With circulation to the brain and arm cut off, with Richard's life in danger, the decision to operate was made. At 8:10 p.m., seven hours and 50 minutes after Richard entered the emergency room, he was given a general anesthetic. McCollum performed the surgery, removing the occlusion from the carotid and subclavian arteries. There was some difficulty eliminating the blockage from the distal subclavian. So it wasn't removed. But McCollum says it poses no threat.
Whether Richard will ever pitch again is problematical. No one yet knows how much permanent damage the stroke inflicted. But the entire episode left more than just unresolved medical questions.
For example, why didn't people believe the man when he said his arm was tired? Was it because, as some suggest, Houston fans didn't want to believe it, didn't want to face the fact that their best pitcher—a, possibly the, key to their pennant hopes—was suddenly unable to perform like his old indestructible self? There was an aura of indestructibility about Richard, similar to that which clings to the other superstar in the town, Earl Campbell. Surely Earl will always rise when the pileup disperses and that great giant of a righthander will always take his turn in the rotation and fire a hundred BB's over two hours.
But how could anyone have believed that Richard was dogging it? That he was gutless or lacked personal pride? This was a man who had been a workhorse for as long as he had been on the pitching staff. Until the clot weakened him, he hadn't missed a start in five years.
Reich believes Richard became a victim of a new phenomenon that is national in scope—fans and press demanding more of players making megabucks. "The big salaries have raised the expectations of the fans and the media as to how those players should perform," Reich says. "A lot of guys are getting eaten alive." He not only represents Richard, but also Dave Parker and George Foster—each of whom has felt the heat of that fire.
The feeling also exists that if Richard had been a white superstar—a Sandy Koufax, say—he would have been treated differently if he complained of a tired arm. "We always knew we had to be better," says Enos Cabell, the Astros' third baseman and Richard's closest friend. "There is a difference."
"Black and big, a big star," says Carolyn Richard. "Other guys had problems on the Astros. Ken Forsch [a white pitcher] had problems. He was out a whole half of a season. Ryan hasn't been pitching to his ability. I've never seen a player dragged through the mud like this. I don't know why, in 1980, they chose to do it to Rodney. But they did. It's something we'll never forget. Never. It was like a wildfire. It took death, or nearly death, to get an apology. They should have believed him."
They do now.
In a mea culpa for the local press, Mickey Herskowitz of The Houston Post wrote on Aug. 3: "Guilt has seized a lot of people in this town who believed in the weeks before his problem was diagnosed...that Richard was playing his own kind of game. Some wrote or said as much, and if anyone expressed any sympathy, or offered him the benefit of the doubt, no real notice was paid.... Our concern and shock were mixed with embarrassment and we ought to admit it."
Virdon believes there is another lesson to be learned. "Always double-check, triple-check," he says. "Even though nobody finds anything, if a guy keeps saying there's something wrong, you've got to be thorough. It's the only protection you have."