July 16, 2010

J.R. Richard - Another "Softie"

On this date in 1980, the Astros placed star pitcher J.R. Richard (1.90 ERA through 17 starts) on the disabled list after he took himself out of a game complaining of blurred vision, nausea, and discomfort and numbness in his right arm.

Initial tests did not show much of anything wrong and there were strong hints from the Astros' front office that Richard, who was often known to be "moody", was loafing and a malingerer. Or maybe he was using drugs.

Richard began the 1980 season with a two-hit victory over the Dodgers. He left his second start after only five innings, complaining of shoulder stiffness, but pitched only one-hitter of his career his next time out.
After that, though, Richard would begin to take himself out of games early, complaining about a variety of ailments: shoulder stiffness, back stiffness, forearm stiffness, a "dead arm". ...

What started as whispers soon worked its way into the mainstream media. Some accused him of being jealous of Nolan Ryan's new $1 million salary, even though J.R. was making $850,000 himself and had never complained about Ryan's contract. There was also talk that he was "loafing", even though he had not missed a single start in the five years preceding 1980. Some suggested that he couldn't handle the pennant-race pressure with Los Angeles, blindly ignoring the fact that he had gone 11-2 during the 1979 pennant stretch run against Cincinnati. Much of the talk had racial undertones ... It is just inconceivable that this kind of rumor-mongering would have occurred if instead Nolan Ryan had been taking himself out of games early.

Finally, though, J.R.'s career came crashing down. After complaining of dizziness on July 14, Richard was placed on the Disabled List and underwent a battery of tests. Some arterial blockage was found in his right shoulder, but it was not deemed to be serious. In fact, the team doctor suggested that Richard's problems might be emotional in nature. ... [O]n July 30, J.R. collapsed during pre-game throwing drills with Wilbur Howard and was rushed to Southern Methodist Hospital. It turned out after all that he wasn't lying, he wasn't faking, he wasn't loafing, and his problems were not emotional in nature. J.R. had suffered a major stroke and would have died that day without emergency surgery. When reporters asked about the condition of J.R.'s arm, the doctors replied that they were interested in saving his life, not his arm.

After more surgery in September ... he was unable to re-learn the coordination required to pitch effectively. After a partial season in the minor leagues in 1982, he was quietly released by the team. With the loss of his fame and income, J.R.'s personal life spiraled downward as well. He lost over $300,000 in a business scam and almost $700,000 in a divorce. ... [In 1994, Richard was] homeless and living under an interstate bridge.
Richard has turned his life around since then.

The Astros were criticized for their characterizations of Richard. His wife, Carolyn: "It took death, or nearly death, to get an apology. They should have believed him."

Thirty years later, and with many other examples besides Richard to cite (such as Curt Schilling's accusations against Scott Williamson during the Red Sox's 2004 season), too many media and fans remain quick to label various players as lazy, uncaring, or soft.

6 comments:

Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

I remember the J.R. Richard situation very well. This was a great read and quite on point as it pertains to today's "sports radio" society. J.R.'s story is always worth repeating.
Go Sox.

Zenslinger said...

Nice piece. It seems to me that almost all ball players are pretty motivated to play if they can, as well as they can. Salary, of course, is relative, so the "$x million a year and he still strikes out / gets hurt / can't play?" impulse doesn't really fly. But the game is so damn competitive that anyone who's not motivated must drop out. We've seen accusations (BJ Upton, Hanley Ramirez) that a player is so talented that they can play at a high level without the requisite effort. But they must be very few.

Zenslinger said...

Getting a bit far afield from the "softie" issue toward player motivation, but Doug Glanville's piece from a week ago about Zambrano, motivation, and punishment is pretty good. Smart guy and good writer -- unlike, hate to say it, Granderson, whose columns for Yahoo generate some anecdotal interest but aren't particularly sharp.

accudart said...

I think Allen had some "hidden injury" that forced him from the game (softball) early....

redsock said...

"hidden injury"

I think it was called "tateritis" -- where my legs atrophied because all I did was trot around the bases after jacking the ball into the next county. I never had the opportunity to sprint for a double or to beat out a grounder.

Allen

Oh, come on.

L-girl said...

It seems to me that almost all ball players are pretty motivated to play if they can, as well as they can. Salary, of course, is relative, so the "$x million a year and he still strikes out / gets hurt / can't play?" impulse doesn't really fly. But the game is so damn competitive that anyone who's not motivated must drop out.

This is what I always think and say. That's one huge reason why the accusations against Ellsbury are so stupid and irrational. Of course Ellsbury wants to play - as anyone in his position would.