An Eyewitness to the Lost Season and Career of JR Richard, I was just 17. It's impact has never left my memory. This is a rewritten and more accurately edited version of events from a journal I kept of every game in the dome from 1980-1982.
I was there, an eyewitness to this tragedy. I was part of a team of about ten kids who were clubhouse boys, although we called ourselves 'Brats.' The name was fitting. I morphed into an autograph collecting baseball fanatic who took the bus to games and snuck in free to being such a presence I earned a job as a clubhouse boy. We were 'gophers' and runners and we cleaned the locker room, set up the post-game tables and chairs and meals, and basically did whatever was needed, even hanging the uniforms in the lockers for the next game. The hours were long but for me, it was a dream job. For the other clubhouse boys, it was fun but they didn't quite have the passion for the game that I did. I was a mark for the players whereas they were too cool to be that way. It was okay with me, because I was unashamed about my love of baseball and everything that went with it.
On that terrible day in 1980, the Astros became a team in turmoil and a lot of questions had to be answered about what had happened to the teams' ace pitcher. JR and Wilbur Howard had stayed behind when the Astros went on the road because neither was able to play. He started just two games after the All Star Game where he struck out - I think - five of the first six hitters including Reggie Jackson. JR complained for weeks of a 'tingling in his hands, loss of feeling in his shoulder and arm, and sharp pains in his neck.'' Nothing worked. I love Bill Virdon - much like a second father to me - but he did not know what to make of JR. One thing that we noticed was JR was coming out of games instead of completing them. We thought this was Virdon's strategy as he always had ''platoon relievers'' ready to go. But JR was simply unable to finish games like he used to. At least, that is how it seemed to us.
People in management and in the press and on talk-radio began to wonder if nolan Ryan's contract didn't hurt JR's feelings. Perhaps, they offered, JR was surely unhappy at the cash they threw to the THIRD best pitcher on that team, Nolan Ryan. (Wow, consider that for a moment) But no medical test was done to look for the odd occurrence of a blood clot. They looked for a pinched nerve, they looked for a shoulder strain, they even looked at his back. Even during the All-Star break, I think he visited the famous sports doctor in Los Angeles, Dr. Jobe, and he didn't find anything. So it comes to reason that if he cannot find anything, the Astros management couldn't find anything either. They weren't negligent as much as they were ignorant, and I don't mean that to come out wrong. It's just that JR was complaining of things that baseball trainer Jim Ewell wasn't even looking for.
His last start was against Atlanta. I was working in the clubhouse, setting up tables for the after dinner spread with the other high schoolers who were employed there.
At one point, we took a break around the third inning. Since we came in around 4:00, it was a pretty long day. We used to go under the stands directly behind home plate. We had the best view in the house. I saw JR on the mound, just sweating profusely. I had never seen that man sweat like that. Munching on popcorn and watching the game, I looked at my friend next to me and he looked at me, and both of us said almost at the same time, ''JR doesn't look right.'' He just looked terrible. I remembered he came into the clubhouse after hitting a double and in between innings, not a terribly unusual site, but he went into the men's room and it seemed like he threw up. ''Oh no, we're gonna get stuck cleaning that up'' I remembered thinking. But he grabbed a towel himself, cleaned it up and returned to the game.
JR was so kid friendly and so personable. He never realized how special a player he was, just talking all afternoon about fishing in Louisiana and cooking Cajun food. He made gumbo for everyone earlier in the season and brought it in. He took great pride in his chef abilities. I grew up in a Kosher home, seafood being almost strictly off the menu. But when I was given a bowl of gumbo by JR and he just stood there waiting for me to try it, what could I do? I ate it, the entire bowl, and it was damn good stuff.
This is the view we often had of the game. Directly behind the catcher and under the field boxes. Best seats in the house.
But on this day, I asked our bat boy what the heck was wrong with JR when I brought some baseballs into the dugout. ''I don't know, but everyone is wondering the same thing. 'Maybe he's got a stomach bug.''
Well, I believe he was still throwing gas by the way the players were swinging and missing and even sick, JR could bring it. But in the fourth inning, a Brave player hit a ground ball to first base. The play required JR to run to first and receive the throw.
As he ran to first, he made an odd route to the bag and as he caught the ball he landed awkwardly on the side of the bag and although he got the out, he was clearly done for the night. He limped back to the dugout. ''Coming out in the 4th inning'' JR was not used to that at all. I couldn't have known it - but i just watched the last pitch the man would ever throw.
Drenched in sweat with Doc Ewell checking on his foot, JR just hung his head, almost too tired to squeak out answers to the trainers questions. We brought him whatever he wanted, in this case it was a lot of water. These guys drank an awful lot of beer, i thought. But this had been lingering for several weeks and wasn't going away. ''I don't know what is wrong'' he kept telling everyone. Bob Allen, the late KTRK sportscaster, had a close relationship with JR and Bob Allen spoke out in anger on his sportscast about the fact that JR has yet to go to a hospital and get checked out.
We quietly got everything set up while JR slowly came to feeling a bit better and he went to the showers. He was usually the quickest to get in and out, but not that night. It seemed like he was in there for an extended period of time. When he came out, the game was almost over, and he wanted to be gone before that happened so he wouldn't have to wait for hours after the dome cleared out. ''Must have lost track of the tiiiiimme.'' He said. JR always spoke where the last word of every sentence was drawn out and it could sometimes sound funny. We'd go around and imitate him, much to his own delight. We'd say, ''Well, gotta smoke them Reds tommiiiiiiiiteeeeee.'' He called it a 'cajun drawl' and we just grew so accustomed to hearing it.
On days when the Astros were away, we'd sometimes come in for extra hours but the work was tedious and not fun. I needed the money as a 17 year old kid and so I went into the dome.
So the Astros were playing in Philly and the game would be on local TV and I wanted to get home in time to watch most of it. About 30 minutes after myself and one of my co-worker buddies came into the park, we heard the sound of gloves popping on the field. It was a no-no for us to play on the field when the Astros were away, but we often did anyway. There is something undeniably special about walking just beyond second base into short CF and looking straight up at the gondola of the dome. We'd take turns standing on the spot until someone knocked us off.
I peaked out into the dome and saw Willie Howard and JR playing catch. ''Oh good, he's feeling better.'' The ballpark was utterly empty and you could have popped your knuckles and it would have echoed through the stadium. We then went down into the Mezzanine LF section where we were organizing chairs and moving tables for a special event happening to honor the Judge. (Judge Roy Hoffeinz, the guy responsible for building the Astrodome. Few people knew it, but now you all do - but Judge had a huge living suite in the dome hidden away with a movie theater and a bowling alley. )
While we were moving things we could hear the faint sounds of sirens. And then they began to echo everywhere. No one, not even the boss, Dennis Liborio, knew where or what was happening. Now a fire engine could be heard and this time there was no mistaking it, the noise was happening on the field. We saw the outfield gate open and the CF doors open to the street. I had almost never seen that before.
There, on the floor of the dome was JR, and he was being hooked up to machines and rushed into the ambulance. He had a white towel on his forehead and one of the Astros traveling executives happened to be there that day and was alongside him. Normally this was a guy that travelled with the team but for some reason he was there, and it was a good thing he was. No one else would have seen what happened. Both of us jumped the fence into the box seats and rushed down the field.
Wilbur Howard, the happiest of all guys, tears streaming down his face. Someone took a picture from the stands, not sure who, but it got into the paper the next day....JR being loaded into the ambulance with Willie and a small number of guys standing there, not knowing what to do. One of them was me.
And that was just one part of that moment, one I will never forget, and obviously haven't forgotten. My mom saw how upset I was and that I wasn't letting it go for days. Especially how close he had come to dying. I had never seen that before, never prepared for it, thought that at 17 it could happen to anyone. When they said he had a stroke and that he was in intensive care, I knew what that meant. It changed my mood for weeks.
The Astros didn't come back until August 4th or 5th. I can't remember which day it was but suddenly they called all the Astros clubhouse boys and attendants in for a Monday night game. Normally, I had mondays off, but wasn't really given that option. I kind of wanted to see the team anyway, so it was decided for me. The game would be aired on ABC's Monday Night baseball. These were genuinely big deals because Houston did not generate national interest - but the ABC guys would make it one of the worst experiences for everyone. Not that they meant to create all the extra work, but we were carrying heavy cables and moving things that in other cities were left to union workers. Texas didn't have unions. They had punk kids who did what they were told, and ABC, who was used to working with more trained personnel, would ride us unmercifully. But we were there to help out, right?
I had wanted to meet Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson, the two play by play guys, and Don Drysdale. Wow, he was huge. Looked like he could have gone out there and still pitched. Drysdale was 'California-Guy'' all the way. He was tall, tanned, and not a hair out of place. Bob Lillis, a former Astros player from the 1960s and a coach told me that Drysdale was the meanest pitcher in the National League. ''Even meaner than Bob Gibson?'' Lillis nodded his head. ''Gibson was mean if you showed him up or if he felt you were taking too long in the box. Drysdale flat out didn't care.''
Despite the excitement of getting an autograph and meeting these guys, there was a deep sadness in the locker room. The players were all being asked about what JR's loss would mean to the team. I think Nolan Ryan liked having someone even more dominant than he was in front of him. Ryan was being put on the spot - Cosell grabbed Ryan in the locker room before the game. ''Here I am with Lynn Nolan Ryan, the great pitcher of course with the 1969 New York Mets and as of late, the California Angels, where his four no-hitters has him tied with Sandy Koufax. Tell me Nolan, what does this team do to overcome the loss of a pitcher like James Rodney Richard?'' <ps- if you can find this clip, you'll see that i remembered it word for word>
Nolan was his usual grace with his answer, but as the ABC guys ran for sound clips and so forth, Keith Jackson was talking quietly to Ruth Ryan, Nolan’s wife.
As they brought in more equipment, I was backed against a wall and listened in on Jackson's conversation. I found it fascinating. ''Cosell can be so insensitive. He has no heart sometimes.'' Ruth Ryan had known Cosell for a long time and she wasn't a fan. But to some extent you could see why. Ryan and his wife were high-school sweethearts from Alvin Texas and Cosell was a New York guy. Back then, it made a bigger difference than it does not. The two entities spoke in a different way and had different manners. In my observation, Cosell was always talking and listening and while hearing an answer he was already thinking of the next question. He had a few favorite athletes and in every sportscast you would hear him gush about them, even in completely unnatural moments.
For instance, I was listening to him call a game when the Dodgers were playing. Davey Lopes couldn't get through his first at-bat without being compared to ''That great Dodga Second Baseman, one-Jackie Roosevelt Robinson.'' The same was true with Bill Russell. ''Some say he reminds you of a young Pee-Wee Reese..'' Reggie Jackson was referred to as ''The greatest Yankee since Mickey Mantle.'' And, he often crossed sports. When Garry Maddox ran down a ball in centerfield for the Phillies, he would say, ''...Doesn't he remind you of a young Gale Sayers, the Kansas Comet?'' And no Monday night baseball game would be complete without at least three mentions of Muhammad Ali. So as Keith Jackson and Ruth Ryan watched Cosell motion for Bill Virdon while talking to Nolan Ryan and using his left leg to move a cameraman into position, Keith Jackson just nodded his head and muttered, ''C'mon Howard, this is a team in emotional crisis.'' I listened as Keith spoke about this being a moment that requires ‘compassion’ and not what he called, ‘’mechanical sports journalism.’’ The great college football broadcaster with the gentle ‘’Whoa Nellie’’ whenever a touchdown or a good play was made, had said the words I had needed to hear. It made me love Keith Jackson all the more.
Pro Athletes in the day saw themselves as being teammates who played for a common goal, to win a championship. I had watched as players who could be stoic and strong when the cameras were rolling would weep uncontrollably in front of their lockers. All of it, a secret world. Denny Walling came over from the Oakland A’s, a franchise I had been most curious about as they won three straight World Series rings in the seventies.
Although he had been with the Astros a couple of years, he was a quiet man. Virdon loved to have two left-handed hitters off the bench and unfortunately for Walling, much of his career was as a late-defensive replacement or a pinch-hitter. He never complained. He would speak to us how happy he was ‘’just to be here, doing the only thing I ever wanted.’’ Walling stood out to me because of his single-minded devotion and focus to the team.
By the All-Star break the team had already experienced a lot of highs-and-lows. Nolan Ryan’s first start as an Astro was much anticipated. As an American leaguer he hadn’t swung a bat in nearly a decade or more, and was awkward and upright when he took his hacks. Don Sutton must have figured it easy to throw three pitches and sit Nolan down on the bench, but he was wrong. Nolan took a strike, stayed in the box, and Sutton threw the second pitch. Nolan hit it out of the park and 45,000 Astros faithful went nuts.
Two weeks before Richard’s stroke, the Astros and Phillies were locked in one of those games you just learn to sit back and take it all in.
Of course, we were running all over the park, and on this day in particular, one of the Astros relievers wanted me to hand a note to woman in the stands behind the Astros dugout. We had to be careful not to get caught in the stands or we would get in trouble. So I kept low and went all the way down to the second row behind the team dugout. There was the most gorgeous blonde I had I ever seen, but at seventeen, I confess to not having much to go on. She was captivating, and she was next to one of the line-men for the Houston Oilers.
I was facing a serious uncertainty. I was obviously down there in the box-seats to see her, but I wasn’t too good at being clever yet. I even sat in the seat next to her. When she stood up to cheer, her stretchy halter didn’t always hold her in. Several of the Astros players took notice and began to look back into the stands when one of the guys on our team did something worth cheering about. She looked at me and smiled and I introduced myself. I handed her the note and got the heck out of dodge. When I got back to the dugout and saw our pitcher anxiously waiting to hear what she has to say, I warned him that the guy next to her might not take the invitation all too well. When the next inning started, they were gone. But it shows you how much trust a good clubhouse brat could develop with a player.
Dick Ruthven was in the midst of a duel with Nolan Ryan, each pitcher getting in and out of jams all game. The score was 2-2 when Denny Walling came up in the bottom of the ninth. He picked up a new bat and spent some time ‘’dressing it.’’ He was applying pine tar and stickum to it. As the ninth started, Walling was not at home-plate yet and the Phillies player began to grumble. Walling, ever the cool hand, came up to the plate, saw the pitch, and with one swing, won the game. A walk off homer was an incredible feeling. That Astros scoreboard had gone off a million times and yet it never got old when watching it. It was colorful with the ball shooting out of the dome and two cowboys shooting their guns while the scoreboard showed explosions. It was like nothing else in any stadium and made the dome uniquely special.
We needed to win against teams like the Phillies if we were going to go anywhere and it seemed that this shot was a turning point for the team. We went on quite the run of victories in the rest of July, even without JR. But it was that 30th day in July where this Astros team would really be tested. Denny Walling, a player few even remember today, played a big part despite having a small role. It taught me a great deal about doing whatever it takes to make the team better, and in some ways, may have helped introduce the idea of unity and closeness that winning clubhouses seem to have.
As for this Monday Night baseball game, the first one in the dome since JR’s stroke, it was long and exhausting. Listening to Cosell drone on and on about the greatness of Ryan would scarcely a mention of JR Richard only brought home the point Keith Jackson.
I got home that night and realized I had really been drained. I was talking about this nonstop to anyone who would listen. My mom, a big baseball fan herself, suggested I write it all down - as a journalist would - the story. Good advice too, because it removed me a bit from it all and the details I have come directly from that day. There will never be another player like JR Richard. His life story is full of tremndous peaks and deep valleys and the fight for his life and character. But even as a clubhouse brat, he left an indelible mark I shall never forget. Never.