A CRUEL STROKE FOR J.R. RICHARD : Astros’ Once-Feared Pitcher Is Now a Bitter, Bloated Man

Times Staff Writer

It was a little past noon as J.R. Richard checked on the 20 pounds of chitlins he was boiling in a pressure cooker on his back porch. He was supposed to be at a rally for Just Say No, the anti-drug organization, but he had overslept.

He made himself comfortable on a well-worn brown couch and waited for some friends to stop by.

“I don’t plan on doing anything else today but let them in the door,” he said of his guests, who would find their yawning host in a light blue sweat suit and black running shoes. “And I plan to eat chitlins till I get a headache.”


For James Rodney Richard, 37, the former Houston Astro pitcher whose career was cut short by a massive stroke seven years ago, this was a typical day.

On days when he doesn’t go fishing, he lounges a lot. His former wife, Carolyn, describes him as listless, “out of it,” lacking in ambition and motivation.

Richard doesn’t disagree.

“I know I lay here too much,” he said. “I look at my share of TV.”

He eats his share, too. His weight, about 225 pounds when he played, peaked out at about 302 a few months ago, he said, and he still is carrying about 50 extra pounds on his 6-foot 8-inch frame. A delivery man told him a few months ago that ESPN had reported his weight to be about 400.

“I said, ‘That’s fine, that’s cool,’ ” Richard said. “Don’t anybody know, but everybody know.”

He hasn’t worked out in more than two months, he said, and he hasn’t worked--period--in about 2 1/2 years, since he was fired from a job selling mobile homes. Released by the Astros in 1984 after a failed comeback attempt, he lives on the interest from his savings accounts.

“I don’t really have anything to motivate me, but I’m doing what I want to do,” he said. “I’m doing things that make me happy. If I don’t want to do this, I don’t do this. If I don’t want to do that, I don’t do that. So, I am very happy.”


But is he?

His former agent, Tom Reich, described him as “a guy who doesn’t have a hell of a lot to hang on to. . . . The bitterness and the depression have set in.”

And an interview with Richard is full of contradictions:

--He said that his lawsuit against doctors brought in by the Astros should have gone to trial and that he should have been awarded at least $10 million and possibly as much as $20 million, but still he settled out of court for about $1.5 million.

--In the year after his stroke, Richard said he had learned to trust people, but he told a reporter last month: “People don’t give a (bleep) about you. They just want you to come down here and write this story. That’s all they want you for.

“If you’re downed on the plane going back, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to get somebody else to find the tape and write this story. I ain’t lying. To me, that’s where it falls. They only cared about me pitching. And I pitched and got paid. That was it.”

--He said he is physically able and would still like to play in the majors, but doesn’t believe he should have to go begging. “I don’t feel I have to kiss nobody’s nothing,” he said.

--He said he was interested in working with kids, but in less than a week of dealing with Just Say No, he had already missed three appointments.


“So, I’m human,” he said.

Perhaps the contradictions and the bitterness and the depression--the humanness, for lack of a better word--were inevitable.

“Here is a man whose career was snatched from him at its absolute zenith,” Reich said.

The fact that J.R. Richard is human was never more evident than on July 30, 1980.

That morning, during a workout at the Astrodome, he suffered the almost fatal stroke that ended a major league career that was just beginning to take off.

Armed with an overpowering fastball and a 90-m.p.h. slider, Richard struck out 15 batters in his first major league start on Sept. 5, 1971, was a 20-game winner by 1976 and in 1978 struck out 303 batters, becoming the first National League right-hander to fan more than 300 in a single season.

In 1979, he struck out 313, won 20 games for the second time in four seasons and led the league with an earned-run average of 2.71.

“He was the best pitcher in baseball, no question about it,” former Astro manager Bill Virdon said. “He probably created more headaches and stomachaches for right-handed hitters than anybody who ever played.”

Among those most afflicted were the Dodgers, against whom Richard had a 15-5 record. After 1976, when his talents really began to develop, he was 13-0 against them with a 1.47 ERA and 5 shutouts.


“They were afraid of me,” Richard said. “So were a lot of other teams.”

He could be intimidating. In their last game against Richard in 1979, four Dodger regulars did not start and a fifth played half an inning in the field, then retired to the dugout for good. Manager Tom Lasorda, looking for a pinch-hitter at one point, issued a summons but the batter selected shook his head and said: “Some other time.”

Despite complaining throughout the first half of the 1980 season that his arm was fatigued, Richard had a 10-4 mark with a 1.89 ERA and had thrown a two-hitter and a one-hitter against the Dodgers.

“I was just beginning to come into my prime,” Richard said. “My control was getting much better every game. I was coming into my own. I was beginning to reach my peak. I would say that within a year or two, I would have been making $2 million a year.”

Instead, he wound up in the minors, trying to make a comeback.

This seemingly invincible man, who had started for the National League in the All-Star game only three weeks earlier, was brought to his knees by the stroke, which virtually paralyzed the left side of his body, leaving him barely able to move or speak.

That led to a life-saving operation during which a team of doctors removed from the carotid and subclavian arteries above his right collarbone part of a blood clot that was obstructing the flow of blood to his brain.

In a second, 18-hour operation 2 1/2 months later, surgeons removed two four-inch segments of artery from Richard’s lower abdomen, spliced them together and transplanted the eight-inch vessel in Richard’s right shoulder, where it bypassed the partially clotted and useless artery as the main source of blood flowing to the arm.


Believing, as others did, that the procedure would allow Richard to make a comeback, Reich called it the “Hall of Fame” operation.

But Richard never made it back.

In his last season, 1983, he was 0-2 with a 13.68 ERA at Triple-A Tucson. He was released the next spring.

It was said that his reactions were slow and that there were times when he didn’t even react to line drives hit right over his head.

“I was never convinced of that,” said Dr. William Fields, Richard’s personal physician and chairman of the Department of Neuro-oncology at the University of Texas System Cancer Center at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston.

“I really don’t think he had what he had before. His control wasn’t very good. His physical disability was such that he couldn’t make it back.

“And I don’t think the baseball people were very keen on him coming back, either. That’s just an observation.”


It was speculated that cocaine use might have led to the stroke, especially after former teammate Enos Cabell testified at the 1985 cocaine-trafficking trial of Philadelphia caterer Curtis Strong that he and Richard had used cocaine regularly during the 1980 season.

“No way,” Fields said. “There’s no way in the world that had anything to do with it.”

Richard allows that, “I was into a few drugs, but I got out of them.”

However, a close friend, who asked not to be identified, said that Richard had a “chemical (abuse) problem” and that the problem has continued into the 1980s.

But Carolyn, his former wife, said Richard “never did anything like that around me because he knew not to. I never knew anything about any drugs until it hit the newspapers.

“He used to come home plastered occasionally, but it wasn’t often enough to be concerned about it.”

Richard gets most of his kicks these days from fishing.

“Sometimes, he gets a little up-tight about all the problems he’s had,” said Wilbert Batiste, 41, a Houston truck driver who has been Richard’s regular fishing partner since they met at a sporting goods store 12 years ago. “But when he gets out on the water, he forgets about it all.”

Said Richard: “I just love to get on that boat and go. If I plan it, I’ll get up at 4:30 and just fish all day and not get home until 9 that night. There’s such peace and serenity in it, it’s unreal.”


But when he’s not on the water, there’s a lot of dead time.

Richard, who was depicted as a loner even when he was playing, says he has no close friends.

“Jesus is my closest friend,” he said. “The Bible said that man will let you down and man will let you down every time he says he won’t.”

Cabell, who once was so close to Richard that he helped Richard button his shirts and zip his pants in the days after Richard’s second operation, said he seldom sees his former teammate these days.

“He’s changed a lot,” Cabell said. “He’s not as happy or as lively as he was before, but I guess that’s to be expected.”

Recently divorced from Carolyn, his wife of 16 years, Richard shares a rented two-bedroom condo on the west side of Houston with his girlfriend, Zemphery Volcy, 27, and their 2-year-old daughter, Zanna. His five children by Carolyn live with their mother in another part of Houston.

The only evidence in the cluttered quarters that he was once a player are a photograph and a portrait sitting on the fireplace that show him pitching, and framed pictures of him from a magazine that hang on the wall.

Richard said he is writing an autobiography with Igor Alexander, a Houston writer, and has inquired about running a baseball camp for kids “to give me something to do besides sit around here all day.”


He put on weight, he said, by eating too much late at night and by drinking a six-pack of beer every night. When he got up over 300 pounds, he said, he stopped drinking beer for a time and dropped 15 pounds in a week.

“I was just too fat for my own good,” he said. “When your clothes start getting tight on you, something has to be done. And in a hurry.”

As he spoke, he had finished off his first bowl of chitlins, heavy on the salt.

“This is the enjoyment right here,” he said, reaching into the refrigerator for a Dr. Pepper. “You’re finished eating and you top it off with a DP.”

It was gone in two gulps.

Richard sold cars for about three months after being released by the Astros, but quit because he wasn’t progressing as he thought he should have been.

“I hadn’t learned what I wanted to learn,” he said. “I wasn’t able to use the computer and wouldn’t nobody teach me, so I quit. I said, ‘This is a hoax.’ ”

His distrust of the public may have also played a part.

“People are a trip,” he said. “People come up to me and ask the same question: ‘How are you doing?’ Damn, how am I supposed to be doing? A lot of people think I’m supposed to be an invalid. They see me and they’re shocked.


“They can’t believe it because if you don’t know I had a stroke, I don’t think you can really tell I had a stroke unless you see me when I’m really sleepy. When I get really sleepy, I slur a lot and I get my words mixed up.”

He also seems to have trouble keeping appointments, which he dismisses by saying, “I’m not here to satisfy anybody. I’m here to satisfy God. You can’t satisfy everybody. That’s a fact.”

Midway through an interview, he told a reporter: “You know, I thought you were coming last week. I even cleaned up.”

Said Reich: “Jay gets confused very, very easily.”

And, perhaps, ignores reality.

Asked when he realized that his comeback wasn’t going to be successful, he said: “I never did realize that. I think the opportunities just ceased, that’s all. I never failed.”

Of his release by the Astros, he said: “I’m pretty sure I could have got on somebody’s team because you just don’t be the premier pitcher of all time, have a stroke and then don’t nobody even look at you. That doesn’t make sense. I was blackballed or something. To me, it doesn’t make sense.”

But Al Rosen, former Astro general manager who made the decision, said that Richard’s release made perfect sense. “His physical skills had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer pitch in the big leagues,” Rosen said.


And Richard’s suggestion that his lawsuit against his doctors may have been mishandled has no basis in fact, Reich said. Richard maintains that his suit against the doctors, who found the blood clot less than a week before his stroke but decided that surgery was not needed, should have gone to trial.

“If this case had gone to court, with the revelations that came out of the Pittsburgh trials (that Richard had used cocaine), it would have been devastating to J.R.’s position,” said Reich, asserting that Richard couldn’t have asked for a better settlement.

“J.R.’s had a lot of problems, and he’s very depressed. You’ve got to understand that the guy’s reflections are a little bit jaded.”

But Richard delivers his complaints matter of factly. He doesn’t dwell on the past, he said, nor does he think about how much money he missed out on.

“If I get up off my (rear) and if I do this and I do that, I can make enough money,” he said.

Mostly, though, he thinks about getting out of Houston and moving to a farm outside of Grambling, La., near where he grew up.


“I’m just getting my retirement together,” he said. “I’m getting ready to really take it easy. I plan to raise me a garden about the size of an acre--collard greens, peas, okra. The whole nine yards. Hunt my deer, fish my pond. Just live to be a nice comfortable old man.”