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NOW EVERYONE BELIEVES HIM
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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It ran better on July 3, in a game against Atlanta, when he lasted six innings and gave up just two runs on three hits. It ran better for a reason. Dr. Charles McCollum, who operated on Richard when he had the stroke, says that the arm began developing collateral, or secondary, circulation after the blockage occurred. The system was bypassing the occlusion, or clot, and improving the circulation in the arm. McCollum recalls that Richard had trouble lifting his right arm and combing his hair after the occlusion occurred but that this problem diminished as time went on—that is, as the collateral system developed.

Though he tired rapidly in the sixth inning, his performance against Atlanta had been encouraging, so Manager Bill Virdon sent him off to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Richard started and pitched splendidly, yielding but one hit and striking out three in two innings. "My arm feels great," he said.

After the game, Richard visited Dr. Frank Jobe, a specialist in sports medicine in Los Angeles, and said that Jobe told him he had "muscle fatigue" and should take 30 days off. The inconsistency was shocking. Here was a pitcher who had just come home from an All-Star Game performance in which he had thrown smoke. And he was saying he had a tired arm.

Jobe had indeed told him that he had muscle fatigue, but he hadn't told him to take 30 days off. That was what Richard told the press—that he was taking a month to go fishing. For this fabrication—though easily checked and bound to be uncovered—Richard paid a severe price. When the Astros received Jobe's report, which suggested that Richard miss his next start and pitch only five or six innings in the two or three after that, the lid blew in the Astrodome. Some players had never believed the claim about the 30 days, sensing that the joker in the man was at work. Asked why he had lied, Richard said, "I felt like it." Whatever his motives, it was certainly no way to encourage understanding.

"I think J.R. handled the situation the wrong way," Pitcher Joe Niekro told SI's Kathy Andria last week. "I don't know what was on his mind, but instead of coming out and saying there's something wrong with me and I've got to get it worked on he lied to his teammates, and he lied to the press. A lot of guys were wondering what the hell was going on, why he didn't want to pitch for us. It was a tragic way to find out there was something really wrong with him."

Another Astro, Second Baseman Joe Morgan, believes the misunderstanding occurred because Richard was experiencing a completely new and strange situation. "He knew something was wrong with his arm," says Morgan, "but he didn't know how to go about explaining it. He'd never been injured before."

In Richard's next and final start, against Atlanta on July 14, he appeared to be lethargic. His movements were awkward and labored. He seemed dazed. He seemed to have trouble seeing the catcher's signs. As his teammates took the field in the fourth inning, Richard stayed on the bench. He didn't move. Virdon walked the length of the dugout.

"Are you going to be able to pitch?" he asked.

"Yeah," said J.R. He got up and walked slowly to the mound. He said his hands felt cold, his stomach nauseated. Virdon pulled him after one out. The next morning Harry Shattuck of the Chronicle snidely reported that Atlanta's winning pitcher, Phil Niekro, had courageously ignored an injury of his own and pitched the game anyway. The story began: " Phil Niekro doesn't have a dead arm. Or a tired arm. Or back stiffness. Or shoulder stiffness. Or a stomachache."

The Houston papers were certainly not alone. Local broadcasters picked up on the J.R. Ewing theme, while unnamed players grew impatient. "We're in a pennant chase, and now he pulls this," one was quoted as saying.

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