Today is J. R. Richard's birthday. He is 31.

Baseball has a statistic for everything, and, according to the studies, 31 is the best of all possible ages to be if you're a ball player. That's the peak. The skills of youth and the knowledge of experience meet here.

That's good, because Richard needs every edge he can get.

Contrary to popular belief, the most vital part of The J. R. Richard Story is finished. His comeback is already complete. His comeback to life, that is.

"The most important thing is, I'm here," he says with his big smile and his tiny teeth.

Let us, in the interests of both accuracy and decency, decree right now that Richard's recovery from his massive stroke last July is already a success. It would be both inaccurate and unjust to consider using the word "fail" where Richard is concerned."I can see, I can talk, and I can think," he says, "even though maybe I'm not the best at any of them."

Few things are more disturbing to a stroke victim than being watched. Everybody, morbidly but inescapably, looks for the signs of loss. Is the face the same? Does an eye or lip droop? Perhaps we are fascinated because we feel that we are seeing the visage of death lurking in a living face.

If the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Richard were a Martian, he could not be watched any more closely than he is here. And he can guess the first thought of almost every baseball observer who sees him for the first time: "No way."

Richard has his private field at the back extremity of the Houston Astro's rather bleak and remote facility here in the middle of nowhere. He looks like a giant child playing with two lonely friends. One is Astro exercise specialist Gene Coleman, the other a ballboy. Gently, Coleman taps harmless grounders toward Richard as a father might hit a ball to his 8-year-old for the first time. The grounders start soft and stay that way. For good reason.

This week, Colemen accidentally swung a bit harder, caught the bottom half of the ball and hit a respectable line drive back at Richard.

Nothing happened. Nothing.

Richard never saw it, never moved his glove hand, never defended himself.

If the baseball isn't where Richard expects it to be, if his eyes have to roam to pick it up, then judge its speed and direction, he's in trouble. Maybe he gets a bead on it, maybe he doesn't. It's a problem in depth perception, expecially on the left side. Some doctors say it will improve and that Richard will see normally. Some don't think so. "Right now, it's like trying to find a ghost," says Richard. "I don't see the ball right away yet. It's hard to find."

Until Richard can, unerringly, pick up the flight of a rifle-shot liner, there's no way his career will ever get beyond this little field. Even the greatest of pitchers, and that's what he was when he struck out more than 300 men in '78 and '79, has dozens of rockets hit back through the box every year.

Even when Richard sees the hopping ball perfectly, he's not a pretty sight for the squeamish. A national TV newsclip of Richard's first day of practice showed him bobbling or missing the first couple of balls nudged back to him. It was reported that by the end of his workout he was fielding normally and throwing hard to all bases. Never let the facts get in the way of a "good news" story. Who wants to know that Richard can't field as well as a Little Leaguer?

Sometimes Richard grabs the ball cleanly, and sometimes he whirls and throws it accurately to the ballboy baseman. And plenty of times, he doesn't.

Wednesday, Richard began leaving his solitary diamond to participate in some Astro drills. That means he stood in the outfield and watched other people shag flies. "The wind was bad. It was tough to get a good jump," said Richard, who didn't catch one fly. And, he put on a batting helmet to try to take bunting practice against a pitching machine. Then, that metaphysical wind came up again. "Wind's pretty strong," said Coach Bunny Mick, referring to an imperceptible breeze. "Let's skip it today."

Asked later whether Richard has been able to bunt a ball against the machine, Mick answered with a standard team joke: "You'll have to ask General Manager) Al Rosen." All the Astros have been given a gag rule regarding Richard.

It is necessary to be brutally honest about how far, how enormously far, Richard is from being allowed to throw a pitch to a live hitter, let alone pitch in a major league game. Or win one.

If fans don't understand Richard's true condition, if they only hear the good news about how strong his arm feels and how he has already thrown fast balls in the 85-mile-per-hour range, they will once again fall into the mercilessly unfair snare that afflicted Richard last season.

Then, fans asked how a 6-foot-8 pitcher throwing invisible fast balls could possibly think he had a "dead arm." The "superman" expectations are building around Richard again. If he can run four miles a day, if his enormous total-body strength is near normal, if his arm has little or nothing wrong with it, then why shouldn't the big lug make a comeback?

Nuances of cordination and shades of eyesight are almost as hard to detect as a blood clot. Richard certainly deserves better than to be misjudged again. It is only fair to him to point out that while he can, at this stage, chew gum and walk at the same time -- in fact, he chewed gum all winter to get the left side of his face to look normal again -- he can't do much more. For daily life, he's normal. For an athlete, he's not even close yet.

One inherent problem for Richard is our national obsession with soap opera and pap."The Comeback Begins," blared a national magazine cover this week.

Another inescapable difficulty is Richard himself. He has been told by his neurologist, Dr. William Fields, that "the biggest key to complete recovery from a stroke is motivation, attitude, point of view."

If you'd been told that, how would you talk? You'd talk just like Richard does -- unrealistically, with blind optimism and complete refusal to entertain hypothetical questions about failure. The truth, the real odds against him, are not Richard's friends. So he's not inviting them into his brain. His conversation sounds like fantasy, but it is really just self-hypnosis.

In mid-winter Richard was telling folks over the phone that he hadn't ruled out pitching on opening day. He raised expectations then and he continues to constantly. Now, he insists, "I don't think I have any problems." His eyesight, his coordination? "I don't consider those problems." Has he made improvement here? "I improve every day in every way." Could he be specific? "I can tell the difference." What about all those who go away from here shaking their heads sadly? "They don't know how far I've come already. They haven't seen yet what I'm capable of doing . . . Everybody's on my side, I know, but they don't believe. When they see me pitch again, they'll be shocked off their feet." When will he throw hard? "Soon." When will he throw his first slider? "Soon . . . it'll be like seeing an old friend again." How soon is soon? "How soon do you think it is? Time will tell me. When it's autumn, the leaves fall. When the time comes, I'll know it. Does anybody have to tell you when to go to the bathroom?"

So, what do you want him to say, truth lovers?

Richard knows the state of affairs. It sneaks in the back door. "I know people are rooting for me," he says. "I thank them, especially for the prayers. I need 'em." When you say, "Good luck" to him, he gives a soft smile and says, "Thanks, I need it." Do his teammates tease him yet -- the sure sign they think he's really going to make it back? "No, it's still too serious for that."

Sometimes it seems that half the teams in baseball have some once-great pitcher trying his umpteenth comeback -- Mark Fidrych, Don Gullett, Wayne Garland. None is trying to overcome as much as Richard. As a small for instance, when surgeons had to remove his first rib (during his shoulder and artery transplant operation), they heard a crunching sound. It wasn't the rib snapping. It was Richard's bone breaking the jaws of the shear.

Nevertheless, Richard has an enormous advantage, one that will help him whether or not he ever pitches again. Somewhere, he has found a sense of identity that shines in a way it never did before his tribulations.

"I see things differently than I used to," he says. "I used to drive fast all the time. I'd come in the gate here at Cocoa and make doughnuts in the dirt doing wheelies by spinning my car.

"But, you know, as fast as I always went, I was always late. I'd start late, hurry, then get there late. Now, I go slower. I start early, go slow, and get there early."

Is there some philosphy buried in there?

"Somewhere," say Richard with the smile he uses far more than he once did.

Richard's two trademark expressions now are "That's history," and "I have no timetable." By the first, he means that he has tried to wash away all the sins of the past, including his own. By forgiving others, he can forgive himself.

When he says he's torn up the calendar, he means it. "I'm not on baseball time," he says. "I'm on J.R. Richard time. I think I've always been on my own time. But I'm sure of it now." Then he lights up the grin that changes his face from dull to delightful. "Maybe all us fishermen are on our own time."

It's said two things help a person take control of his own life, make him self-reliant and independent -- great wealth and a brush with death. In the last year, Richard has had both. Last year, he signed a four-year, $3.2-million contract, which is guaranteed even if he never pitches again.

That contract, plus his stroke, have made Richard an inviolble, fiercely separate island. He is the lone inhabitant of his private field in more than one sense. The breach between Richard and Astro management is total; if he were in good health, they might well be in open warfare. Richard and his agent, Tom Reich, are still considering a lawsuit against the Astro doctors.

"Whether I can come back or not depends on which set of doctors you ask," says Richard.

Does he mean that the Astros don't really think he'll be back? "Why else would they trade for all that pitching (Bob Knepper, free agent Don Sutton), when they should have been trading for hitters," he says, adding. "Hey, but I just work here, too."

The mere mention of agent Reich, who has critized the Astros from pillar to post for what he considers their neglect and disrepect toward Richard, is like uttering a four-letter word in the Astro office.

Richard's two best Astro friends, those who stood up for him in the clubhouse when he was openly doubted -- Enos Cabell and Joe Morgan (both Reich clients) -- have been traded or let go. "They are going to be greatly missed around here," says Richard, sounding ominous. "The locker room is real quiet now. This team is basically a different club now." At another time, he says out of the blue, "We only have three blacks left on the club now."

The Astros say they aren't counting on Richard's comeback. Their true feelings may be stronger than that. Who knows if they want him back?

Richard doesn't worry about that. "If you can pitch," he says, "you're in demand."

So, for the time being, and perhaps for a long time to come, Richard is a sort of uneasy ghost lurking around the edges of the Astro banquet. He has his own field and his own coach to hit him dribblers. He has his own press conference every Wednesday. He sets his own schedule. He may, or may nor, sue his own team's physicians for millions. His best friends on the team are gone. His agent has the good sense to stay clear of the people here who loathe him. He collects an $800,000-a-year salary, regardless.

His place in the starting rotation has already been given to Sutton, who is making $900,000 a year.The Astros call Sutton "insurance in case J. R. doesn't come back." Everybody here knows better. If Richard comes back at anything less than 100 percent, there may be no room for him on this team (and no patience to endure his struggling) during this season when the Astros figure to be contenders.

Despite all this, Richard is more pleasant, more outgoing, more generous with other people than ever before in his life. Once, he was the most forbidding Astro. Now, he may be the least aloof, signing interminable autographs and seeking out chitchat. After a lifetime as the Goliath overdog, he is now everybody's underdog, and he enjoys it. Richard may even have become the symbol of a decent, long-out-of-fashion idea -- mutual tolerance for each other. That's not hard to take.

The talk of Cocoa is Richard's incredible handshake, a true bone cruncher. Somehow, for 10 years, nobody noticed it. "I think," says one Astro regular, "it's because he never shook hands with anybody before."

"I've found it's not hard to get along with people," Richard says. His conversation is sprinkled with spontaneous bits of harmless laconic wit. "I don't know how fast I'm throwing, 'cause I haven't run alongside of one of my fast balls yet."

Where another athelete might see enormous, probably insurmountable problems, Richard only knows the sweet pleasures of being, now and forever, on his own slow Lou'siana fisherman's time. Why does he seem so contended when, of all the players in baseball, he undoubtedly has the most against him?

"A smile," he says in his low, deep molasses voice, "is just a frown turned upside down."