J.R. Richard, Astros legend whose career was cut short by 1980 stroke, dies at 71

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J.R. Richard, a two-time National League strikeout champion whose ascendant career was cut short by a debilitating stroke, died Wednesday evening, the Houston Astros announced Thursday. Richard was 71.

Richard was a 20-game winner in 1976, struck out an NL-high 303 batters in 1978 and 313 in 1979, when he also led the league with a 2.71 ERA and finished third in Cy Young Award voting.

Armed with a 100-mph fastball, Richard was joined by another flamethrower, Nolan Ryan, in Houston in 1980. And Richard was on his way to another Cy Young-caliber year, posting a 1.90 ERA in 17 starts and earning his first selection to the All-Star Game. But Richard began complaining of numbness in his fingers, ringing in his ears and reported red blood spots on the tips of his fingers, symptoms that arose just as he was suddenly not pitching as deep into games as usual.

He left some starts earlier and, after the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, was examined by orthopedist Frank Jobe, who was among many doctors who could not pinpoint the reason for his sluggishness.

J.R. Richard at the 2004 All-Star Game in Houston.
J.R. Richard at the 2004 All-Star Game in Houston.

Then, as the Astros were on a road trip that July, Richard collapsed while working out at the Astrodome. A CAT scan revealed he had, in fact, suffered three strokes, which left him debilitated on the left side of his body.

He never pitched again, a bitter ending given the early reluctance by the Astros to shut him down amid chatter that Richard, somehow, was dogging it.

"The impact on my pitching as I went along was that I could still start out strong for a few innings and then my arm started to ache and feel heavy," he wrote in a 2015 autobiography, Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets and a Second Chance. "That's how they interpreted it in retrospect and that’s what happened. That was before things got worse and I passed out.

"I never could understand how the Astros handled things. If I meant so much to the ballclub and I started saying I had problems and didn't feel right, why didn't they send me to a doctor right away? I think teams are more sensitive to those situations now, especially with pitchers. They would automatically take you out of the game and make sure you went to the doctor the next day just to be on the safe side.

"My (teammate), Enos Cabell, thought it was racial. He said something about African Americans always played with pain so they wouldn't lose their jobs. None of it made much sense, but that is a scenario. For a time I was looking for a good lawyer. I was ready to hire somebody. If I had hired an attorney, I would have told him, 'Look at all this. Sue everybody.' I would have walked away with $1 million.

"You think that people care about you and your health and something like this happens, and it makes you wonder if they really do care all that much. In theory I was one of the most valuable assets the Astros had. During some of that time period, I thought the Astros just didn't give a damn about me."

After two divorce settlements and an ill-fated investment drained his savings, Richard ended up homeless in Houston in 1994-95, a 6-foot-8 man recognizable to disbelieving passersby.

"People'd see you. First of all they can't believe it and then no one would really want to bother you," he told WBUR in a 2015 interview. "They'd probably look at you and say, 'OK, he don't look like he's a happy camper.' I looked like I wasn't a man to be messed with at that time."

Richard eventually remarried, became an advocate for the homeless and, as former teammate Terry Puhl told Huoston's Fox 26, "He definitely got his life together. He was at peace with his Lord. He's in a better place today."

In a statement, the Astros said Richard “will forever be remembered as an intimidating figure on the mound and as one of the greatest pitchers in club history. He stood shoulder to shoulder with club icons Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, to form a few of the best rotations in club history.

"Sadly, his playing career was cut short by health issues, but his 10 years in an Astros uniform stand out as a decade of excellence. We send our heartfelt condolences to J.R.’s wife, Lula, his family, friends and countless fans and admirers.”

Richard was a true phenom, striking out 15 batters - including Hall of Famer Willie Mays three times - in his September 1971 debut. He won 20 games in 1976 and then 18 games in three consecutive seasons, averaging 281 innings pitched over those four seasons.

He was, in many ways, the ultimate workhorse, until he could give no more. A 1984 comeback attempt fizzled after spring training.

"I didn't want to walk away from anything," he wrote in his biography. "I wanted to get well and I wanted to pitch.

"I always figured I was going to pitch again."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros legend JR Richard dies at 71

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