Casey Stengel once said that he didn’t need his hair parted with an ax to get an idea from the outside. This was his way of saying he was open-minded and alert to new information. Conversely, when Anthony Rizzo was questioned on his decision not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, he said that he was, “taking some more time to see the data in all of it.”
If Rizzo’s refutation of Casey is the “before” picture, a useful “after” perspective arrives courtesy of J. Bruce Ismay (1862-1937), chairman of the White Star Line and thereby owner of the RMS Titanic. He had been aboard the great ship when it foundered—and made a point of surviving. A week after his ship killed something like 1,500 passengers and crew, Ismay said that the sinking had taught him “a lesson.” “Hereafter,” he said, “I shall see to it that every ship … is equipped with lifeboats enough to carry every living person on board.” Given a choice as to whether or not to outfit his big boat with sufficient escape vehicles, he opted to take some more time to see the data in all of it. One mass-murder-via-negligence later, he had the data. Sometimes one man’s tragedy is another man’s tuition whether the former volunteered to be part of the latter’s education or not.
Whether we are public or private figures or somewhere in between, we are rocks thrown into a pond and must take responsibility for the ripples. The lives of others have a validity of their own. They exist for themselves, not so they can cringe and duck and die while we puzzle out some of the more obvious gradations of right and wrong. On August 4, one of baseball’s greatest and most tragic pitchers, James Rodney “J.R.” Richard, died at the age of 71. As a player he was victimized by Rizzo-ish thinking. At the end, he victimized himself with some Rizzo-ish thinking of his own.
The outline of Richards’ story is familiar: A Louisiana high school star who, he claimed, never lost a game, Richards was tabbed by the Astros with the second-overall pick of the 1969 draft. He was a 6-foot-8, roughly 250-pound fireballer with a high-90s fastball—anecdotally it was even faster—and a similarly high-velocity slider that had a vicious downward slant. In his September 5, 1971 major-league debut he overpowered 15 Giants. Despite this promising beginning, it took a half-dozen years for him to master his command (as Richard said of thrice whiffing Willie Mays in that first game, “He’d rather struck out three times than be dead once”). When he finally put everything together he just kept getting better: Over the final 30 starts of his career he went 19-6 with a 1.44 ERA in 225.2 innings. Over that span he allowed only 128 hits and three home runs while walking 40 and striking out 250. Along the way he became the first modern National League right-hander—and third pitcher in league history after Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton—to strike out 300 batters in a season. Same-side hitters were particularly vexed by Richard’s slider; they hit only .187/.281/.255.
Then came the signs of an impending health crisis, signs that were misinterpreted or ignored. Coming off of a contentious contract negotiation, both the Astros’ front office, players, and fans interpreted his claims as fatigue as malingering. Their coaches and trainers were not qualified to diagnose what was wrong with him—a blockage of the distal subclavian, innominate, and carotid arteries of his pitching arm and neck. Once he convinced the Astros he needed medical attention and the blockage was found, doctors told him, “No surgical intervention was indicated” and that Richard “should be allowed to resume activities and work out under close control and observed conditions.” Instead of treating him aggressively, the doctors had shrugged, gambling that the clot would not move or expand in a way that would threaten Richard’s life. His friend and teammate Enos Cabell later suggested that their casual attitude was due to the color of Richard’s skin.
On July 30, 1980, Richards was playing catch on the Astrodome field when the clot blocked his carotid artery and a stroke hit. He might have died. Though emergency surgery saved his life, the consequences of oxygen deprivation were severe, including paralysis of his left side and the loss of the ability to speak and a reduction of his field of vision and special perception. Richard underwent a second operation to restore circulation to his arm and successfully rehabilitated to the point that he regained the ability to walk and speak without impediment, but his depth perception did not return and whatever fine motor skills separate a top-flight athlete from the rest of us had been wiped away.
After, Richard’s agent Tom Reich asked, “How in the name of fairness, let alone in the name of God, could anybody conclude in the light of J.R.’s endurance, in light of how many innings he has pitched over the years, in light of how many balls he has thrown, that he was faking? …This was a great injustice. How could anyone conclude that J.R. was a dog? All the factual issues were last.” With those words we are back to our own times, to the Rizzo-ish, fact-free thinking that dominates our lives. Foundationless judgments are easy, empathy is hard.
Though Richard vowed to come back, he never could. “I know it’s possible,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “It wouldn’t be the end of the world. I’m going to keep living if I’m not able to pitch again. I can do other things. I can think for myself, I can read, I can write, I can talk, I can see, I can feel, I can laugh, I can joke, I can do everything that everybody else can do. The only thing that bothers me is this: I jumped off the couch yesterday and found I couldn’t fly.” In fact, he plummeted: After business reversals and two divorces he struggled with depression and spent a period of time homeless. With the assistance of friends who refused to abandon him and the Baseball Assistance Team he was able to rebuild his life. Eventually he became a minister.
Richard’s passing would represent only the sad but inevitable closing of a book that had more chapters than most players have to experience but for the disclosure that he had been slain due to complications of COVID-19 and that, per Cabell, he had refused vaccination. In other words, a man who had time stolen from him due in part to ignorance and poor medical judgment conspired to rob himself of more time via ignorance and poor medical judgment. His death is an avoidable tragedy on top of an avoidable tragedy, a repeat that was—depending on your point of view—self-inflicted or committed by the zeitgeist, by the damnably stupid tenor of the times.
Baseball is often not just a spectator sport but a microcosm of what we in the larger world are experiencing at any given time. Richard—and Rizzo and the rest of the intermittently-infected cohort, vaccinated and un, in baseball and everywhere else—are symbols, perpetrators, and victims of this moment in American life when a virulent disease has not only conquered too many American bodies but also polluted American minds with hysterical, ignorant, self-harming propaganda that can convince the pliable and ill-informed that mRNA vaccines are dangerous or unproven but it’s safe and wise to try to cure COVID with bleach, hydroxychloroquine, or—holy moly—ivermectin, a paste used to deworm horses. There is a black market in fake vaccination cards, with college kids preferring to spend anywhere from $25 to $473.79 to protecting themselves and their classmates by taking a free injection. As COVID continues to infect the recalcitrant and antisocial it has further opportunities to mutate into more dangerous forms that can put the vaccinated and unvaccinated at risk, as well as the young, who, though less at risk of dying can in fact be killed and may suffer from the still too-little understood effects of long COVID. Mask mandates are returning because the COVID Delta variant is so easily transmissible, a burden that will be disproportionately borne by the unselfish, whose actions to date have paradoxically made it safe enough for the scoffers to survive their own ignorance. Simultaneously, politicians continue to demagogue all of the above via lies, distortions, and coercion in an effort to pander to the paranoid and that lowest of common denominators, Republican primary voters.
This is not only a national crisis but a baseball crisis. As the unvaccinated perpetuate our state of emergency, we run the risk that COVID will become endemic, a forever-problem that has not only altered or ended lives off the field but will continue to warp the level of competition on it not only from now until October but for years to come. Consider the sheer amount of lost production the Yankees—a team over Major League Baseball’s 85-percent vaccination threshold—has endured due to multiple infections. When the aforementioned Rizzo was acquired from the Cubs, the Yankees had 59 games left to play. If he is out for 15 of them, that’s a loss of a quarter of what he might have contributed and a serious insult to the team’s potential. Injuries will always be a part of baseball; by and large they can’t be helped. Yet it will certainly feel like a rip-off when some team’s cleanup hitter is forced to sit out an entire postseason series because he tested positive. As long as our vaccination campaign is incomplete, this will remain a real possibility even, as we have seen, for vaccinated players. Should the source of that positive test be an unvaccinated player, he will have wounded his team as thoroughly as Eddie Cicotte or Chick Gandil ever did.
It is so very tempting to forget one’s empathy and feel resentment rather than sympathy. J.R. Richard deserves better than that, but we deserved better than that from J.R. Richard as well. A number of players have referred to vaccination as a “personal choice,” but that’s not true. Most medical decisions affect the patient. Should someone diagnosed with an aggressive cancer forego treatment, they will die but their disease will not be communicated to others. Viruses are not so selective, and a “personal choice” to avoid vaccination is tantamount to rejecting one’s responsibility to the community. It’s effectively a resignation of membership, even if we don’t treat it that way and ask coughing Cain to absent himself and dwell in the Land of Nod, east of Eden.
At the time of his death, J.R. Richard was largely a private citizen. His playing career was 41 years in the past, and he wasn’t part of any big-league club’s coaching staff. He was just someone we enjoyed knowing for a while, lost track of, were saddened when we learned he had fallen so far as to be dwelling beneath a bridge and were heartened when he was able to live in a more secure way and better enjoy the approbation his years of glory had earned. Yet, being away from the spotlight does not excuse him his responsibility. In the domain of the Red Death there are no private citizens, only those who are taking steps to limit the spread of the disease and those who aren’t. There can be no “private” in public health; there is only the effect. It’s why Typhoid Mary was repeatedly incarcerated: She was a carrier who apparently wasn’t very good about washing her hands after using the bathroom and yet insisted on preparing food for people. She was warned but refused to amend her behavior. The foregoing sentence also applies to those who have inflicted the Delta variant upon us by supplying themselves as reservoirs for the disease. Some of them, like Richard, died as a consequence of their perverse volunteerism. There is great sadness in this, but it doesn’t excuse it, and we should not indulge in fake politesse just to avoid speaking ill of the dead.
If you are unlike Casey and do need your hair parted by an ax to get the message that we’re all in this together; if like Rizzo you’re still doing your research, whatever that means; if you are like Ismay and testing a theory of safety on those who just wanted to get from point A to point B without hazard, whatever it is you think you’re doing, you’re one of those making life more dangerous and difficult for the rest of us. If Richard was in that group then his passing is occasion to rend our garments five times: To mourn the way he was betrayed in 1980; to mourn that he couldn’t come back; to mourn that he reenacted the misjudgments of those who were supposed to protect him by failing to protect himself; to mourn that in doing so he failed to protect those with whom he came into contact; to mourn that he is gone.
Beyond the opportunity to recall the glory days of this great pitcher one more time, there is no good in this, no story of redemption, but just one more premature parting among the over 4.3 million such partings around the world we’ve had due to COVID. Meanwhile, Rizzo is on the COVID list and no doubt his fact-finding continues apace. May he be spared the consequences of the mistakes made by himself in others, a grace that was not granted J.R. Richard.
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