Friday, October 29, 2010

The Boys of Summer

With the playoffs and the World Series going on I've been listening to baseball games on the drive home lately (it beats listening to the election coverage!). I don't normally spend much time watching or following sports, but baseball is one of those games that's sort of fun to listen to on the radio - kind of a nostalgic thing to do, I guess. And watching one of the games last night with the boys made me think of my all-time favorite baseball player.

Since my hometown didn't have a big league team I chose the Houston Astros as my favorite. Why? Because of the uniforms, of course. Yeah, I know - they were hideous - but back in the late 70s I thought they were cool. And the team was really good back then, too, with the best pitchers around, including legendary fastball pitcher Nolan Ryan. But my favorite was J. R. Richard.

Richard was a fastball pitcher - very fast! And he was very tall at 6' 8" and it was said his left foot was off the mound and in the grass when he finished his delivery.  The complaint from batters was that he was throwing "too fast from too close and too high."  I remember watching the 1980 All-Star game. He was the starting pitcher for the National League, and Steve Stone from the Baltimore Orioles was the American League starter (funny how I remember such details 30 years later). Starters in the All-Star game can only pitch 3 innings, and through the first two Stone's fastest pitch was 91 mph. J. R. Richard's slowest was 93! His fastest was 101. (He could throw as fast as 103 mph!) It's no wonder the guy was leading the league in strikeouts and lots of other impressive stats; it's kind of hard to hit something you can't even see!

But his story is also one of the more tragic in baseball. Three weeks later he was warming up and had a stroke on the field. He'd been complaining about a "dead arm," numbness, and impaired vision, but team officials didn't take him seriously and didn't give him proper medical attention. And while the stroke didn't end his life, it pretty much finished his career. He tried making a comeback, and I remember he was pitching for a minor league team that came to play against the Salt Lake Gulls (at old Derk's Field). I went hoping to see my hero pitch, but he'd already pitched the night before. All I got to see was him standing in the dugout. Apparently his luck went even further downhill and he was homeless and living under an overpass in 1994 before some fan found him and someone gave him a job. I think he's a minister now, and I've heard a lot of fans have complained that the team hasn't ever shown him the respect of retiring his jersey.  Hopefully they'll correct that mistake soon.

But he's still my favorite, and always will be.

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