The Big Man is Gone

Back in the days when Bruce Springsteen was a rock star instead of a political activist, my wife and I would go to his shows. He would introduce the “Big Man” in his band, the late Clarence Clemons, during the show. Clemons, along with being a heck of a saxophone player, was also a large and imposing figure on the stage at his full 6′-5″ tall.

Well, the Big Man for the Astros, J.R. Richard, has moved on to the next life this week. Yordan Alvarez is one of the most imposing players in the league at 6′-5″ himself, but J.R. would have soared 3 inches above that.

He was a bit of a Paul Bunyan legendary figure coming out of Lincoln High School in Ruston, Louisiana. He never lost a game in his high school career and did not give up a run in his senior season. He once hit 4 home runs in a game while shutting out the opposition. And he passed up college when he was chosen second in the 1969 baseball draft by the Astros, behind Jeff Burroughs, who had a solid career with the Senators/Rangers, Braves and others. J.R. had “interesting” statistics in the minors as a young prospect for the Astros. As a 20-year-old in A ball in 1970, he had a very nice 2.39 ERA and 1.239 WHIP, and 138 Ks in 109 innings.

But he also gave up 68 bases on balls and threw 20 wild pitches. Similarly, in 1971 at AAA OKC, he had a 2.45 ERA, a 1.222 WHIP and 202 Ks in 170.2 innings, along with 105 walks and 18 Ks. He made his MLB debut that season in a game I saw on TV. The Giants struck out a very uncomfortable 15 times, tying a record with Karl Spooner (who?) for the most Ks in an MLB debut. They seemed to be unsure if the pitches would be hittable or hit them, and he won a complete game. His next three starts featured more control problems and less success. Over the next three seasons, he spent more time in the minors than in the majors learning to control his tremendous talent until he finally made the Astros for good in 1975.

He had steady improvement at the major league level, and his stretch from 1976 to 1979, where he won between 18 and 20 games every year and had an ERA that ranged from 2.71 to 3.11was as fine as any pitcher in the game. He was an imposing, no, intimidating figure on the mound with a fastball that teased triple digits. But the pitch that set him apart was his 93 mph slider.

Batters revved up to meet a 99 mph fastball, and this pitch looked like one until it dipped under their bats. Try to imagine opposing teams trying to prepare for a rotation that might throw future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, followed by flutterball pitcher Joe Niekro, followed by the super fuel of JR in a 3 game series. Yikes! His 1980 season was looking like the season that he would finally breakthrough with a Cy Young award, making the All Star Game for the first time and being named the NL starter. After 14 starts, he was 11-3 with a 1.51 ERA and an insane slash against .166 BA/ .239 OBP/ .443 OPS. At that point, he had given up 0 HRs in 101 innings, and the slugging percentage against him was a miniscule .203 SLG. The league was hitting against him like they were a bunch of pitchers. But then “something” happened. He went 11 days between starts. Was his arm dead, as he said? Was he a malingerer as some thought? (This for a guy who had averaged 37 starts and 281 innings the previous 4 seasons).

He struggled in that next start, only going 3.1 innings, then had a more normal start before the All Star break and then pitched very well but left after 3.1 innings of 1 hit shutout ball with a dead arm again in what turned out to be his last MLB game on July 14, 1980. JR did not pitch for the next two weeks.

Whispers continued about him. He went through extensive testing, but they did not do surgery on him, and he collapsed during a workout on July 30 with one of the multiple strokes he suffered. It was found that when he pitched, his clavicle and ribs would cut off blood flow in an artery, and he had developed a blockage. Over the next few years, he tried to make comebacks and was at times close to what he had been. But there was too much concern that he would have a relapse, and he never pitched for the Astros or any other MLB team. In his mid-life, his world collapsed.

Two failed marriages, failed business dealings, the fall from major leaguer to citizen, bitterness, depression and some alleged drug use led to him living homeless under a Houston bridge. But he had a second act as he worked with a church, became a minister and was elected to the Astros Hall of Fame. Many believe if his health (and perhaps some alleged medical negligence by the team and doctors) had not failed him, he would have had a shot at the other Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

We will never know what J.R. might have become. We will never know if he had not collapsed if the Astros would have won it all in 1980 when they fell one win short of the World Series. We may never know all that was in his heart. But we do know that for a time, J.R. Richard was the biggest man in town.

77 comments on “The Big Man is Gone

  1. Opposing batters looked small enough when they stepped in vs JR…and looked even smaller and sillier leaving the box after hopelessly waving at one of those sliders. For about 3 years there he was the most dominant righty I’ve ever seen.

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  2. I love how JR dominated the Dodgers. In his career against them, he was 15-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 0.957 WHIP. And the batters knew what was coming before he threw a pitch: A loud whooshing sound followed by an even louder popping sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I probably averaged 70 home games a year in the heyday of J.R. Richard. Never missed his starts, all the way to that fateful event in June of 1980. Then we lost Sambito in 1982 and Thon in 1984. We had very good teams in those years. J.R. was easily more intimidating than Nolan. He could still be a bit wild and was so imposing! I feel privileged to have been able to watch so many of his performances up close. And I’m still saddened that somehow, medically, we missed a diagnosis that might well have changed the trajectory of what became a difficult life for J. R. Richard.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Some other things about JR…
    – Held the team record for K’s at 313 until our two year rental Gerrit Cole took it away from him
    – Interesting that Bob Gibson was his hero – not as big as JR, but easily one of the most intimidating pitchers ever. JR’s 1980 made one think of Gibson’s insane 1968 season
    – It was must see TV when he pitched – you just did not know what you were going to get.
    – I think those 100+ innings without giving up a HR to start the 1980 season is awfully impressive for someone who threw as hard as he did. You would think someone would square up one of his pitches if just by chance.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad the Astros played a nice tidy game for a corrective win last night. I had decided that in deference to JR, I was not going to post anything negative regardless. Yes indeed, Tucker has turned into the confident, field savvy, efficient and productive baseball player that I had a hard time visualizing not so long ago. And he smiles too!

    I guess Garcia is getting closer to working on an 80 or so pitch count. enough guys in the pen to do that now. He sure put some balls on the black last night.

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    • Willie Mays broke into MLB on May 25, 1951 going 0-5, 0-3, 0-4, 1-4, 0-4, 0-2, 0-5, 2-4, and forward. So my guess is Toro is just settling in to his Hall of Fame Career and at least 500 home runs. But then again, I could be wrong.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I think maybe he was trying to hard here.
      Not so much pressure on a team that’s going nowhere this year.
      I hated to see him go.

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  6. Right on time…McCullers goes 4 2/3 innings 89 pitches leaves the game with bases loaded for Maton, to clean up😠 Score 4-2. McCullers is a total enigma. Missing players this game: Yuli, Altuve, and now Brantley.
    Only bright spot is Bregman is back in Houston.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How can we expect to win if there is no consistency no rhythm in our line up. For those that play golf you’ll understand. You get in a rhythm an you can play well. If you stop and start or have to wait or or hurried up your game can degrade quickly. I would think it some what similar in baseball. And why do we continually have trouble beating last place teams?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well 1OP, I had typed up a rambling, aggravated post game report but deleted it. You and I both had nice things to say about the club after the Tuesday night game in LA. But these guys are just not worth the concern or frustration. I’ll be fed up until they correct again at some point. But my expectations continue to waiver. Too often, I don’t get enjoyment out of watching baseball. That’s my status right now.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Let me make you guys’ day: the starters for our next game [vs. Colorado] are Jon Gray and . . . Jake Odorizzi. This isn’t likely to get better any time soon.

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  7. Obviously you all missed the Memo. Dusty is trying to see if the worse teams in the league can beat a AAA minor league team. So far, it appears that those bottom teams are still good enough to be the minors.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It looks like the Astros are playing completely uninspired baseball as of lately. Another Achilles heel has been exposed in our starting pitching. There is no bonifide ace and the pitching consistency from game to game and pitcher to pitcher just isn’t there. Somebody better step up and light a fire under these guys butts or they’ll be watching the playoffs from the confines of their homes.

    I’m sure that some of you have noticed how well Toro and Straw are playing these days. Toro hitting .386, slugging 1.142 and Straw hitting .297. My thoughts are that when you are a “fill-in” (Toro) or a “stand-in” (Straw) it’s probably demoralizing as a young player that you will not get a chance to show what you can really do. I know it doesn’t always make sense but the psychology of it sure seems to. I wish both of the guys success. How demoralizing would it be for us if we were up and coming but Altuve, Bregman, Correa, or another was the guy you had to compete with was in the way. Especially if they are getting 25+ million to play. It won’t happen unless an injury occurs. I’m sure if we look back we’ll see lots of former Astros excelling at the game over the past and present times.

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  9. Altuve played in 99 games so far (out of 112). His average is the lowest of his career. That is if last year doesn’t count. So sitting out 1 or 2 games every week, for him to get “rested” or “not fatigued” does not appear to help him. Correa (102) and Kyle Tucker (100) are only two with more games played .

    Odorizzi is the only starter of multiple games with a losing record. Which should come as no surprise.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Back when I was young, a group named ‘Bread’ had a hit song entitled ‘It Don’t Matter to Me.’

    That title perfectly exemplifies the way the 2021 Astros team approaches everything having to do with the game of baseball.

    Liked by 4 people

      • I have to insert a favorite Bob Newhart joke here. “whew, country music is an acquired taste. Now I don’t mean to denigrate country music. And if you are a fan of country music, denigrate means to put down or make fun of.”

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    • I have pretty eclectic tastes in music that were basically developed between the late 1960’s and the mid-1980’s. The pop music in that period had pretty wide arms. It spanned from the hard rock of Led Zeppelin to the grunge rock of Nirvana. It included the classic rock of Springsteen and ELO and the southern rock explosion of Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. You could hear Willie Nelson crooning about Blue Eyes Crying in the rain, the Bee Gees in their slow period, the Bee Gees in their disco period, the R&B of the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Spinners, the Chi-Lites. You could have the pop with a little twang to it of Glen Campbell singing a Jimmy Webb classic or the rock opera of Meatloaf singing a late Jim Steinman tome. There was psychedelic from Jimmy Hendrix or teen-pop from the Monkees (by the way Hendrix opened for the Monkees on an early tour).
      And I always appreciated Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves.
      I can’t always remember the name of someone I worked with on a project a couple years ago, but I can sing the lyrics to some song I haven’t heard in 20 years.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I don’t fully understand the MLB roster rules. But on the Astros website, the 40 man roster has 44 players. It includes Verlander, Ivey, Emanuel, and Baez all as 60 day IL. I would take it that to add Baez to the active roster would mean to DFA a current player. If so, I have a great candidate. Then he can be picked up by another team and hit .400 the rest of the year.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The Astros’ recent funk has allowed the A’s to get back within two games of the division league. The A’s took care of business against their ‘mop-up’ team [the Rangers] while we were giving away a series to ours [the Twins]. Will we continue the funk? Will they continue the charge?

    While we host the Rockies, they visit the Guardians of the Galaxy. While we play the Angels, they get three more chances to beat up on the hapless Rangers. But then it gets tougher for them. While we play 4 against the Royals on the road, they play 4 against the White Sox on the road. While we host series against the Mariners and the Royals, they play host to the Giants and the Mariners. Then, while we finally get our turn against the Rangers, they play 4 against the Yankees.

    So, if the A’s keep pace, or overtake us, this month, there will be two reasons: 1. we didn’t take care of business; or 2. they earned it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Alex Bregman will not be activated tonight. He is ‘not ready’.

    When Alex went down on June 16, he was in a major funk. 0 for his last 17, his slash line had fallen from .297/.869 on June 10 to .275/.787 at his departure from the team.

    In his rehab assignment at Sugar Land, he has slashed a pathetic 095/.439 [sorry, the number behind the slash line is OPS, not OBP].

    So, when Bregs eventually does come back, what kind of numbers do you expect from him?

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  14. If Odorizzi implodes again tonight it might be time to rethink putting Javier back in the rotation. This team slept through the series with the Twins, but the A’S certainly didn’t sleep through theirs. If there was ever a need for a manager to light a fire under their butts it’s right NOW. Is it too late to start a search for a replacement for Dusty Baker….or are we stuck with him until the off season.
    I like almost all music, I am a child of the 60’S! That was music you could actually sing along with because you hear the words. Today’s music is not music…..just my opinion.
    Saw where the A’S DFA’D J.B. Wendelken, odd move if you ask me.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Becky, yes, we are stuck with Baker through the season. As my wife and I amuse ourselves, we say Dusty is sleeping in the dugout and that is why things are going awry. Almost anytime the camera look sat him in the dugout, he is sitting alone, arms crossed in front of his chest, and head bending down as if he is asleep. He is not the one to light any fires under anyone.

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  15. Back in April, in the snowy cold days Denver, the Rockies beat Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy on back to back nights. Our bullpen [esp. Raley and Bielak] was pathetic, and, except for Peter Solomon, could do nothing to stop the bleeding. Our offense was not much better – as in both games we scored only 2 runs on 5 hits.

    Someone please talk me out of expecting this game winds up being another horrible outing for Odorizzi, another weak performance by our offense, and another painful loss to a team we should beat. I really want to root for these guys; but they sure do make it hard – especially when they play under-500 teams at home.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. As for music I too grew up with the music of the 60’s and 70’s. I sometimes find myself staying up way past midnight watching videos of groups and acts from those years. I also do the same with some 80’s and 90’s. I’m going to plug a site here if you wish to really listen to someone analyze the music of those years and others. I’m not a musician but I can sure appreciate good music and someone who does it for a living. The You Tube site is Rick Beato, “What makes this song great”? Of course every artist or song he does may not be one of my favorites but he is very entertaining and informative and he analyzes some good music.

    As for the Astros if they stink it up tonight I suspect I’ll be watching music videos. Hopefully, not.

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  17. Tonight, with runners on 2nd and 3rd. Korey Lee hit the ball the other way to right and scored two. But the right fielder overthrew the cut off and Lee never slowed down to second. Hensley grounded to short, but Lee forced the errant throw to 3rd and then scored on the error. I like the guy. Probably a career ender.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Last night, Barefoot got a double for Corpus. He was standing on second. The right fielder threw to second and no one was covering. It plunked Barefoot in the arm . He left the game with another bizarre injury for the Astros. Don’t know the extent of the injury.

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  19. So there is a Dr. Jekyl side to Jake Odorizzi as well as the Mr. Hyde we have been seeing? Who knew?

    And thank you Chaz and Taylor, for showing the sleepy, bored regulars how to hit the ball where it is pitched instead of swinging wildly where it isn’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Some countrified Astros thoughts:
    * Trusting Jake Odorizzi is like climbing up on an unbroken horse.
    * Will I ever live long enough to find out what has gone on in the Astros clubhouse this season?
    * I wonder if every organization had Sticky Stuff 101 as their first course of training every spring or if it is being used in high school and college.
    * Last night the Fayetteville Astros lost, 21-5. How did they do it? Their pitchers gave up 12 hits, 2 of which were grand slams. They also gave 12 bases on balls, 6 hit batters and 5 wild pitches. The team also committed 2 fielding errors. Fayetteville pitchers threw 229 pitches in 8 innings pitched.
    *

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    • Yesterday was the first Odorizzi game caught by Maldonado….. I’m just saying.
      But Odorizzi was praising better mechanics after the game….whatever
      It was an enjoyable evening last night. Altuve made two great plays – his relay to nail the Rocky trying to stretch a double to a triple – most arm strength I’ve ever seen from him – and that beautiful diving grab of a grounder up the middle and throw to first basically from the ground.
      In the last couple weeks (since he became full time) Chas is slashing .324 BA/ .342 OBP/ .829 OPS – he needs to walk a bit more but is hitting well.
      Taylor Jones had the biggest hit as his opposite field double made it 3-0. I am not sure I’ve seen a major leaguer do what Blackmon did on that play which was to change his mind in the throwing motion and spike the ball a little bit ahead of him instead of throwing it in
      The bullpen was solid without calling on Graveman, Stanek, Pressly.
      It was great to see Baez make his debut. Shook off some rust and maybe a few jitters and ended it there in the 9th.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s much harder to do in high school where they basically re-use 5 balls throughout the same game. In college the umpires are usually pretty good about inspecting the balls and toss them from the game when there is damage or substances on it. Honestly, though, the laces on MiLB and MLB balls are smaller and tighter, so they protrude above the leather much less. This makes it much harder to get a good grip. Manfred has also been involved or turned a blind eye to some manipulations of the balls used during his tenure to try to encourage or discourage offense depending on your view and which year it is.

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  21. I’m hoping that Yuli Gurriel can teach Norel Gonzalez how to lose 20 pounds of unnecessary weight and how to play 1B. I’m hoping Norel Gonzalez can teach Yuli Gurriel how to sleep without hurting himself.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Astros win in a very solid game
    – Framber looked very good after the first
    – The bullpen is really shaping up
    – What would we do without Diaz
    – The kid- Jake Meyers manufactured a run mostly on his legs – singles, steals second, goes to third on a fly ball and comes home on a short fly to right scoring with a great slide on a play that required a review. He also had a nice play going into the crowd near the RF foul pole
    – Nice way to end the home stand

    Liked by 1 person

  23. 1OP, Norel is a hitter! He’s going to make it. But losing twenty would be nice.
    I’m glad Jake got a start. I hope he gets 2 or 3 a week. He needs to play. We already know he’s a good athlete.
    I don’t miss Myles. Chas hits the ball hard on a regular basis. He can play the outfield. He’s also an excellent athlete.
    Our team annoys the crap out of me. They can be so good and so bad.
    Framber is gutsy. He could have been done in the first inning. He’s learning how to pitch all over again on the fly. He does not know where the ball is going!
    Diaz is a wonderful luxury for us the way he’s playing right now. We don’t need Bregman next week.
    That new stranger on the mound last night, he threw 90-91 and hit 92 once. Can he get it back up to 95?
    I feel kind of bad for Bryan Abreu. At 24 he needs more than 35 innings. And he skipped AAA ball which might have been a mistake. He’s an unfinished product. But he’ll be good someday, hopefully in Houston.
    Is everyone fed up with Dusty Baker?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots to agree with you and others. As for Dusty, I’m just not impressed. He looks like he’s just going through the motions but maybe I’m wrong. These guys need a more fiery type manager. I suspect Dusty is going nowhere this year. As for next year, it better be someone else.
      Good game today. Only caught the last 5 innings but well worth it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Daveb….Haven’t you been reading my post about Dusty Baker?!!!
        I’ve been pounding on that guy since last season! He’s about as inspiring as a wet toilet seat! AND…YES this team NEEDS another A.J.Hinch! They need and WANT to play for a guy who can, and will call them out when he knows and THEY know they need it!! Dusty Baker is managing like he’s in a recliner drinking a cup of hot chocolate. And…yes, I’d love to know the attitude in that clubhouse.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Becky, unfortunately, we’ll have to deal with Dusty Baker until the 2021 season ends. A change now would make no sense. The players simply need to play everyday. But A.J. Hinch had a fatal flaw. He did not have the spine to call his guys out. He let them cheat. He did more damage to this organization than any manager in its history. Let’s not forget that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • If any of you read articles on ESPN’s website anymore (very few are of value unfortunately), Doug Glanville is a contributor from time to time. If you’re unfamiliar, he came up with the Cubs, but played mostly in Philly and Texas. Late in his career, he was traded in a deadline deal to the Cubs when Dusty was the manager. He wrote a piece about this a week or two ago. It largely focuses on how it was difficult to accept moving from a starting role in CF on an abysmal team (Texas) to being relegated to backup duties on a team in a pennant race. I’ll paste the link so you can come to your own conclusions, but I’d suggest that Baker’s greatest strength has always been his people management skills. We may not like his lineups, propensity to rest players, and bullpen decisions, but I suspect we’d have a different appreciation for them were we in his position. As I’ve written multiple times, this isn’t fantasy baseball (Luhnow never figured that out) and what you have on paper only matters until they cross the white chalk lines.
        https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/31942082/do-look-happy-here-how-came-terms-trade-never-wanted

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