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Former Astros pitcher overcomes adversity, brings message to UHV

By MIKE FORMAN
Jan. 23, 2014 at 9:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 22, 2014 at 7:23 p.m.

On Thursday,  former premier pitcher with the Houston Astros J.R. Richard talks about recovering from a stroke he suffered in 1980  during a  warm-up before a game. Richard tried a comeback in 1981, but the stroke affected his ability to play well. Several divorces  and bad business deals later left him broke and homeless, living under a  Houston highway bridge.

Houston Astros

• 2013 record: 51-111 (fifth place in AL West)

• 2014 opener: April 1 vs. New York Yankees, Minute Maid Park

J.R. Richard won 107 games and had 1,493 strikeouts during his 10 seasons with the Houston Astros.

But Terry Puhl also remembers Richard's prowess as a hitter.

The UHV head baseball coach was an Astros' teammate of Richard for four seasons and witnessed seven of his 10 career home runs.

"He hit one when there were two outs, and he stood at home plate and watched it go out straight center in Atlanta," Puhl said. "He jogged slowly around the bases, and I was thinking, 'I'm going to get killed. They're going to stick one in my head.' When he crossed home plate, I thought, 'No, they're not because J.R. is still pitching, and if somebody throws anywhere close to me, he'll take them out.' I felt real comfortable."

Richard, who joked he went to eat at Whataburger while waiting for the home run to land, got to visit with Puhl during a stop in Victoria on Thursday morning for the 2014 Houston Astros Caravan.

Richard, first baseman Chris Carter, outfielder Marc Krauss and broadcaster Milo Hamilton joined Puhl for a flag-raising ceremony on the UHV campus.

The 6-foot-8-inch Richard is 63 but remains an imposing figure, as anyone who shook his hand can attest.

"Nolan Ryan was a great pitcher," Puhl said. "But I have to admit J.R. was probably more intimidating. He was just wild enough, and he had a nasty slider.

"The Dodgers would always take a day off when they came in. We'd look at their lineup whenever J.R. pitched and go, 'Who are those guys?'"

In his prime, Richard's fastball was clocked at 103 mph, and his slider registered at 98 mph on the radar gun.

He became the first National League pitcher to record 300 strikeouts in a season when he had 303 in 1978 and struck out 313 in 1979.

"All of my talent was God-given, I just perfected it through hard work," Richard said. "My idea was to be the best. I think if you're not going out there to be the best there is, you're wasting your time."

Richard was an outstanding basketball player at his Louisiana high school but elected to play baseball after the Astros selected him with the second pick of the 1969 amateur draft.

"It was the signing bonus," said Richard, who declined to provide a figure. "It was real nice."

Richard was a workhorse for the Astros, going five consecutive seasons without missing a start and pitching 76 complete games.

"If you are a starter, you are paid to pitch nine innings," he said. "You should practice to pitch nine innings. I always practiced to pitch 15 innings; that's why nine innings didn't bother me at all."

Richard made his first All-Star Game appearance in 1980 but pitched only two innings because of soreness in his shoulder.

Richard's health problems continued that season as he experienced dizziness, blurred vision and deadness in the arm.

Richard's ailments were questioned by some team officials and members of the media.

He made one start after the All-Star game and was pulled in the fourth inning after not being able to see the catcher's sign because of blurred vision.

He was tossing a ball in the outfield before a game July 30 when he collapsed from what later would be diagnosed as a stroke.

Richard continued to experience health problems, which ended his career and led to financial problems.

He lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments, was divorced twice and lost his home before he was found living under a Houston freeway underpass in 1994.

Richard eventually righted himself and became a minister in the New Testament Church of South Houston.

The Astros also reached out to Richard, who insists he harbors no bitterness toward the team.

"That's in the past," he said. "This is a new day, and it's got to be a new way. You can't dwell on the past because if you do, the past will hold you back. You just keep going forward and forget about the past."

Richard signs autographs and makes appearances for the Astros but spends most of his time fishing.

He still watches baseball and sees better days ahead for his former team.

"I think the future holds a good deal for the Astros," Richard said. "It's a give-it-time type of deal."

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