"The world owes J. R. Richard an apology ." -- Houston radio editorial

Baseball received a shock yesterday thatsent the equivalent of a wave of moral nausea through the game.

Houston pitcher J. R. Richard -- the victim of a blood clot in the neck and perhaps, it now appears, a stroke that could weaken him permanently -- was telling the truth.

Both Richard's life and his career remained in danger yesterday in the aftermath of emergency "life-or-death" surgery Wednesday for removal of the clot. However, Richard, whose reputation had suffered much public damage in the last month,was totally vindicated -- but at enormous cost.

The reaction of those closest to Richard in the hours since his collapse at a workout in the Astrodome Wednesday has been one ofenormous bitterness.

"I hope the skeptics are happy now," said Deacon Jones. Astro pitching coach. "J. R. has almost had to die before anyone would take him at his word.

"Every town where we went for weeks there were stories intimating that J. R. was a drug addict, or that he was jealous ofNolan Ryan and wanted more money, or that he was just a rich, lazy athlete who was loafing.

"This whole experience has felt sort of tragic because it's so typical of our society to assume the worst about everybody. In J. R.'s case, they assumed the worst about the best.

"The last time he pitched (two weeks ago in Atlanta) and had to leave the game (in the fourth inning), I sat next to him and said, 'Something's really bothering you, isn't it?'

"He said, 'No bull, Deacon. But I don't know what it is. I'm confused. Feel my hands.'

"His hands were cold as ice."

Shamefaced apologies began to flow into the Astro offices yesterday. Both a radio and a Tv sportscaster made public retractions on their shows for previous criticisms. "A lot of people are eating crow," said Beverly Ray in the Houston information office.

Those belated about-faces salved little of the pain among Richard's long-time friends.

"People did J. R. so bad that it's ridiculous," said Richard's closest Astro friend, third baseman Enos Cabell. "But the world will remember all the lies that were written and said about him.

"The same people who cut him up so band and said he is 'jaking' (loafing) or having a nervous breakdown or even that he was getting a divorce, it's like they're down in a hole today with theirshoulders hunched so low that you can barely see them.

"But they've done their damage," Cabell said.

"J. R. will forgive them. We talked about it a week ago and he said, 'I'm going to come back dignified. I'm going to look right through them like it never happened. I'm gonna 'trip 'em out.'

"I told him," Cabell said, "you'll be al right, J. You're a better man than I am. Myself, I'd never forget."

Richard, who struck out more than 300 men in each of the last two years and had a 10-4 record with a 1.89 ERA this season, was as mystified as anyone about his two-month struggle withan inexplicable "dead arm" that felt numb and lifeless.

"J. R. would slump over after every pitch," Cabell said. "Icame in from third and he said, 'Am I throwing it hard?'

"I said, 'Man, you're really bringing it (throwing hard).'

"He said, 'But I feel so bad after every pitch, like I'm going to get sick."

The saddest irony of Richard's two months of pain was that his fortitude and determination to pitch were what led to almost universal questioning of his motives.

"For five years the man carried this team when we were bad, when we couldn't catch or hit," Cabell said. "He nevermissed one turn in his career. Look it up.

"But now, when we're in a pennant race it's being written that he doesn't want to pitch, that it's in his head.

"If you're an athlete, you're supposed to be wonderful . . . . no matter what."

"J. R. made one mistake," coach Jones said. "He backedhimself into a corner by telling different stories at different times. He's always been a joker who likes to put people on.

"That tendency to put people on combined with how confused and worried he was, got him in trouble. I told him. 'Try to be consistent. You don't know how big you've become. People hang on every word you say like you're the president.'"

Once Richard even lied, perhaps hoping to take pressure off himself: he told reporters that a Los Angeles doctor had told him to "take 30 days off and go fishing."

"It just got worse and worse," Jones said. "Outside the guys onthe team, you couldn't find anybody who believed J. R. Here's a guy 6-foot-8 throwing the ball 97 miles an hour and hesays his arm feels 'dead." In fact, even a couple of the newer guys on the team had doubts.

"Almost every city had the same headline -- 'Who shot J.R.?' Jones said. "Between the lines it always seemed like they were pointing at drugs -- shooting up heroin."

Even Houston teamphysician Harold Brelsford said publicly, at one point, that he thought Richard's problem was partly emotional and result of his social life.

Now the possibility arises that some of the oddities in Richard's behavior -- like eating fried chicken in the clubhouse after saying that he had left the game because of nausea -- could be explained by small embolisms breaking off from the developing blood clot and causing the equivalent of minor strokes.

"Now everything around the team is very quiet," Jones said. "Last night (in Philadelphia) when the word came about the operation, you could feel the heaviness. Everybody just wanted to be alone with their thoughts of J.R."

Beneath everything else, one dark thought swims silently.

"Yes, we talk about it," Cabel said. 'What if J.R. had been a white superstar -- like Sandy Koufax 15 years ago?Would he have been doubted and chewed up in public? Or would people have been sending him get-well cards?

"Last month we were talking and I told him, 'J.R., no matter how muchmoney you make and how famous you are, you're still black.We're the guys who always have to play hurt, because this game hasn't got any room for blacks on the bench. You're either the best or you're gone,'" Cabell said.

"I hate to get into this," Jones said quietly. "Sure, being black is part of the way J.R. got treated. You won't find a black player who doesn't assume that.

"But, partly, it's being rich and partly it's being so big and indestructible looking.

"The human body isn't meant to throw the slider. Every pitcher works with pain. That's why I knew something was reallywrong. We all play through pain. You can't be in the major leagues and be stopped by small things," Jones said.

"The more money we make the less fans will be sympathetic withan athlete's problems. I admit, players today are vastly overpaid. It blows my mind thinking about the salaries.

"But it seems like the money has taken away our humanity. Sign a million-dollar contract and you're no longer a person.You're supposed to be perfection.

"I hear them boo Mike Schmidt in Philadelphia even while he's leading the league in home runs. They throw batteries and rocks from the bleachers at Dave Parker in his hometown (Pittsburgh).

"Nothingis enough. Instead of being a hero who's trying his best, you're a commodity who's been paid for.

"More and more players are saying, 'To hell with the fans. To hell with the press. They don't care about me as a person. So why shouldI care about them?'"

Only one time in the last month did Richard talk about finding a place where he was believed, where he was assumed to be innocent rather than guilty of an unnamed character flaw.

"We were in a small all-black clubwhere J.R was being given an achievement award," Jones said. "We were with a room full of other people who had all grown up knowing that what they heard and read might not be thetruth, that they better take everyting with a grain of saltuntil they learned the facts for themselves.

"People came over to J.R. and never asked about all the rumors. They just said, 'Is your arm going to be okay?"

"And J.R. would say, 'I'll make it."

"And they'd say, 'Okay, brother.'"

Then Jones thought a moment, changing his mind a bit.

"The real problem," he said, "isn't black and white. It's that we're all getting cynical about everything.

"We're all so anxious to think the worst of each other.

"Maybe for a day or two, this will make us pause."