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When Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda summoned someone—anyone—on his bench to pinch-hit against James Rodney Richard, strongmen their eyes. Such temporary paralysis was common among Houston Astro opponents in the late '70s whenever the 6'8", 225-pound Richard pitched. Players called the affliction J. R.-thritis.
Joe Morgan has admitted fearing him. Dave Winfield still calls Richard the toughest pitcher he ever faced, Of stepping in against Richard's 98-mph fastball. Hill Buckner once said, "What you do depends on whether you value your life more than you value one at bat."
In midsummer of 1980 Richard was alone at the peak of his profession, a lock for the National League Cy Young Award, a starter in the All-Star Game, with 10 wins and a 1.89 ERA at midseason break, But on July 30, while working out at the Astrodome, he suffered a stroke and never pitched again in the major leagues.
Houston manager Bill Virdon called him "the best pitcher in baseball." And the best pitcher in baseball was, as Astro teammate Enos Cabell noted, "on his way to the Hall of Fame." Given what he already was, what J. R. Richard might have been seems limitless.
In 1979 J.R. Richard won 18 games, and he struck out 300 batters for the second time, something that no other National League righthander had ever done once. He also led the league with a 2.71 ERA. He was 29 years old.
In 1980 he won the Cy Young, as expected.
From 1981 to '85 the Houston Astros had a rotation that would have made the current Atlanta Brave starting pitchers look like slo-pitch softballers. The Astro staff consisted of Richard, a second banana by the name of Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton and a fourth starter who would win 221 games in his career, knuckleballer Joe Niekro. Houston mowed down opponents like a Toro.
In 1983 the Astros acquired a fifth starter named Mike Scott.
In 1986, in a timeless National League Championship Series, Houston beat the New York Mets. The Astros then dispatched the Boston Red Sox in what proved to be a surprisingly competitive Fall Classic. Richard the Lionhearted, 36 years old, started Games 1, 4 and 7 for Houston. Three Red Sox regulars missed those games with "flulike symptoms." (Alas, the aforementioned Buckner was not one of them.)
In 1988 J.R. Richard retired.