Seven stories above the light brown sands of Cocoa Beach, Fla., from the balcony of his rented condominium, J.R. Richard observed in cheerful silence the performers below. While the sea did running somersaults onto the beach, a gull flew along the surf, nibbling here and there like a diner at an endless buffet. "Beautiful, isn't it?" Richard, the Houston Astros' $800,000-per-year righthanded pitcher, said quietly. Directly beneath him, a child sat alone, building a castle out of sand.
"Look at that," Richard said. From the south, a committee of eight pelicans was flying single file about a foot above the water. With their gray feathers and their bills tucked in, they looked very earnest and grave, like management's negotiators leaving a meeting with Marvin Miller. Richard saw the pelicans coming and smiled as they passed by.
"That's the beach patrol," he said. "That's all they do all day—patrol the shoreline for live mullet and shrimp. Some spring mullet came by here yesterday morning and there were pelicans all over the place. They have good instincts, better than we have. They want to do something, they do it; if they don't, they don't. They mind their own business and live from day to day. They have it made. Look at them out there, flying low. This is a good place to stay. Peace and quiet here. It's a good place to talk. Nobody bothers you. I like this. You're at peace with yourself, just being yourself. That's what I want to be. Just myself. And show people I am what I am."
The pelicans cruised out of sight, the child disappeared, and Richard leaned over the balcony railing, his chin in the palm of his hand. "I know I'll come back," he said. "I know that for sure. Everybody's waiting, as I'm waiting, on the future. Waiting on time. Time will tell. It's going to shock some people when I come back. When they see me as I am now, they're really going to be amazed. They're expecting to see me on crutches, but I won't be on crutches. And when they see me pitch, they're going to be shocked off their feet. They won't believe it. You watch and see what I'm telling you now."
Richard said that last Friday afternoon. He had just finished three quarters of a slab of barbecued spareribs and a glass of Moët et Chandon champagne. Now he was waiting for tomorrow, the first day of spring training. Richard vows that beginning this year he will take spring training like the pelicans: one day at a time, while minding his own business and flying low and at his own speed. On this day, knowing where he has been and where he's going, 30-year-old James Rodney Richard was at peace with himself and the world around him.
Seven months have passed since the morning of July 30 at the Houston Astrodome when Richard suffered a massive, almost fatal stroke that 1) virtually paralyzed the left side of his body, leaving him barely able to move or speak; 2) necessitated a life-saving operation during which a team of doctors removed from the carotid and subclavian arteries above his right collarbone part of a clot that was obstructing the flow of blood to his brain; 3) left just about everyone convinced that he would never pitch again; and 4) led to a second operation, 18 hours long, in which surgeons bypassed the clotted artery in his pitching shoulder so that a comeback might be possible.
And possible it is. No one is naming a specific date for Richard's return to competition, but there is reason to believe he has set out on a road that will lead him there this year. He has already exceeded the expectations of those overseeing his recovery. "I didn't think he'd be this far," says Dr. William Fields, Richards' personal physician and the chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. "I wouldn't want to make a prediction, but I have the feeling that he's going to make it all the way. I can't give you a timetable, but he's progressing steadily." Feeling in Richard's left side has returned to normal, Fields says, and J.R. has regained more than 95% of his strength and his entire field of vision.
"I'm not worried," Richard says. "I know I'm going to be fine. I don't know when, but everything's going to be fine. I know that. I know that. I think my chances of being as effective as before are excellent. I have faith. I have confidence in myself. I keep telling myself, 'Don't be in too big a hurry. Keep learning. Don't forget anything. Over a period of time it will turn out all right.' "
Richard's optimism is drawn from his personal experience. Six months ago, having regained consciousness and found himself lying flat on his back at Methodist Hospital in Houston, he was uncertain of where he was and unsure of what had happened to him. It was two full weeks after the stroke, he says, before he understood that he was in Houston. "I didn't know where in the world I was," he says. "I kind of had an idea what had happened, but I wasn't sure. I sort of figured it out for myself. And then some people told me. I was thanking God I was alive. I was so glad to be alive it was unreal."
When Richard arrived in Florida last week, there was little evidence that he had ever suffered a stroke. Not only had he regained feeling in his left side, but he also was speaking clearly and articulately and was moving about without so much as a limp. Only when he attempted to do exercises or movements on the mound—ones that especially required good reflexes and coordination—was there any clue that Richard wasn't entirely well.