In August, when he was in a hospital bed recovering from a stroke that almost killed him, J.R. Richard never dreamed that on Christmas Eve he'd be out in the Texas countryside rabbit hunting with his dogs and gun.

When the great Houston pitcher regained consciousness, and discovered that he was totally paralyzed on his left side and could not speak, he never dared think that by New Year's Day he would be able to throw a baseball again.

As recently as the day of the World Series opener, Richard was undergoing 18 hours of surgery to graft an eight-inch segment of artery into his right (pitching) shoulder. As desperately as Richard wanted that surgery, even he never foresaw how quickly he would recover from it.

It is still too early to write a happy-ending chapter to the sad, nearly tragic, story of Richard's tribulations. Nevertheless, Richard's recovery already has set as many medical records as his 300-strikeout-a-year pitching.

Two months ago, when Richard threw out the first ball at the playoffs in Houston, the 6-foot-8, 30-year-old was a sorrowful sight. The left side of his face had a paralytic droop; he walked slowly and cautiously, like an old man; and, out of pride, he did not want to speak in public.

The quiet, yet, nevertheless semiofficial word within baseball was that the Richard you saw then -- a giant who was a fraction of his old self -- was the Richard you were going to get for a long time.

Now, Richard's face does not droop. His speech is so close to normal that only family members claim they can tell a slight difference. The Richard, who, so recently, worried about walking now is jogging three miles every day.

After a meeting this week with his neurologist, Richard has been given the go-ahead to start throwing a baseball -- softly -- as soon as the New Year starts. "I'm at the bottom of the mountain. Now I have to start climbing back to the top," said Richard yesterday. "There's no doubt in my mind now that I'll be back. I feel terrific. I've already been out throwing a football with the kids."

"What we have here is an enormously motivated man," says Dr. Jack Wiley, who performed the surgery in October to remove the clotted artery from Richard's shoulder and give him that eight-inch arterial graft.

"I came into his room four days after surgery. At that stage, you and I would still be begging for another morphine pill," said Wiley. "Richard was putting his arm through its whole range of motion. I couldn't believe it. He shouldn't have folt up to moving his shoulder, much less taking his arm in a full circle. He must have an incredible tolerance for pain.

"As he was leaving the hospital, he said, 'Thank you very much,'" said Wiley. "That was the longest speech I got out of him. He is a huge, gentle, sincere, and very quiet man. I asked him, 'What are you going to do first?' He said, 'Goin' fishing, Doc.' So, I asked him, 'And after that?'

"He just looked at me and said, 'Going to pitch.'"

All the official verdicts on Richard are that his baseball future remains problematic. "We are not counting on J.R. making a comeback," said Astro Manager Bill Virdon, "although if anyone could, he can."

Richard has something to prove to the world -- the baseball world that called him a malingerer and insinuated worse.

The only thing that will satisfy Richard is to do the impossible. And he's right on schedule. In his own mind, he's pointed toward Opening Day.

If Richard succeeds, his comeback may put to shame all the storybook tales of medical heroism by athletes. Perhaps no other famous star was ever stricken more dramatically.

For nearly two months, Richard complained of a "dead arm" in mid-season. In light of his 1.87 ERA and his 100-mile-per-hour velocity, few people in baseball believed that anything serious could be wrong with Richard.

"People did a job on us," recalled Richard's wife, Carolyn, yesterday. "I'm a country girl and I never did like the publicity. I take things to heart more than Rodney. It got so bad that I didn't want to leave the house or let the children read the papers. All I could think was, 'We're going to get out of here come trade time.'

"Everything had gone so easy in our lives . . . money, fame . . . he was on the go, going up the ladder. We thought everybody was behind us. Then, when things got bad, we turned around and nobody was there. Nobody stood up, even on the team. Only (teammate) Enos Cabell out of a whole city."

When Richard finally collapsed -- during a private workout while on the disabled list -- doctors had to perform emergency life-and-death surgery. Because his case was so serious, the surgeons saw no reason to remove the clogged artery that had caused the original problem.

That's when matters get sticky and accounts differ. Richard and Tom Rich, his lawyer-agent, have decided to sue the Houston doctors who worked with the pitcher before, during and immediately after his stroke.

"The screaming question, of course," says Rich, "is how they could publicly diagnose a clot of some kind, then allow him to go back to work?"

The dramatic, though little publicized, turn in the Richard case came when Rich guided the pitcher to a San Francisco team of vascular surgeons led by Wiley.

"The general rule for an average citizen in such a case would be to leave the constricted artery alone," explained Wiley. "Of course, in that case the sensation of a 'dead arm' would recur anytime Richard pitched for any length of time.

"I'm not an avid sports follower, but after meeting Richard it was apparent that, for him, the sun rose and fell on the game of baseball. Those close to him assured me that it would be devastating emotionally for him to leave the game."

So, the doctors decided on that 18-hour operation.

Bypassing more conventional techniques, the doctors removed two (external iliac) arteries from Richard's abdomen, stitched them together, then used that eight-inch section to replace the problem artery in Richard's pitching shoulder. The abdominal arteries were then replaced with dacron arteries.

More than Richard's arteries have been transformed by the last few months. "It's changed my whole way of living," says Richard. "I've heard the preacher say, 'You're blind even though your eyes are open.' Now I know what he meant. I see things and people a lot clearer now. When I was paralyzed and nobody thought I'd ever pitch again, I found out who my true friends were. For instance, Cecil Ferguson, an old, dear friend I grew up with . . . he had a job but he was there to my door every day to take me to therapy. I wondered 'How could I let this man stay too far from me?'"

Finally, and most optimistically, Richard's shoulder has to recover from the damage done by two major operations in that area. "It will take time," said Wiley, "but I see no reason why his shoulder should not get back to 100 percent. It seems he is already on his way." Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford, made a comeback after having part of his first rib removed to relieve artery blockage.

When the Astros' season ended, a distraught Richard told his friend Rich, "I feel like half a man. What I'm living isn't a normal life. Am I going to stay like this?"

That was two months ago. The tragic Richard of fall has since become a hopeful Richard. "I feel real good. It's going to be a very merry Christmas," said Richard yesterday, fresh from hiking the field and bringing home five rabbits. "My gift for Christmas is being alive."