It's been more than 30 years since J.R. Richard pitched a game in the Major Leagues, but even today he still commands a presence. At 6-foot-8 and with a handshake that could bring you to your knees, Richard is still intimidating.
When he talks about his great career, one which was cut short by a stroke in the summer of 1980, Richard makes sure to remind you he was one of the best starting pitchers in the game.
"I can recall what it was like when I was the most dominating pitcher, not one of," he said. "I was the man. That's a feeling within itself when you're a cut above."
Richard was a cut above for most of his 10-year career, going 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA for the Astros. He led the league in ERA in 1979 and in strikeouts in 1978-79, thanks to a powerful fastball that was just effective when it wasn't over the plate. He led the league in walks three times, making him even more intimidating to hitters who didn't want to get plunked.
"If I had to pick one pitcher to win a big game, J.R. Richard would be up there with Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, and I would probably pick J.R. because I know him so well," said Tal Smith, the former Astros general manager and president of baseball operations. "He was the most dominating, intimidating pitcher of his era."
Game to RememberGame to Remember: J.R. Richard
J.R. Richard Facts and Figures
- Full name: James Rodney Richard.
- Game to Remember: Oct. 2, 1976 (Astros 10, Giants 1).
- Nickname: J.R.
- Jersey number: 50.
- Primary Position: SP.
- Bats/Throws: Right/Right.
- Born: March 7, 1950.
- Birthplace: Vienna, La.
- Major League debut: Sept. 5, 1971.
- Years in Major Leagues: 10.
- Years with Houston: 10 (1971-80).
- Other teams: None.
- Key stats with Houston: 107-71 record, 3.15 ERA, 1,493 strikeouts in 1,606 innings.
- Claim to fame: Despite having his career cut short by injuries, Richard was one of the most dominating pitchers in Astros history and was the club's second 20-game winner in 1976.
- Did you know? Richard is the only Astros pitcher to have at least 300 strikeouts in consecutive seasons. He struck out 303 batters in 1978 and 313 batters in '79. The only other Astros pitcher to strike out at least 300 batters in a season is Mike Scott (306 in '86).
- What's he doing now? Richard lives in Houston and provides baseball lessons, as well as serving as a part-time minister.
While his stroke undoubtedly robbed Richard of several additional great moments, there was no bigger day in his career than Oct. 2, 1976.
It was the final day of the regular season, and the Astros were heading toward what would be a pedestrian 80-82 season. The final game of the season against the Giants didn't mean much for either team, but for Richard it meant everything.
He entered the game with 19 wins and 15 losses, giving him a chance to become only the second Astros pitcher in history to win 20 games in a season. The only man to achieve it previously was Larry Dierker in 1969.
"That was a big deal for me at the time," Richard said of the possibility of winning No. 20.
Richard dominated the Giants, throwing a complete game four-hitter and allowing one run and one walk while striking out 13 batters. He finished the season with a 20-15 record and a 2.75 ERA, establishing himself as a one of the National League's top starting pitchers. He finished seventh in the Cy Young Award voting that year.
He also went 3-for-4 at the plate in the game and hit a home run in the Astrodome, which wasn't easy to do in those days.
"My attitude kind of kicked in and my intention was not to let anyone else win," he said.
As far as Richard is concerned, he was just doing his thing on that day. Don't ask him if he was in the zone.
"There was no zone, not for me," he said. "You're just doing everything correctly. If you do everything correctly one night, why can't you do it two nights? If you don't ever practice, you won't get to where you want to be. Mental-wise, you have to think you're the best in the world because the mind can only operate the way it thinks."
Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed while playing a game of catch before an Astros game in late July, 1980 and never played in the Majors again despite a series of comebacks. He remains among the Astros' all-time leaders in wins and strikeouts. And he remains as intimidating as ever.