A Baseball Redemption Story For Our Troubled Times

by Joe Guzzardi
[cartoon id="237813"] Before Commissioners Bud Selig and Rob Manfred transformed baseball into a game of launch angles and exit velocities, I attended Opening Day every year. So, when April 10, 1980, rolled around, I found myself in Houston where a group of friends and I set out for the Astrodome, the first-ever indoor sports stadium, nicknamed the world’s Eighth Wonder. That night, the Los Angeles Dodgers took on the Houston Astros, the teams experts predicted would battle each other for the Western Division title. For once, the sages were correct. The Astros beat the Dodgers in a sudden death, 163rd game for the title. On that long-ago April evening, fans got a bonus. Toeing the slab would be Dodgers’ ace Burt “Happy” Hooton against Astros’ flame thrower, James Rodney Richard. Hooton is remembered for surrendering the first of New York Yankee Reggie Jackson’s three consecutive 1977 World Series home runs. But, more important, Hooton was a University of Texas Longhorns’ superstar who won 151 games for the Chicago Cubs, the Dodgers and the Texas Rangers. Without a day in the minor leagues and on his fourth professional start, Hooton no-hit the Philadelphia Phillies. Richard honed his fastball skills as a poor Louisiana kid who grew up throwing coal rocks from his porch at targets 60 feet away. By the time Richard graduated from high school, he hadn’t lost a game or, in his senior year, given up a single run. The Astros selected Richard as their No. 2 overall choice in the 1969 draft. By 1980, the fire-balling Richard had become baseball’s most feared hurler. On that Opening Day four decades ago, Richard had overwhelming stuff, and again whiffed 13 Dodgers over eight innings. Without walking a batter and aided by signal caller Bruce Bochy, Richard won, 3-2. When the 33,000 fans exited the Astrodome, their chatter centered on Richard’s Hall of Fame prospects. No one imagined that by the season’s end, Richard’s career would be over, and that he would eventually be homeless, living under a bridge. After Richard pitched in the 1980 All-Star game, he complained of arm stiffness, and dizziness. Even though Richard had pitched five straight years without missing a start, critics maligned him with racist-tinged diatribes for laziness, and possible drug use. After rehabbing from a 21-day disabled list stint, Richard, age 30, collapsed. The Astros rushed him to the hospital where doctors performed life-saving emergency surgery to restore blood flow to his brain. After additional testing, doctors learned that Richard had suffered three strokes that led to right arm arterial blockages. In 1984, after unsuccessful rehab efforts and more surgery, the Astros gave Richard his unconditional release. Ten years later, a period that included two divorces and ruinous investments, Richard was emotionally and financially bankrupt. By then homeless, Richard lived beneath a Houston freeway underpass when a local minister found him, and helped the former pitcher overcome despair. Eventually, Richard embraced the Bible, and today counsels other homeless, struggling or drug-addicted Houstonians. Of Richard’s many baseball accomplishments, he’s most proud of his exclusive “Black Aces” membership, a group of African-American pitchers who’ve achieved 20 or more victories in a season. Included are Don Newcombe, Bob Gibson, Vida Blue, Dave Stewart and the group’s founder, Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Today, Richard doesn’t dwell on his past fame or his missed Hall of Fame opportunity, but instead says he looks at “what’s in front of me.” In this troubled time, Americans should join Richard in looking forward to better times ahead that will - sooner or later - include an Opening Day. - Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at [email protected]