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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

Thank you for reading

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dennis paulik
8/13
The inconsistent messaging and behavior from the CDC and NIH has caused them to lose the confidence and trust of about 50% of the population. A good example of the inconsistencies are when healthcare systems claim they are overrun, their staff is exhausted and then say they will terminate the staff that isn’t vaccinated. How will that work out?
Shaun P.
8/13
I am not sure what the actions of 2 government agencies - neither of which operate any hospitals or other entities in our healthcare systems, nor control hiring or firing at those entities - has to do with the actions of healthcare systems. Could you please clarify your point?
dennis paulik
8/13
Glad to and good question Shaun. The CDC and NIH along with President Biden are putting pressure on private businesses to mandate vaccines, because the government at this time does not feel they can. So they do directly affect healthcare systems behavior. Where do the health systems get a lot of money from? The government. So that said how can they really afford to fire 30% of their staff when there is already a shortage, even before COVID. In my opinion they will not do it, but time will tell.
Mark
8/15
Really hate it lately when BP feels the need to lard up my sports page with politics, gender issues, racial issues, etc. Stick to your knitting, stay in your lane, pick a metaphor. It’s a good article, says some things that merit saying, and indeed Rizzo was one of my favorite ball players but no longer. Just do not think this is the place for it.
Craig Goldstein
8/15
Thanks for the feedback. We're going to keep writing and talking about all those things.
Tynan
8/15
Thanks, Craig!
Scott Pelarski
8/13
Though being short handed is far from optimal it is still better than employing those who could potentially harm their patients. Would you prefer that negligent employees continue to be employed?
batts40
8/13
Exactly, it's not complicated at all. To the point where it's pretty easy to assume arguments against vaccinating hospital workers are being made in bad faith.
dennis paulik
8/13
Employees who don't get vaccinated are not negligent. I have been to the hospital during this outbreak and had no idea who was vaccinated and it did not bother me.
Llarry
8/16
Doesn't matter whether it "bothers" you. What matters is whether they can infect people, especially those who don't have the ability to be vaccinated.
Patrick
8/13
I will also add that not everyone who works for a healthcare system works in the ICU. Firing a scheduler at an orthopedic clinic has zero impact on their ability to treat COVID patients.
schlicht
8/13
Some of the “inconsistent” messaging by the CDC was forced upon them by politicians more interested in re-election than public health.
John Johnston
8/13
And some of it is being currently forced upon them by politicians who are more interested in political control than they are in science and public health.
44488
8/14
Unless a hospital staff member is among the very small number of people who have genuine medical cause to avoid the vaccine, darned right these folks in particular should have been required to get the jab when it was first available, much less now. Public health trumps your ill-informed, Rizzoesque excuses.
Llarry
8/16
Yes, especially considering the large number of other things they've been required to be immunized against for years...
Shaun P.
8/13
Thanks, Steven, for giving words to a lot of the complicated thoughts I had around the passing of JR Richard. You got the mix of empathy, resentment, sympathy, and disappointment just right.

All that said, I feel very little sympathy and tremendous amounts of disgust for Anthony Rizzo and his "personal choice/further research" ilk amongst the players. If they strain a muscle, or tear a ligament, they will listen to the team doctor and medical staff - but not with regards to the vaccine? That's completely unacceptable.
John Johnston
8/13
There is an entire industry out there making money deliberately spreading disinformation about Covid. It’s a disgrace. Another National disgrace is the politicization of a public health issue, which shows a complete lack of common sense on both sides. Human beings are weak and prone to folly, and Covid has brought out the worst in many of us. I’m vaccinated; my best friend is not. He just keeps making excuses to avoid it. This is folly; I expect to be burying him soon.
Shaun P.
8/13
It really is folly, and of course the worst part is that the unvaccinated are not just harming themselves, but others - and potentially even those of us who are vaccinated.
schlicht
8/13
Fantastic piece Steven
John Johnston
8/13
I lived in Houston and had good Astros tickets when J.R. was pitching. His stroke was a tragedy; his death from Covid a preventable one. I deeply regret them both.
Jeremy Littau
8/13
This is a really well written piece. I wish it wasn't behind the subscriber paywall because it's the kind of thing I would share with people I know who are hesitating about the jab.
Craig Goldstein
8/13
Hey Jeremy, I've removed it from behind the paywall. Happy to do so.
Jeremy Littau
8/13
Awesome, thank you! Appreciate the thought you put into this article.
Keith Collins
8/13
Thank you for this.
F Last
8/13
I don't really understand how one can credibly believe they're being empathetic when comparing someone fearfully avoiding taking a vaccine with another person fundamentally undermining the integrity of athletic competition (Cicotte).

I can't say I expected better from the author. No, the real story of JR Richard's life in baseball isn't how he can be utilized to demonize other people. We really should strive to be more empathetic and less ugly.
Steven Goldman
8/13
I posited a hypothetical: If a player who refused a vaccine then spreads disease among his teammates with the result that the ace pitcher or the cleanup hitter is required to miss all seven games of a postseason series, he would have badly subtracted from his team's winning effort. Intentions don't matter; it's what you DO that counts, and that player would have, to borrow your words, fundamentally undermined the integrity of athletic competition by removing the team's stars. That's what the Black Sox did too--they just didn't physically absent themselves. As for empathy, I do feel it for Richard '80 and Richard '21 in different ways. As I said, he was victimized twice. But I'm also angry, really angry that he helped this virus claim an additional victim. If we can learn from what he did then his loss will not have been in vain.
F Last
8/13
I don't expect I'll get through to you but that's just obviously not true. The intentions and/or fundamental nature of the act are the only reason you're choosing to, in my eyes, dance on his grave for crassly political impulses. I'll gladly grant that this isn't how you see yourself acting, but it's how it looks to me.

I just see a lack of a humanistic impulse in your approach. Richards (or even Rizzo) aren't even being accused of demagoguing about how no one should take a vaccine. The claim that you're exhibiting empathy just really rings false. It's a tough balancing act to follow between exhibiting empathy and inhabiting a crusading spirit.

Intentions and the fundamental nature of acts obviously matter in this context: I think you've backed yourself into a corner where you'd be forced to claim that Clemente "violated the integrity of athletic competition" by removing a first ballot Hall of Fame player from their roster. ​
Walk back off of that ledge. Either defend the idea that anyone who is vaccine hesitant is, in a baseball sense, acting in a morally equivalent way to actively throwing games or find a better analogy.
Steven Goldman
8/13
F Last, my humanism would be, I hope, evidenced by my concern for everyone who unnecessarily comes into contact with COVID and has their lives negatively affected by it. Which at this point is everyone, ranging from very trivial changes to many of our lifestyles all the way to death. Parenthetically, the current thinking of epidemiologists, in my layman's understanding, is that Delta has so changed the state of play that at this point we all WILL be exposed to it before it's all over and that via vaccination and boosters and exposure and re-exposure, it will finally subside into something like the cold or flu. That process may take as long as another couple of years, and I don't know how much suffering it will entail for those who are infected in the process.

I can't convince you I feel sorry for Richard if you don't want to believe it and I'm not going to try. I do think, w/r/t Rizzo and Richard, you're missing my point, which is that their motives don't matter and if they never said a WORD about the vaccines it wouldn't change the potential result of their actions, which is to supply another body for the virus to infect. That's just a fact. Contra what you say above, intentions don't matter in this context at all because whatever the motive, the result is to evade one's responsibility to the community. You might not have a bad thought in your head when you decide that red lights don't apply to you, but try explaining that to the pedestrian you kill.

Clemente sacrificed himself in service TO the community, or a community, and obviously that sacrifice was inadvertent. He didn't intend to get on a rickety plane and crash, and I imagine that if someone had told him ahead of time that he was about to take a one-way trip he would have demurred from boarding that particular vehicle. People who make themselves available to the virus and then walk into any enclosed environment, from a Starbucks to a movie theater to a baseball team clubhouse, are not volunteering to get ON a rickety plane, THEY are the rickety plane, and they are putting all of those around them at risk of crashing whether they consented to or not. There's no parallel at all. I do thank you for reading and responding.
8/13
"that lowest of common denominators, Republican primary voters." Sounds like you don't want my subscription, I'm outta here
F Last
8/13
I mean, the author of the piece has always had Keith Olbermann style political energy. Perhaps you can critique the wider site, but I've never unsubscribed to a place simply because I've had incredibly strong disagreements with a particular columnist.
Jack O'Lantern
8/15
Well said. Enough of this nonsense. Players either get vaccinated or don’t play. Their choice. But stay the eff away from the clubhouse if you are a carrier. When did ordinary folks ignore the advice of their doctor in favor or something they read on social media? How can a life-or-death medical decision become a political decision? Gradually, over time, those who make foolish decisions will kill themselves off, but they will take so many innocent people with them who deserve better; deserve a chance to survive. Why are we so pathetically indulgent with those who endanger all of us? The school nurse never asked about personal choice when I got my shots. If I wanted to go to public school, I had to be vaccinated. How have we fallen to a permissive madness that allows viral vampires to walk among us?
Tony Mollica
8/15
Thanks for the article. It lays out the situation we are in very well.