Friday, September 20, 2013

Into the Sunset, Pt. 21: J.R. Richard

Baseball has been the base for some truly heartwarming stories.

The "Miracle Mets" of '69. The nationwide success of "little guys" like David Eckstein. Things of that nature.

Unfortunately, though, the game has seen its fair share of tragic tales over the years as well.

The saga of J.R. Richard is one of the first that comes to mind.

Had things gone as planned, I think there's a good chance he'd be in Cooperstown right now. Richard won 96 games between 1976 and 1980, the final years of his career.

He struck out 303 batters in 1978, then went ahead and topped that mark with an astounding 313 whiffs the very next year.

Sadly, after rocketing out to a 10-4 start in 1980 (with a 1.90 ERA), Richard suffered a stroke before a game on July 30th of that year. Although he tried making a few comeback attempts afterwards, the flamethrower would never play in another big league contest.

Naming my absolute favorite J.R. Richard card isn't much of a hassle. The '77 Topps issue you see above isn't just one of my favorite cards of his, but one of my favorites of all-time.

I wasn't around at the time, but I'd guess most longtime collectors would tell you that this was one of the cards to have in the 1970's.

It captures a pitcher who was just hitting his stride, ready to break into the pinnacle of his career. Not to mention that it also features those hilariously awesome Technicolor Astros jerseys of the '70s.

Unfortunately, Richard's "sunset" issues only came a few years later.

This is still the only card I've seen that actually mentions the stroke Richard suffered in 1980.

The back notes that he was anticipating a return to the game in '81. Sadly, we know now that the attempt never came to fruition.

Nevertheless, this is a nice action shot. And, again, there's those striking Astros uniforms.

It's almost like looking at the sun.

As I mentioned in a recent "impulse buy" write-up, this particular "sunset" post has been months in the making.

I was all set to start writing it...until a quick Google search alerted me to Richard's 1982 Fleer issue, a lovably off-center card which I'd never seen before. I didn't even know it existed.

So, after finally adding it to my collection, I'm excited to be sharing this "sunset" post with all of you. Like I said, it's been rattling around in my brain for a while.

After tossing a few simulated games in 1981, Richard was placed back on to the Astros' 40-man roster. However, manager Bill Virdon didn't think he was quite ready at the time, so Richard never pitched a single game that year.

His comeback attempt continued into '82, where he'd pitch the majority of the year in the minors. Richard was actually called up to the bigs in September of that year, but (again) didn't see any action.

Sadly, his professional career ended after a brief minor league stint in 1983.

From what I've read, Richard could've possibly pitched in the majors again, had he stuck with his comeback attempt.

Unfortunately, the possible consequences of returning from such a serious injury were far too big of a risk.

But, thanks to his valiant return efforts, Richard is one of the extreme few players to have been granted "sunset" cards a full two years after their final game.

Despite not pitching at all in '81, Fleer and Topps issued cards of his the next year. Both also appear to be from the same photo shoot, possibly while the hurler was tossing a side session of some sort.

Each company was expecting Richard to make a grand return in 1982.

A lot of my "sunset" cards are simply the final chapters in long, brilliant careers. Some of which may have even extended a few chapters too long.

In the case, though, J.R. Richard's final cards are the saddening tale of a career that ended far too soon. While it certainly wasn't due to a lack of effort, he never got to make that big comeback.

If only he could've gone into the sunset under his terms.

If only.


Mike said...

That'77 card is one of my all-time faces as well....he was great!

petethan said...

I'm not quite old enough to have seen Bob Gibson pitch. but I got to see J.R. go up against my Dodgers a few times, and I think that served as a fair imitation of Gibson'a intimidation on the mound. Given a choice (of how to die, probably) between steeping into a batter's box against Nolan Ryan or J.R. Richard, I'd take Ryan for sure. It's was a crying shame that J.R. didn't get the rest of his career to shine.

Fuji said...

Richard was a beast! There's only a handful of guys I can name who had multiple 300 strikeout seasons... and J.R. is one of them.