I was going to label this article “The Best Player You’ve Never Heard of” but changed it to the new title which fit the story more. I do wonder though how many fans remember J.R. Richard. I am a child of the `80s. I was a huge sports fan and an avid card collector. I have 2 older brothers, and they would buy some cards too, but not with my interest or passion. When they grew out of the card collecting phase, I inherited their collections too. Those days introduced me to J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros. I knew he existed, I had some of his cards, but it was only when I looked into his story recently that I really learned about the incredible journey of highest highs and lowest lows that he experienced..
During his career, he was one of the best and it seemed like there was no ceiling to what he could do. From this Bleacher Report article, we read about the senior season he had at Lincoln High School. It reads “As a pitcher, imagine not losing a single high school game for your career, and not giving up a single run in your senior year.” The result of such a stellar year was the #2 draft pick in the 1969 amateur draft. He signed with the Astros and began in their minor league system. His results strong enough that he moved quickly through the minors and was called up to Houston in September 1971 at the age of 21. How did the debut go? He tied a record for most strikeouts in a debut with 15 – and the lineup included future Hall of Famers Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays (who he struck out 3 times) and Willie McCovey. Not a bad way to start a career. He would struggle with controlling his electric stuff a little and would not make it to the majors to stay until 1975. Once he did make it though, the numbers don’t lie. 4 straight seasons with at least 18 wins, 2 seasons with more than 300 strikeouts, Cy Young and MVP consideration. This ESPN article shows his dominance in his short career, putting up the best numbers of any pitcher in Astros history (a history that includes Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan).
In 1980, he made his All-Star debut, being named the starting pitcher for the National League team. Here is that All-Star Game appearance.
He would leave after 2 innings possibly with some back or shoulder pain, I couldn’t find out for sure. He would make another start, but leave the game due to blurriness and “dead” arm. The Astros put him on the Disabled List, some fans thinking he was lazy or unhappy. On July 30, just 3 weeks after his All-Star game appearance, during a light workout, Richard collapsed. He would wind up in the hospital, undergoing surgery that saved his life. Read more about it in this Astrosdaily article. It was later discovered that Richard had suffered a series of strokes. He would not play in another Major League game.
And this was just the start of the tragic phase of Richard’s life. A couple marriages that ended in divorce and some bad business decisions left Richard broke. He wound up living under an overpass a few miles away from the Astrodome where Richard dominated for half a decade. Astro fans would drive by not realizing that one of the best they’d seen was now homeless.
But homeless does not mean hopeless. As you can read from this CBN article, Richard sees this time as a season when God really helped him see Him more clearly. He says “I was forgotten. For a while [it hurt], but then you get over it. You’ve got to look at the goodness. It made me look more deeply at myself, to realize it isn’t about your friends, it isn’t about materialistic things in life. It isn’t about the car, the nice house or whatever. It’s about God and God alone!” He connected with a Houston pastor and was able to get back on his feet. Since then, he has become a minister and written a book about his life. I plan to read the book soon and learn more about this incredible story.
Here are my takeaways from Richard’s story
1- It’s Not Always our Doing – I’ve shared stories on this blog where the hard things that life has brought on the subject of the post are largely brought on by their bad choices. It is the stories of hardship and devastation that come from circumstances beyond our control that are the hardest to wrap our minds around. Now that is not to say that all of the bad things that happened to J.R. Richard were out of nowhere. Like all of us, I’m sure that some of the hardship that found him was logical consequence for decisions he made. That is part of all of our stories. But some of it also were just the circumstances that came his way – the hand he was dealt. Don’t you find it comforting though that God is the dealer who deals us the “hands we are dealt”. He is in control of all, and even in the midst of the worst days, He remains in control. More than being in control, though, he has a plan to turn our hardship into something good. He has lessons for us in faith, asking us to trust Him in the midst of it all and see Him bring something amazing out of the pain and hardship.
2- Homeless not hopeless – When we reach our lowest points, and we see that God is still in the muck with us, we can feel hope starting to build in us. In this world we will have trouble but He has overcome the world (John 16.33). The Bible also reminds us that we are not “home” in this world, just like Jesus wasn’t home here. (John 17.16) And whatever comes our way, this world is NOT our home, it is NOT what we live for, it is NOT where our hope lies. Our hope lies in Jesus preparing a place for those who love and follow Him. J.R. Richard found the hope of Christ in homelessness. He is now a minister looking to share that hope with others who don’t yet see it. Let’s remember what Christ has carried us through. Let’s remember that there are lost and hurting all around us and let’s use the life God has given us to draw others to Him. It truly is about God and God alone!