nods, jiggles his right foot nervously. His left leg, bent at the knee, is still. Then he pushes his left foot into the footboard, exercising it. Wilbur Howard, a former Astro teammate and close friend, comes through the door and across the room.
"Hey, what's happenin'?" he asks.
Richard looks up and grins. "Let's go fishin'," he says. Howard is seeing his friend for the first time since Richard collapsed while they were playing catch in the Astrodome.