Only 14 months ago, J.R. Richard needed 18 hours of surgery to stay alive. He'd had a stroke. This week the Houston Astros put Richard on their active roster. They say he may pitch before the season is out. Let's hope he really wants to.
He looks wonderful. In the Astros' office, a baseball magazine from the spring of '80 has a cover picture of Richard over the words, "J.R. Richard, Astro Flame Thrower, Major League Strikeout King." At 6 feet 8 and heavily muscled, Richard today looks the same as on that cover.
Something is missing, though.
Or else it just hasn't returned yet.
Let's hope it gets here before the Astros, under pressure from Richard and in misguided sympathy, let him pitch again.
Who would not root for Richard? His courage was questioned by men who couldn't feel his pain. Richard had to fall unconscious, his brain bleeding, and go to surgery before last season's ugly talk ended. Doctors repaired an artery in his shoulder. Richard says the Lord did the rest.
Some stroke victims recover speech and movement. But seldom do they get it all back. Richard today isn't the athlete he was on that magazine cover. If 75 percent of that Richard is good enough to make it in the big leagues, right now this Richard is maybe 60 percent.
He can't throw strikes, and he can't do the little things. This you could see the other day when the Astros played an eerie game just for him.
At 3 in the afternoon, the Astrodome was empty, save for a tour group in the upper deck and some cleaning people pushing brooms.
A man with a radar gun was under the bleachers behind home plate.
The Astros' general manager sat slouched behind the plate, watching.
For the first time since the stroke, J.R. Richard brought his fast ball to a major-league hitter without the protection of the batting-practice screen that knocks down line drives up the middle.
He faced three second-string hitters taking turns, two left-handers.
A full team was on the field behind Richard.
This was for real, in the unreal silence of an empty building with 50,000 seats, and it showed that Richard's comeback, as remarkable, maybe even miraculous, as it is, yet is far from complete.
In three innings, Richard gave up no hits and never flinched when line drives sailed overhead. Al Rosen, the general manager, said Richard threw "over 50 percent strikes." Richard was consistently wild high, both inside and outside.
"We're as pleased as we could be," Rosen said. "He had good velocity -- 91 mph -- and good movement on his fast ball. This 'game' should tell the world that J.R. is on the road to recovery and is back."
Bill Virdon, the manager: "I don't think J.R. is completely recovered from the stroke. But he is continuing to make progress . . . The doctors have released him and he says he's eager to pitch. So it's my obligation, if the circumstances are right, to use him. He threw 91s and his breaking ball was halfway decent. Whether he throws enough strikes to be successful remains to be seen."
Richard said: "It felt good out there. No problems. But that's about all I want to say right now. Wait until I pitch in a game."
Will that be this season?
"I hope so," he said. "I'm ready."
Snippets of evidence suggest Richard is ignoring reality.
A friend came to the dugout the other day. "You looked good."
"Ninety-five on the gun," Richard said.
The friend was next to Rosen when coaches reported the speeds. "Not that fast, J.R."
"Maybe 92," the pitcher said.
"The best was 91."
Richard then said, "I threw 95."
"You didn't look too sharp going to first," the friend said. Making the little pivot to first, Richard stumbled every time.
"Picked one guy off," Richard said, and he had, picking off a runner who wasn't paying attention.
Maybe out of guilt, perhaps in awe, no one with the Astros will say to Richard what his friend said. He isn't ready.
Scraping dirt out of his cleats, Richard lifted his foot and teetered off-balance three times trying to do this little thing. Every time he took the ball back from the catcher, he dipped at the knees, as if this little catch was a feat carefully thought out. Fielding practice grounders at second base, he was fine with balls straight at him; to move laterally, even a little, was to stumble.
Virdon knows it.
He knows you can't think out every move in an instinctive game. If J.R. Richard is consistently wild high because he can't put his lead foot down where it belongs, he still has a way to go.
Virdon says he won't define the circumstances under which he would use Richard. The Astros are in a pennant race, for one thing. (Rosen: "There's a time to be magnanimous and a time to be realistic. We can't take a chance based on sympathy.") Perhaps more important than a game won or lost, Virdon is thinking of what success or failure might do to Richard now.
There was a flap here during the poststrike exhibition games. Virdon said Richard would pitch against Toronto.
"They haven't consulted me," Richard snapped to the media. "I'm not going to make a decision yet. I'm going to wait and see how I feel."
Virdon divined a telling reluctance. If Richard truly were eager to pitch, he wouldn't care how he learned of the great day.
"So I didn't use him," Virdon said.
Virdon allowed Richard to consider that a little victory. "It gave him another month to get ready," the manager said. The way Virdon said it, you knew Richard wanted that extra month but didn't want to say it out loud. When the Astros have a game well in hand late this month, say leading by 11-0 with an inning to go, Virdon may bring in Richard. Let's hope Richard is truly eager that night.