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He also must recapture his natural agility, coordination and reflexes, Reich says, and learn once again the patterns of movement common to pitchers—such as the move to first base and fielding bunts—and learn how to throw his three basic pitches, the slider especially. "I know how to throw the slider. I know how to throw my changeup, my fastball and everything," Richard says. "But I have to redo all that, relearn all that, to make them as effective as I want them to be. Right now my arm actually feels better than it has ever felt."
In fact, says Reich, the condition of Richard's pitching arm is the least concern of all. When Wylie and Stoney operated, Reich says, one reason they took so long was because "They were so meticulous about not cutting more than they had to." Reich says the reason the subclavian artery was bypassed was to avoid severing any of the main muscles used in the pitching motion. "So his pitching arm is ahead of the rest of him in progress," says Reich. "We're not being governed by the baseball calendar." Richard governs Richard.
Given where he had been six months before, what he had gone through to get from then to now, Richard was a source of wonder at the first day of spring training at the Astros' camp. On Saturday, a bright blue morning at Cocoa, he put on a Houston uniform for the first time since his stroke and strolled to the mound on one of the practice fields. Reporters watched him curiously, and cameras followed him closely. Thus, another step in the rehabilitation of J.R. Richard began. "I wasn't uncomfortable at all," he said.
But clearly he was tense. Richard spent about 15 minutes fielding grounders for Gene Coleman, the Astros' director of physical conditioning and the man in charge of his retraining program. The reporters and visitors watched silently, almost in embarrassment, as the workout began. Richard misplayed the first four grounders hit to him, completely missing the first two, picking up the third but overthrowing first and then kicking the fourth. He looked awkward and tentative coming off the mound and bending over. But gradually he settled down; eventually he found a rhythm. He ended the drill by scooping up balls left and right and pegging them hard to all three bases.
It was the pitching that most strongly suggested the Richard of old. Coleman had him throw a few minutes to Tom Vessey, a 25-year-old minor league catcher, and there were moments when J.R. stirred memories. He began stiffly, but he loosened up after the first dozen pitches, and one could hear the fastball popping. His motion got more and more fluid as he went along; it was the real J.R.—left leg raised high and kicking, the ball snapping out of his hand. A few rising fastballs jumped five or six inches. Al Rosen, the new Astro general manager, who is recovering from a bypass heart operation, stood by the batting cage and watched. "He has strength coming down on his left side," Rosen said. "It's not collapsing on him." Rosen figured Richard was bringing in the fastball at more than 80 mph. Vessey thought a couple were closer to 90. In the end, Richard smiled as he left the mound and walked to the third base line.
"Hey, you were popping them pretty good," Rosen said. "Pretty good."
"Thank you," Richard said. "I felt fine. Super."
All he needs is time, he says. He is determined to pitch in the big leagues again. Were he to make it back, it would be hard to imagine a sports story more poignant or dramatic. The last few months have made him too much of a realist to dismiss any possibility. He says he can accept the idea that he may never again pitch as well as he once did.
"I know it's possible," he says. "It wouldn't be the end of the world. I'm going to keep living if I'm not able to pitch again. I can do other things. I can think for myself, I can read, I can write, I can talk, I can see, I can feel, I can laugh, I can joke, I can do everything that everybody else can do. The only thing that bothers me is this: I jumped off the couch yesterday and found I couldn't fly."