SI Vault
William Nack
August 18, 1980
It took a near-fatal stroke to convince doubters that Houston's J.R. Richard wasn't faking when he complained of arm troubles
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August 18, 1980

Now Everyone Believes Him

It took a near-fatal stroke to convince doubters that Houston's J.R. Richard wasn't faking when he complained of arm troubles

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"How you feel?" Howard says.

"My sister came down and home-cooked me some meat and greens," J.R. says. "Let's go fishin'.... I'm takin' my wife, my kids and my dog...."

"Speaking of fishing," says Berry, "someone sent you this." It's a box containing an Ambassadeur 5000 casting reel. Reich removes the reel and hands it to J.R. "That's a good one," J.R. says. "That's a good one. I'm ready to go fishin'. Where's the wine?"

Berry leaves to find a corkscrew. J.R. props himself up in bed, then straightens out the weakened left leg and pushes it against the footboard. "Keep pushin'," says Howard. "You push that end of the bed off and you'll be ready to get out of here."

The men talk of fishing and baseball. There is laughter. And reason to celebrate. Reich has been visiting Richard every day, and he hasn't seen him so alert and talkative since the stroke. When Richard first came out of surgery, in fact, his speech was so impaired he had to write notes. His first to Reich was: "Black walnut ice cream. One quart."

Howard reminds him of a long home run that Richard hit off Tom Seaver in Cincinnati this season. "Couldn't be longer than the one in Atlanta," J.R. says. "And you'd have to be there to believe the one I hit in Chicago. So far! The wind was blowin' in. I hit it. Yeow! Then I did my Willie McCovey trot."

The men banter some more and wait for the wine. Berry can't find a corkscrew. Richard grows tired. He closes his eyes. Kathy Burke lowers the head of his bed. The party isn't over, but Richard wants to nap. He rolls over, and one can see, on the right side of his neck, evidence of why he is here—in this room, at this moment, this young man in his prime. There is an incision about three inches long, healing nicely.

On that fateful Wednesday, July 30, Richard and Howard had driven to the Astrodome together to work out. Four days earlier Richard had been released from Methodist Hospital, aware for the first time that a clot had formed in an artery leading to his right arm. Richard's doctors considered the blockage stable and of no danger, so they told him he could work out under supervision. With the team on the road, Richard decided to test his arm in the Dome. On the way he stopped at his bank, where he was to sign documents setting up a trust for his five children, and then he called his wife Carolyn. Recently they had been doing some gardening together. "Go buy more plants," he told her. "I'll be home soon to work in the yard."

At the Dome he pitched to Howard for 11� minutes—six easily, 5� a little harder. "I never felt better," he told Jim Ewell, a former Astro trainer, when the workout ended. Richard and Howard sat down in the dugout. "He was sweating a lot," Howard says. "And it wasn't that hot to me. He kept toweling himself off." Then, says Howard, Richard reached over with his right hand and grabbed Howard's forearm. "Feel this," J.R. said. Howard describes the sensation this way: "Hold a cold glass, with ice in it, for a few minutes. Then dry your hand off. Then touch yourself with it. That's what I'm talking about. That's what it felt like."

Richard decided he wanted to stretch the arm out, so the two men went back on the field. Howard stood behind second base, J.R. behind first base along the rightfield line. After catching J.R.'s eighth toss, Howard took the ball out of the glove and started to heave it back when he realized that Richard was wobbling. "Like a person who was drunk," Howard says. "I thought: 'Why's he doing that?' " Richard stepped in several directions—right, left, back. Suddenly he dropped to all fours and collapsed on his left side. Ewell and Howard ran to him.

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