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Regardless, he had come a very long way to get from Houston in July to Cocoa in February. And the changes he had undergone hadn't been entirely physical. He senses that the experience has enriched his spirit—sharpened his perspective on things by confronting him with intimations of his mortality and teaching him about himself and others. "It made me see myself better," Richard says. "It made me understand people better. I look at things from a different angle now. I comprehend life better. You learn to trust people more than you did before. You just can't live by yourself. When you're sick it's like you're stepping into a different world altogether. People cheering me up, bringing me things. People glad to see me alive, glad to see me happy. It's a different world. What happened to me was a learning experience."
Richard vividly remembers the weeks leading up to the stroke, when he suffered from a "dead" and "tired" pitching arm, and he remembers many fans questioning him, the media suggesting he was a quitter. "They didn't accept me for what I was," he says. "They found out I knew myself better than they did. But it's all history. I'm not bitter about it. Not at all." He recalls the last game he pitched for the Astros, on July 14 against Atlanta, and how he had to strain to see the catcher's signs and couldn't focus his eyes.
Richard also remembers playing catch with former teammate Wilbur Howard in the Astrodome on July 30 and suddenly losing his balance and falling to his hands and knees, his ears ringing, and Wilbur saying, "Jay, are you all right?" He remembers the siren and being lifted into the ambulance and attendants putting cold towels on his head. "I remember all that," he says. "I remember everything just like it happened yesterday." He remembers everything, in fact, except how depressed he was after going home from the hospital on Sept. 12. "Very depressed, he was an old young man," says Tom Reich, Richard's lawyer and a longtime friend. "He moped around; he'd sit around the house and then leave for hours at a time, just driving around by himself and staring into space. He was a recluse."
What snapped Richard out of it, Reich says, was the news that a second bout of surgery—one that would restore normal circulation to his pitching arm—might make it possible for him to return to full strength. Doctors in Houston had advised against further surgery, but Reich was encouraged after discussing the procedure with Dr. Edwin Wylie in San Francisco. "I came back after talking to Dr. Wylie and told J.R. what was available," Reich says. "His whole spirit lifted. He said, 'Let's go.' " So they went. On Oct. 14, the day after the Phillies beat Houston for the National League pennant, Wylie and Dr. Ronald Stoney performed what Reich now calls the "Hall of Fame" operation.
The surgeons removed two four-inch segments of artery from Richard's lower abdomen, spliced them together and transplanted the eight-inch vessel in Richard's right shoulder, where it bypassed the partially clotted and useless subclavian artery as the main source of blood flowing to the arm. The operation lasted 18 hours, an unusually long time, but Richard recovered quickly and was released from the University of California Medical Center 11 days later. Sensing that he was coming back, that he would pitch again, he diligently worked at his convalescence. He did jaw exercises, which included chewing gum, until he regained strength and tone in the muscles on the left side of his face. His speech became normal. Sit-ups, push-ups and lifting weights developed his body strength. He started jogging four miles a day. He took whirlpool baths, got rub-downs and shot baskets in a Houston gym. "That was to help my coordination and my visual perception," he says. "I loved it." And after the new year began, he started to throw the baseball.
The regimen obviously agreed with him. The man who showed up in Cocoa last week came ready to work—to try to return, sometime in 1981, to where he left off. And, remember, when Richard last pitched he was masterful; in little more than half a season in 1980 he had a 10-4 record with a 1.89 ERA and 119 strikeouts. What he wants to do, more than anything, is to put the dark memories behind him. "Certain things I can't change," he says. "They're going to happen. When it comes autumn, the leaves will turn brown. Only when it's dark enough can you see the stars. So I'm not really worried. I accept it; I understand it. It happened; it's life. The best thing I can do is go forward, keep going forward. Tomorrow wasn't promised to me—only today."
For now, at least, he must continue working to bring his body into tone and trim. Richard weighs 240 pounds when he's in shape, but he arrived in Florida at about 260. He has had the last of spareribs and champagne for a while. He intends to concentrate on drills and exercises that will hone his reflexes, sharpen his skills. The stroke impaired those and his coordination, too. "The more I do, the better I come back," he says. "The running wasn't difficult at all. Just my left side was a little weak. It's not back yet—it's still a little weak—but it's coming. I can feel it."
The most troubling of Richard's problems has been his inability to make spatial perceptions. According to Dr. Fields, the right side of Richard's brain, the side damaged by the stroke, governs his ability to perceive the location and speed of objects moving through space—including a baseball coming in his direction. Richard has had trouble picking up objects in the left half of his field of vision, the doctor says, and at times has had to catch a ball with both hands.
"If I pick up the ball right from the catcher's hand, I don't have any problems," Richard says. "But if I don't see it right away, it's hard to find. It's like trying to find a ghost."
Without total recovery, Richard can never pitch again, for what kind of chance would he have fielding a line drive smashed back at him up the middle. "It doesn't bother me," Richard says, "Over a period of time it will come back. I know it will."