Campaign seeks to retire J.R. Richard's Number 50
Ex-Astros star would welcome honor

published March 30th in the Houston Chronicle

added 3/30/2001 by Ray Kerby

<a class=player href=/players/Richard_JR.html target=_top>J.R. Richard</a> - click to enlarge By TODD HVEEM
50 Plus Correspondent

There was a time in J.R. Richard's rollercoaster life when he was the toast of the Bayou City.

At 6-foot-8, he was an ominous presence inside one of the world's most fascinating venues, Houston's Astrodome.

At 220 pounds, he bore the strength of Earl Campbell and the determination of Bob Gibson as the pitching ace of the Houston Astros.

While Nolan Ryan brought the Express, J.R. simply provided the termination.

"For about five years there, he was the most dominating pitcher I have ever seen," said 37-year-old Ray Kerby of Allen, Texas, who last November developed the Web site "I think you could find a lot of other Astros fans who would tend to agree."

From 1976 to 1980, Houstonians didn't much care who shot J.R. on the hit TV show "Dallas." The only J.R. they knew was the one who strolled to the hill every fourth day, took the ball, and proceeded to put on a show.

During those five years, Richard went 96-55 with 1,339 strikeouts, In 1979 and 1980, he struck out a total of 617 batters -- joining Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax as the only modern-era pitchers to strike out 300 batters in consecutive seasons.

But at age 31, a near-fatal stroke derailed his career in its prime. Attempted comebacks were unsuccessful.

While Ryan and Koufax assumed their rightful enshrinement in Cooperstown, J.R. Richard, now 51, drifted off into virtual anonymity.

Why? J.R., for one, would like to know.

"They might be holding my past against me," admitted Richard, who went through an ugly divorce, lost more than $300,000 in a business scam and even found himself homeless living under a bridge for a period of time.

But Richard refuses to dwell on past problems.

"I am not going to sit around and worry about it," he said. "The sun comes up in the morning and it is a new day. Life carries on. Why try and control something when you have no power over it? I try and live with it and do the best I possibly can."

Kerby, though, recently started a grassroots campaign -- "Honor J.R., Retire #50" -- on his Web site to try and get the Astros to retire Richard's No. 50. He chronicled the life of Richard on his Web site, and asked fans to join the petition to retire his jersey. More than 250 signatures already have been gathered.

"From our online community, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response," Kerby said. "Our big problem is letting people know -- our online fans, then all of the fans of the radio stations and newspapers. We are hoping to get some visibility and get the (Astros') organization's attention."

Kerby said he is convinced Richard deserves the honor.

"I remember J.R. when I was a kid," he said. "That was more than 20 years ago, but some of the things he has done for the team have not been matched."

Kerby said fans have the misconception that Richard suffered his stroke while he was on the verge of greatness.

"He had four straight years of 18 or more wins," Kerby said. "When you go back and look at it, he was great already. A lot of people don't realize that he wasn't an almost-great player. He was great."

Richard said his numbers stack up with former Astros' greats Mike Scott, Joe Niekro, Don Wilson, and Ryan.

"Most of the people here in Houston probably would agree that it should have been done years ago," Richard said of retiring his jersey. "My record is better than Mike Scott's (and others). Nothing to belittle them. They earned their keep. But the people know it is something that should have been done."

With the stroke ending his career at age 31, Richard finished his major league career with a 107-71 record and 3.16 earned run average. He was the twice baseball's strikeout leader and once its ERA leader. He also was the starting pitcher in the 1980 All Star Game, just a few weeks before his career-ending stroke.

A gifted high school athlete in Louisiana, his career could have been even more amazing. In high school, Richard turned down more than 200 basketball scholarship offers to sign with the Astros. The reason?

"I never lost a game throughout my entire baseball career in high school," Richard said.

Richard feels he could have been the first professional athlete to star in two sports.

"I'm glad I chose baseball," Richard said. "But I think I could have been the first ballplayer to (star in) two sports if I had really went that route because my abilities spoke for themselves. I felt very comfortable with basketball and baseball."

Today, J.R. simply feels comfortable with life.He said he is in good health, though he has joined a gym to try and "drop a few pounds." He also has started the J.R. Richard Kids Foundation.

"I am trying to bring baseball back to the inner city," he said.

Richard said he has offered to do public relations-type assignments for the Astros, but has not been taken up on the offer.

"My things is to keep on living, regardless of what has been and what has happened," Richard said. "The future is my concern, not the past. I am doing well. I am alive. The past is gone. I look forward to the future."

"My Bible tells me to look toward the future," he said. "If you look back, you are going to be living in the past. The past is gone. There is no sense in dwelling on what should or shouldn't be done. I live day by day. Only God can judge me. Man can not judge me."

Still, Kerby has a good point. "The reality is, if J.R. had died from his stroke, his number would have been retired long ago," Kerby said. "(Astros owner) Drayton (McLane Jr.) should really consider this. I think it would be a good P.R. move. J.R. was a very popular figure in Houston."

Richard said he would welcome that recognition if it does come.

"It would be a noble thing and a Godly thing. I would be very grateful," Richard said. "My stats speak for themselves. But I am not going to dwell on whether my number is going to be retired or not. Life is too short for that."

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