By HUNTER ATKINS Houston Chronicle
HOUSTON (AP) – The most terrifying pitcher ever to have called the Astrodome home slowly pushes himself up from a couch and lumbers, at 68 years old, into a small room overcrowded with 100 of Houston’s homeless and neediest people.
The Houston Chronicle reports they have come off the searing hot pavement to Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal Church and clinic on Fannin Street, for the free lunch, but first they must fill rows of foldout chairs and listen to uplifting testimonials from others like them.
Many in the audience do not know there is a guest speaker until the 6-foot-8 J.R. Richard wades through the aisle toward the pulpit.
“I don’t have no psychology degree,” he says during a private aside, “but sometimes it don’t take that.”
Thirty-eight summers ago, after the burly righthander had spent a decade with the Astros striking out 1,493 batters and dominating baseball with an effectively wild 100 mph fastball, Richard collapsed from an on-field stroke. It ended his career and derailed his life.
His millions of dollars earned dwindled by 1994. He was dispossessed and occasionally resigned to sleeping under the Highway 59 overpass on Beechnut Street.
He recovered thanks to friends sheltering him, a Major League Baseball pension of $100,000 that kicked in at age 45, a stretch doing ministry and a third marriage.
Usually, his hours reading Scripture at his home near Hobby Airport or days fishing Galveston Bay make for a content retirement, but with a presence that still commands attention in Houston, Richard is interested in establishing a new platform to share his wisdom.
On a recent Tuesday, Lord of the Streets provides him a fruitful opportunity. An ex-convict named Teddy introduces Richard.
“I was homeless,” Richard says into a microphone.
A native of rural central Louisiana, he projects a scratchy jazz singer’s voice.
The mic looks like a tiny ice cream cone in his giant right hand, which could hold eight baseballs at once in his heyday.
Richard’s eyes, which used to stare so threateningly at batters they guaranteed a strikeout before any pitch was thrown, are warm and inviting between crow’s feet and behind oval lenses. A long skid of failed investments, jobs and relationships had drained Richard of his baseball fortune. Reckless dietary habits and depression had exacerbated his destitution. He has seen the world the same way his audience has – full of backstabbers and stingy on second chances – only to discover the consequences of self-pity.
“At a certain point, I had to stop blaming other people,” he says. “If you want to sit there and lie in your feces, God will sit with his hands crossed.”
He connects with the room quickly. He secures eye contact with the back row. He incites laughter from wall to wall.
“A bunch of winos can sit on the street and drink wine together,” he says, “and ain’t nobody mad at nobody. You know what I’m saying?”
He elicits mumbled affirmations of “mhmm,” ”amen,” ”yessuh,” and “you right” that grow louder and clearer as his testimonial glides into the rhythm of a sermon. “I want you to love one another,” he says. “Love is contagious.”
People who often are reluctant to trust, to listen, to heed advice because they have failed while society has moved on without them now are nodding, parroting and yearning for more from Richard. Their peripatetic instincts pause. Lunchboxes idle in the kitchen. The shelter crowd-turned-congregation is feeding off the lessons from a refreshing voice.
“What I’m telling you right now is something that I had to learn,” Richard says.
The temperature in the room rises as the cram of people stands for a final prayer. Moments after Richard’s talk commences, a teenage volunteer, wearing sanitary gloves and an apron, faints from the heat and blocks the exit. Half the room does not notice the young man lying on the ground while his pupils dilate and face turns ashen. There is no exodus for lunch because a cluster is waiting for hugs and photos with Richard.
The volunteer recovers, and staff clear the way in time for Richard to lumber a bit more quickly, this time toward the door to a back parking lot. He says he has to rush to a meeting.
Less than 30 minutes has passed since Richard took over from Teddy, and the show is over.
“To know that he almost died from that stroke and see him here telling his story, that’s encouraging,” says Samuel Williams, a homeless Army veteran with a big smile, who was the loudest supporter in the back row.
Williams, 62, watched Richard in his prime on TV.
“When he threw that ball, the sound it would make when it hit that catcher’s glove,” Williams says, balling a fist and patting it into his other palm. “Like a gunshot.”
Williams says he served in Germany, that he is disabled and that he started sleeping on the streets after his wife died in 2015. He struggles with staying focused.
“That’s why I miss my wife,” he says. “She was on me.”
Richard’s message resonates with him.
“We’re good at complaining and blaming other people,” Williams says. “I know ain’t nobody got me in the situation but me. Ain’t nobody gonna get me out of this situation but me and God. I needed to hear that.”
Like Williams, people tend to react glowingly when they see Richard. His charm, humor, spirituality and lovable vibe turn strangers into fans and fans into kids at the ballpark.
It is more difficult to gauge how long Richard’s energy lingers when he is gone.
The Rev. Steve Capper, executive director for Lord of the Streets, expected Richard to be a hit. He had watched Richard inspire a luncheon at the Junior League of Houston, where a woman Richard had not met before approached him, clutched his forearms and, through tears and reddened cheeks, poured out her problems. Leaning in a doorway separating the line of hungry people from the small dining room, Capper makes a confession.
“We would like to work with him more,” he says with a shrug. Richard has a wobbly history with collaborations. It is outlined in news reports dating back decades and in “Still Throwing Heat,” Richard’s 2015 memoir that he wrote together with Lew Freedman.
There were the jobs he could not keep after baseball (selling mobile homes, dealing used cars, being on the board of a tire company), the ruinous businesses that Richard said took advantage of him (a mismanaged barbecue restaurant, $300,000 lost in a bogus California oil venture), the payments he owed but could not cover (a Braeswood home, a pickup truck, 1997 taxes) and the nonprofits he neglected (he missed three appointments in less than a week of work with an anti-drug campaign, and he discovered a kids foundation made in his name was a scam).
In 1987, Richard told the Los Angeles Times he was “getting my retirement together” in order to “live to be a nice comfortable old man.”
Richard divulges in his book that around that same time: “I bought a number of Arabian stallions, 10 or 12 of them, and they were kept in Arizona. When I went to check on them, I couldn’t find them.”
He fractured relationships with former members of his inner circle. He said a $669,000 divorce settlement with his second wife was the tipping point of his financial downfall. After benefiting from his longtime agent Tom Reich (also the lawyer who negotiated Richard’s out-of-court settlement for, according to Richard, $1.5 million in a malpractice lawsuit against the Astros over the pitcher’s stroke) and early 2000s representative Graden E. Taylor (who drove Richard around and handled his payments), the parties cut ties because the agents considered their client unreliable and Richard denounced them for turning their backs on him.
Since 1995, Doyle Jennings, who owned an asphalt company, has received credit publicly for giving Richard his first job after he was homeless. Richard recently upended that narrative when he said Jennings “shafted” him by not paying him a 10 percent cut for bringing in new clients.
Then there is his connection with the Astros. Richard’s malpractice lawsuit for how the Astros mishandled him after his stroke kept up a divide until the mid-1990s. Richard’s former teammates Bob Watson and Jimmy Wynn worked for the club and intervened in Richard’s homelessness, but they could not secure him cozy opportunities as an ambassador for the franchise after Richard did not show up for appointments.
Richard repaired his bond with the Astros through FanFest 2004 and since strengthened it as a regular at alumni and autograph appearances. Richard has the privilege of attending whichever games he wants and watching from the members-only premium seating Insperity Club. Both he and the Astros described their relationship as good.
But even a healthy arrangement does not deter Richard from being real. Candor is another part of his undeniable appeal.
“It’s never been a bad feeling on my part about the Astros,” Richard says, days after the Lord of the Streets event. “I forgave them a long time ago.”
With his wife, Lula, 65, sitting beside him in the lobby of a hotel near Hobby Airport, Richard goes over the complex dynamics of his past and lays out his hopes for the future.
“God said love everybody, which is not easy, because some people are tough,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “I forgive, but I haven’t forgotten.”
Despite preaching about the futility of blaming others, Richard still casts shade over team ownership from 1980, Reich and Taylor, Jennings, Watson and Wynn, and the current Astros.
Frequently he says, “But life goes on,” to conclude his criticism. He is a bit bitter, but he is not resentful. He wishes he had been more on top of his business dealings, but he would be grateful if more organizations involved him.
Richard says he asked a current Astros executive if there is a job that could use him for more than his autograph. He wants to work with players or leverage the team brand to do community outreach.
“And he said, ‘They’re not hiring right now.’ So I just let that go,” Richard says.
He has not given up making the case that the Astros should retire his No. 50. His key numbers are comparable or better than those of the five pitchers with their Astros uniforms retired. He won more games for Houston than Nolan Ryan and posted a lower ERA than Mike Scott. He has the cachet of a promising career cut short.
Under Jim Crane’s ownership, the Astros have not retired a number and, according to Anita Sehgal, the senior vice president of marketing and communications, are not currently considering any.
The club inducted Richard into the Walk of Fame on Texas Avenue as part of a 50th-anniversary celebration in 2012, but he wants his presence inside Minute Maid Park to reflect his stature outside of it.
He felt more recognized in the vacated Astrodome. For the fun of it, he joined around 25,000 fans there in April for the “Domecoming” party. Wearing a modern Astros hat and an Astrodome shirt, he savored what might be his last look around the place.
Richard does not cite statistics or the malpractice when he explains why retiring his No. 50 is important to him.
“If you love somebody, your actions should show that,” he says.
His large fingers anxiously fiddle with the top button of his white short-sleeved collared shirt.
“Even though we give people our number, they just happen not to call,” Richard says.
He includes Lord of the Streets in that category.
“It’s good,” Richard says, “but it’s just beginning.”
This is a theme in his pursuits. Both sides want to work together, but neither carries out a long-term plan. Richard usually gets hurt or drifts away, embittered just enough to keep from feeling numb to another squandered opportunity.
Richard says that aside from monitoring his weight and high blood pressure, he is in good health. Damage from the stroke permanently weakened his left side, sapped his stamina and occasionally slurred his speech, but the most lasting harm might have been to his handle on life.
He was the most powerful thrower on Earth. He had not planned to thrive any other way. He was unprepared for failure.
“I did not become homeless because I had a stroke,” Richard wrote in his book, “but everything that followed from it led me to being homeless.”
He rarely embraced the help he needed out of stubbornness, sadness and, in some cases, the sense that he was not wanted. He also felt betrayed.
“I know people that said, ‘Whenever you get through playing ball, call me. I’ll find something for you to do,’ ” Richard says. “You call them, and they went out to lunch. And they stay out to lunch. They’re still out to lunch. They ain’t never come back.
“Even though you treat everybody nice or you say you got a friend, that don’t mean you’re their best friend. People will screw you, man, and walk away proudly, like everything is OK. I guess it is, so long as they’re doing the screwing. But life goes on.”
The MLB pension saved Richard, but Lula has kept him moving. They met through church, went out on a date after Richard wrote his phone number in her Bible and have been married since 2010.
Lula retired last year after two careers, one spent at a bank and the other running a school bus service. Only after getting to know Richard did she remember seeing him start the 1980 All-Star Game for the National League on a small TV at the bank.
She acts as Richard’s assistant. She takes his calls. She maintains his schedule. She is what Richard needs to keep focused and what Williams lost to wind up homeless.
“She helped with a lot of stability, in every way,” Richard says. “Trust was a big deal for me because I had been hurt a whole bunch of times.”
There is more aspiration than certainty surrounding Richard. The only obligation on his schedule, according to Lula, is a speaking engagement in the fall. Even Lula discusses The Diamond League, a faith-based baseball program that lists her as the director and that Richard envisioned, but does not have a plan for development.
Just when Richard seems incomplete, in search of a purpose or a validation or a reminder of what it felt like to be the most feared and cheered man all at once, there is a sign that the world needs more of him.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” says a stranger, who cannot wait any longer to introduce himself. “I grew up watching you. I was in Astros Buddies.”
Richard invites Philip Topek, 56, a civil engineer waiting in the lobby for a business meeting that he is glad is running late, to sit down.
“Growing up,” Topek says, “it was like, ‘He had a stroke? What?’ ”
“I couldn’t believe it, either,” Richard quips.
Richard says very little else, and Topek starts opening up: He used to sneak into the Astrodome to watch Richard’s high heat leave razor burn underneath the chins of batters; he tried pitching like Richard as a walk-on reliever at the University of Texas; he threw away college baseball for marijuana and coeds; he never made his father proud of anything he ever did; he got a divorce, has a home in League City and is tired of housing his adult daughter.
Topek, in full transition from stranger to fan to kid, stands up. He imitates Richard’s intimidating stance on the mound, with his shoulders back, chest out and hands together in the mitt.
“It’s like you were saying, ‘Who’s next?'” Topek says.
“Let me ask you a question,” Richard interjects. “Are you a fisherman?”
Topek is red-faced and grinning at the comfortable old man.
“When you wanna go?” Topek says.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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