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July 15, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Astros Appreciation

by Allen Barra

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Beast, and The Atlantic.com. He is the author of Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee (2009) and Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark (2010). His next book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age, due out in 2011 from Crown.

With the possible exception of the Florida Marlins, the Astros are, fifty seasons after entering the National League as the Colts 45s, the least known and least written about franchise in baseball. I’ve been waiting and waiting for someone to write about the Astros’ 50th anniversary, but we’re halfway through the season, and it doesn’t look like anyone else is going to do it, so I’ll take a crack at it.

Texas is regarded by most Americans as football country, but that’s mostly been true since the start of the TV era in the mid-1960s when the Dallas Cowboys became an NFL contender and, thanks to TV, college football became accessible to fans who hadn’t gone to college. I relocated to Texas in the late 1970s, joining the exodus of college graduates from Alabama and other southeastern states to the booming economy of Houston. That was at the height of football frenzy. The Cowboys had just come off a victory in the 1977 Super Bowl, and Earl Campbell had just won the Heisman Trophy and then very nearly led the University of Texas to the 1977 championship, prompting Houston Oilers fans to start thinking about the Super Bowl themselves.

But much to my surprise, I found a thriving baseball culture that didn’t get much ink nationally or even in Texas.

There were still plenty of old-timers back then who remembered the great days of the Texas League and the Dixie World Series between the Texas League winner and the champion of the Southern Association. You could go to a game at the Astrodome, look for somebody wearing a Houston Buffaloes cap, and strike up a conversation about the team’s defeat in the 1931 series between the Buffs and the Birmingham Barons. In case you don’t remember that one, in the first game a trash-talking string bean named Dizzy Dean lost 1-0 to a 43-year-old career former New York Yankees pitcher named Ray Caldwell, who pitched his first game the year Dean was born—1911, the same year that the Barons’ ballpark, Rickwood Field, a miniature of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and now the oldest ballpark in the country, was built.

Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth had rich baseball rivalries and histories long before Major League Baseball realized that it had leapfrogged to the West Coast and bypassed the half of the continent between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. Heck, some of the old guys used to tell me, Texas had enough talent to stock an entire new major league without even including blacks and Mexicans—and if they came in, there was enough talent for two leagues.

A lot of my friends would drive through town wanting to see a game in the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and end up sneering at the Astrodome. Baseball indoors? On a carpet? But they were just visiting; they didn’t live in Houston or they would have appreciated the Astrodome. They didn’t have to put up with the withering heat, the unrelenting humidity, the infernal hummingbird-sized mosquitoes, and worst of all, the crazy, unpredictable lightning storms that came out of nowhere to wipe out games just twenty minutes before the first pitch. The Astrodome changed all that; for the first time local fans knew that when they made plans to attend there definitely would be a game.

Most of all, purists hated Astroturf—I think it was Tug McGraw who cracked that someone needed to invent “Astro water” to counteract it—but like the Dome, it was a necessary evil when the grass died after the skylight panels in the roof were painted over to keep fielders from losing fly balls in the glare. Curiously, critics never seemed to notice that despite this wondrous technology—or more precisely, because of the Dome’s dimensions and odd air currents, which kept baseballs from carrying and dramatically cut down hitters’ power stats—Astros baseball was a throwback to earlier times that stressed bunting, stealing, making contact, and hitting behind runners—all those boring things that fall under the heading of “small ball.”

The baseball world never took much note of the Astros, seeing them as a drab, unexciting team in funny uniforms. The baseball world was wrong. In eight seasons from 1979 through 1986, the Astros fielded some of the game’s best players, played some of the most exciting baseball, and produced more genuine tragedy and farce than the Boston Red Sox on steroids.

There was, of course, Dickie Thon, who seemed, in the years I saw him up close, the best shortstop in the National league, and who, at the time he was hit in the face by a Mike Torrez fastball in 1984, appeared to be on the verge of becoming a HOF candidate. There was Jose Cruz, a terrific all-around player who, had he not had to play half his games in the runs-stifling Astrodome, would have been recognized as one of the four or five best players in the NL for several years. (Cruz was one of the game’s most underrated players, and his 13 years in the Astrodome probably took 10 points and several All-Star games off his career.) At the other end of the spectrum, there was Mark Lemongello, who in 1982 was sentenced to ten years probation for kidnapping his own cousins. (I have no way of knowing this for certain, but I’ll bet it spoiled his chances of getting an endorsement from Jello.)

In 1979, my second year in Houston, I got hooked on the first bona fide pennant race I’d ever witnessed up close, watching the Astros blow a 13 ½-game lead in mid-July to the Cincinnati Reds and missing the western division title by 1 ½ games—retribution, said the old guys in the cheap seats in the faded Texas League hats, for having traded away their best player, Joe Morgan, eight years earlier.

Morgan returned in 1980, and the Astros beat the Dodgers by one game to win the Western Division, then lost to the Phillies three games to two in the most exciting playoff series I’ve ever seen. Philadelphia had just one home run in five games, from Greg Luzinski, while the Astros hit none. The last four games all went into extra innings; the Phillies outscored the Astros by one run, 20-19, to take the pennant. Cruz sitting alone in the dugout, staring unblinkingly straight ahead as the crowd cleared, is one of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen in baseball.

1980 should have been the year the Astros won it all. It was the year of J.R. Richard.

You’ve heard stories about how great J.R. Richard was at his best, and they are all true. What the stories don’t tell you is how thrilling it was to watch him on the mound on a good day. He was the scariest pitcher I’ve ever seen. He was 6’-8 ½”, and his three-quarters side arm fastball sometimes made it to 100 mph. Imagine a right-handed Randy Johnson with 30 more pounds of muscle, and you’ll get some idea of how terrifying he was.

I don’t think he was a great pitcher—great in the sense of being the best in the league for a couple of seasons—and it’s true that he had an advantage when pitching in the Astrodome, the best hitter’s park in the game back then. But midway through the 1980 season, Sports Illustrated’s William Nack called him “the best right-hander in baseball,” and that was probably true.

By 1980, at the age of 30, he was certainly on the verge of greatness. From 1976-1979 he won 74 games, completing 62 of them and averaging 260 strikeouts per season. He had over 300 strikeouts in both 1978 and 1979. As he got older, he seemed to be getting better and smarter, with a change that startled some hitters. (Of course, when you consistently throw everything, including your slider, in the high 90s, a changeup is going to be even more devastating.)

In 1979, Richard went 18-13 with career bests in complete games (19), shutouts (four), walks (98), strikeouts (313), and ERA (2.71). But the Dome was only part of what gave him the best hits-to-innings-pitched ratio and strikeouts-per-nine-innings in the National League in both 1978 and 1979. In 1978, for instance, hitters averaged just .156 against him at home but only .196 against him on the road. (Conversely, the Dome may also have suppressed his hitting stats; he had seven career home runs, a record for Astros pitchers, including one off Tom Seaver in 1980 that was said to have traveled at least 530 feet.)  

1980 probably would have made it three straight years for him to lead in these categories.

He was on pace to better most of these numbers—after 17 starts, he had ten wins and already had four shutouts with a 1.90 ERA. After the fact—that is, after his stroke on July 30, or rather, after three separate stokes from different obstructions in his arterial system—Richard’s physical problems were finally understood, and a whole season of what had seemed to be moody, erratic, behavior was placed in its proper perspective.

Complaining of a “dead arm,” Richard had been admitted to a local hospital and then released with a clean bill. Four days later at the Astrodome, he had thrown effortlessly for about ten minutes and told a Houston trainer “I never felt better.” Almost before he knew it, he was on his back, telling his teammates that his ears were ringing. He had lost the feeling on the left side of his face and his speech was slurred; he was drooling and could not spit.

The stroke ended months of unpleasantness in response to his various complaints. He had been telling everyone who would listen that his arm felt tired and he didn’t know why. He could not explain his problem beyond that—he had never had a serious health problem before and had no experience dealing with one. Team trainers and private doctors shook their heads after examining him.

Everywhere you went around Houston that summer—to the Galleria shopping mall, to one of the Portuguese restaurants on the ship channel, to the Wal-Mart-sized night spot in nearby Pasadena owned by Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin, Mickey Gilley—people had their explanations for what was wrong with J.R. He was faking the arm problems, some said, because he wanted the Astros to renegotiate his contract (Nolan Ryan had joined the team that season, and it was widely thought that Richard was jealous of Ryan’s more lucrative contract.) He wanted more media attention, some said; Houston was too small a stage for a pitcher of his ability (so they said).

The first two items were bandied about freely on Houston’s afternoon sports call-in shows, and since everyone in Houston spent a significant part of his or her afternoon stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, everyone heard them. One writer in particular, Ed Fowler of the Houston Chronicle, seemed to have no purpose in life outside of ripping into Richard on a daily basis. His claims that Richard was “gutless” and that he was finking out on his teammates in the midst of a heated pennant race were repeated on the afternoon radio shows in case anyone had missed them in the papers.

And, of course, there were rumors of drugs, and though they never saw print, they were picked up and repeated by everyone at the ballpark.

Where did they start? Long-time Texas sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz believes they came from Richard’s own teammates. “A lot of the guys were frustrated after having blown the enormous lead the season before,” says Herskowitz, “and they were desperate to make the playoffs this year. When J.R. became withdrawn and uncommunicative because of his problem, some of them took offense. It got really ugly, and some of the media people were too willing to listen to what some of the players were saying.”

“It’s hard to see it this way now, but it’s a measure of how invincible everyone thought J.R. was that so many were exasperated and disappointed with his constant complaints in the summer of 1980. He just made it look so easy that no one could understand why he couldn’t just keep doing what he was doing. And, of course, J.R. didn’t have a clue as to what was wrong with him and could do nothing to help his own case.”

On July 3 against the Braves, he was pitching well when he suddenly tired in the sixth inning. No one perceived this as a warning sign; Houston manager Bill Virdon chose him to start the 1980 All-Star game on July 8. Who could refuse an honor like that?

Richard smoked the American League for two innings, giving up a bloop single and fanning three. After the All-Star break, he flew to Los Angeles to be examined by Dr. Frank Jobe, who, along with his partner Robert Kerlan, was one of the two leading sports physicians in the world. Richard immediately told the press that he was suffering from “muscle fatigue” and had been ordered to take a month off; he told everyone that he was going to leave baseball for a while and “go fishing.”

Disbelief turned into anger when the Astros received a copy of Jobe’s report, which did in fact mention muscle fatigue and suggested that Richard skip a start or two and then pitch only for a few innings while building his strength back up. When asked why he lied, Richard became sullen and simply told the press, “I felt like it.” “He was angry and hurt,” says Herskowitz, “and he didn’t know what to do. He felt worse than Dr. Jobe told him he should be feeling. He couldn’t articulate his feelings, and he was scared. ‘I felt like it’ was his way of saying ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me.’”

A few Astros players, notably Joe Morgan, stuck up for their teammate. Looking back on the disaster 28 years later, Morgan says, “He was in a place he had never been in before. He had begun to feel that he was as unbeatable as everyone thought he was, and all of a sudden, he wasn’t. He felt betrayed by the writers, fans, and some of his own teammates.”

On July 16, the Astros put him on the disabled list. The team physician, Dr. Harold Berlsford, could find no problem with him, which set the criticism of Richard on radio and in print to fever pitch. On July 23, an opaque dye injected into his bloodstream at a Houston hospital revealed a blood clot, which should have been taken as evidence that Richard wasn’t lying about the tired arm. The discovery was greeted by the Houston press with silence.

No one rushed to Richard’s defense, particularly when doctors decided not to operate. Their diagnosis was that he could continue pitching, at least at short intervals, if he was kept under close observation. That so many outstanding sports physicians could have been so utterly and spectacularly wrong is, in retrospect, mind-boggling. Four days after he left the hospital came the collapse, and Richard’s life was in danger.  

Everyone knows the aftermath: the Astros lost to the Phillies in the playoffs, a series that one cannot help but wonder if they’d have won if Richard had been able to pitch. The pitcher’s career was over. Twice he attempted comebacks, but nothing came of them.

I heard nothing more about him until 1994. Apparently no one else had either, as he was discovered homeless, living under a bridge in Houston. In 1995—thank God for Marvin Miller—he became eligible for a substantial pension, and he returned to the Astrodome for an Old-Timers’ game. Predictably, the fans gave him a standing ovation. When I asked Mickey Herskowitz if he regarded the standing ovation Richard got in 1995 as a reaction to a city’s collective guilt, he sent me a copy of a story he had written for the now-defunct Houston Post. “Guilt has seized a lot of people in this town who believed in the weeks before his problem was diagnosed that Richard was playing his own kind of game. Some wrote or said as much, and if anyone expressed any sympathy or offered him the benefit of the doubt, no real notice was paid. Our concern and shock were mixed with embarrassment, and we ought to admit it.”

A few years later, J.R. Richard became a member of the New Testament Church, claiming to have found the Lord; I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell him he didn’t.

My father grew up in South Philadelphia, mostly a fan of the A’s, but like everyone else from the area, burdened by the feeling that he had inherited the whole dismal history of the Phillies when the A’s left for Kansas City and Philadelphia was stuck with the last team in the major leagues that had not won a World Series. Now, I sort of know how he felt. The year the Phillies finally broke through, 1980, was the last year I lived in Houston, but I’ve followed this luckless franchise ever since, hoping that somebody would provide some relief for the faithful fans I know are still there. I’d like to offer some hope, but when fans wait 30 or 40 or 50 years for something, I tend to think of Yeats’ line that “Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.” Part of the problem, I think, is that the Astros really have no history for fans to look back on—no golden memories, nothing but a couple of years of shaking your head and thinking about what might have been. J.R. Richard might at least have given Houston fans something to hold on to, to point to a better future. But I’ll tell you this: those of us who saw him pitch will never forget him.  

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