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Thursday, March 29, 2007
Updated: April 4, 5:26 PM ET
Astros are forgetting one of their legends

By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2

J.R. Richard
J.R. Richard won at least 18 games four times for the Astros.
Throughout much of my life, I have been a man in search of a cause.

At good ol' Mahopac High School, four times I ran for student council, speaking up on behalf of a third cafeteria lunch line and an annual class trip to Great Adventure. Four times I lost.

Back in the day, I thought Mike Dukakis would make one helluva president. Then he drove around in that tank.

I had a brief period of speaking out against the death penalty, but the bosses at my old newspaper (rightly) said it was a conflict of interest. I tried running for New Rochelle City Council and got trounced in the primary. I've insisted to myriad people that Hall & Oates belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Alas, nobody listens.

This time I've got a winner.

The argument I bring to you is accompanied by passion, by intelligence, by heart and by soul. It is a cause as vital to the future of our nation as global warming -- yet crosses political lines. To be a supporter, one need not be young or old, black or white, male or female, rich or poor.

No, all one must be is human.

With a powerful, unified voice, we must demand together: Houston Astros, retire J.R. Richard's uniform No. 50.

UNRETIRE THEM

We're calling bull on a couple of retired numbers:

Padres No. 6, Steve Garvey
The Garv played just five seasons in San Diego, with 61 homers, 316 RBIs and two All-Star appearances. Garvey got this honor by clubbing one famous homer, his two-run shot to win Game 4 of the 1984 NLCS. Despite being an eight-time All-Star with the Dodgers from 1969-82, Garvey's number isn't retired by Los Angeles.

Devil Rays No. 12, Wade Boggs
Yes, Boggs is a Hall of Famer. But wouldn't it make more sense for the Red Sox -- or even the Yankees -- to retire his number? Boggs' totals as a Devil Ray: 213 games, 210 hits, nine homers and 81 RBIs over two seasons. He got career hit No. 3,000 with Tampa Bay, and apparently that was enough.

-- Thomas Neumann

Now! (Click here for the online petition)

I know … I know. You are as appalled as I am. You should be. Before his major league career was cut short in 1980 by a devastating stroke, Richard was not only the greatest pitcher in Astros history, but on course to Cooperstown. Just look at the numbers: In 10 seasons (only seven of them full), Richard went 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA. He ranked in the top five in strikeouts five times, twice leading the league and two other times placing second. His 313 K's in 1979 stood as an NL record for right-handers for more than 20 years.

Richard was a three-time 18-game winner and, in 1976, won a career-high 20.

He ranked in the Top 10 in Cy Young Award voting three times, and started the 1980 All-Star Game.

"He had the greatest stuff I have ever seen," Joe Morgan once said, "and it still gives me goose bumps to think of what he might have become."

Simply put, Richard was the dominant National League pitcher of the 1970s.

And yet …

Somehow, some way, the Astros have retired the uniform numbers of eight players. Sure, Jose Cruz was a solid outfielder with six .300 seasons.

And yeah, Jimmy Wynn's 223 home runs as an Astro are impressive enough. But the team has bestowed the honor upon four starting pitchers, not one of whom can boast a better Astros career than James Rodney Richard. Take a gander:

ASTROS COMPARISON
Name Starts W-L ERA K CG
J.R. Richard 221 107-71 3.15 1,493 76
Mike Scott 259 110-81 3.31 1,318 42
Nolan Ryan 282 106-94 3.13 1,866 38
Don Wilson 245 104-92 3.15 1,283 78
Larry Dierker 320 137-117 3.30 1,487 106

 

There is a glaring difference between Richard and the others. While Wilson's number was retired after his death in 1975, and Scott, Ryan and Dierker have enjoyed productive post-baseball lives, Richard is a man the Astros clearly wish to erase from the annals.

After all, he represents a black mark on the organization.

Early in the 1980 season, Richard began complaining of shoulder and back pain, as well as a dead arm. He moaned to anyone who would listen -- coaches, teammates, reporters -- yet he was never taken seriously. Instead, Richard was labeled a whiner; a wimp; a malcontent. He couldn't handle the pressure. He didn't really care about the game. All he wanted was money.

"It was a bunch of junk," Richard told The Sporting News in 1999. "Why wasn't I taken to the hospital and diagnosed to see what was really wrong if I'd meant so much to the Houston Astros?"

Bam.

On the afternoon of July 30, 1980, Richard was participating in pregame throwing drills when he collapsed. Doctors at Southern Methodist Hospital agreed that Richard had suffered a severe stroke, and would have likely died without emergency surgery. It occurred during a time in which blood flow through the main arteries in the right side of his neck was cut off. Richard had no pulse in his right carotid artery.

Suddenly, the Richard-is-a-wuss crowd among Astros personnel vanished.

Sadly, so did Richard's magic. In one of the hardest-to-watch comeback attempts this side of Dice Clay, Richard fumbled around spring training and the minor leagues for two years, never overcoming the partial paralysis of the left side of his body. His velocity down, his control nonexistent, Richard quietly slinked away from baseball in 1983.

Since then, times have been -- to be polite -- tough. Richard lost nearly $400,000 in a business scam and hundreds of thousands more via two divorces. In 1994, he was found living under a bridge in Houston.

Though the man has since made a life comeback, ministering and teaching baseball to children, the Astros remain unmoved. Their best pitcher -- the one they believed to be a malingerer -- remains on the outside looking in; a legendary figure not presented with due legendary status.

I say it's time to force the issue.

Sign the petition! Call the Astros! Stand for a moment of silence when the minute hand turns from 49 to 50! Listen to "Private Eyes" over and over again! (Oops -- wrong movement.)

Whatever it takes -- get J.R. his due.

Get his No. 50 retired.

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero", now available in paperback. You can reach him at anngold22@yahoo.com.