J.R. Richard, 1977January 24, 2007
J.R. Richard spent his twenties taking long loping strides toward Cooperstown. He was 6’8″, threw blazingly hard, wore the dazzling colors of the distant, exciting, up and coming Astros, had a cool, mysterious name, and always seemed to be featured by Topps in one of their rare action shots, the photos always making him seem even bigger and more electrifying than the impressive numbers on the back of his card suggested. Back then I sometimes passed entire afternoons wondering who could beat up whom in the Marvel superhero universe, and though I understood that baseball and comics, the two fantasy-infused realms where I spent the bulk of my childhood, did not in actuality overlap, J.R. Richard (last name virtually identical to Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four) was an exception, and I thought of him as if he could be placed somewhere in the penultimate tier of the Marvel rankings, able to trade skyscraper-rocking blows with the likes of Spiderman, Iron Man, or Luke Cage: Power Man. And even the three top Marvel strongmen–The Thing, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk–though perhaps too powerful for J.R. Richard to hold off in a fistfight without the help of some lesser masked functionary such as Hawkeye or The Falcon, could not, if the situation were ever to arise, touch one of the lightning-bolt fastballs that sprang from J.R. Richards’s giant superpowered hand.
My older brother was even more mesmerized with J.R. Richard than I was, and modeled his pitching motion on the one shown in this 1977 card: high bent-kneed leg kick, hands held tight to the chest, scowling eyes locked on the catcher’s target. He perfected the motion while hurling a tennis ball at the strike zone he’d duct-taped onto our wooden garage door. The sound the tennis ball made when hitting the door got louder as the years passed, my brother amid the seismic epicenter of his puberty seeming to get bigger by the day: 6’1″, 6’2″, 6’3″. By the time he had reached his full height of 6’4″ and no longer played organized baseball and was openly longing to leave home for good, the scowling bent-kneed windup and gunshot report of the garage door had become the primary elements in a ritual of imagined escape, each pitch a prayer for an impossible transformation from cornered rural teenager into the pure violent beauty of J.R. Richard throwing heat.
Years later, I meandered through my own twenties as a clerk at 8th Street Wine and Liquor in Manhattan. It was easy enough to imagine I’d be in my twenties forever. I worked the evening shift Monday through Friday and a nine-hour shift on Saturday, earning enough to chip in on the rent for the apartment I shared with my brother and to get drunk on Saturday nights at the International Bar a few blocks east of the store.
My brother and I and our friends generally loitered at the International until last call at 4 a.m., the favorite part of the night occurring near that time, after we’d all released the burden of hoping that someone would walk through the grimy door and change our lives. Some song on the jukebox would hit like novocaine and it no longer mattered that life was sliding past like scenery in a cheap cartoon. In fact it felt pretty fucking good. In an earlier comment on this site, my brother described the feeling:
“Numberless nights at the International Bar began their stretch run thusly: it’s 3:52am, I’ve got a headful of static from drinking cheap swill, and Peggy Lee starts teetering through ‘Is That All There Is?’ on the ol’ Wurlitzer. And through all those painful years, I was comforted each time; I’d feel a crooked, fallen smile take shape, ‘Yessir, that’s all what she wrote.’ Various harpies would leave me be and I’d relax into appreciation of what was. McKenna gesticulating wildly, maybe. Or ‘That Guy.’ Or just Rose behind the bar, humane and beautiful and flatly real. Who needs the transcendent greener grass, when opening to What Is is so rewarding? (Of course, I’d forget that five seconds later, or at least by the next morning, and shoulder the misery again.)”
A few years into our routine of balancing that thin 3:52 a.m. feeling against the shipwrecked drifting of our lives in general, my brother decided he was going to learn how to play the cello. We were all looking for some detritus to cling to, I guess, and he liked the melancholy sound of the instrument, so he rented one from a music store and signed up for lessons with a recent Julliard grad, a young, stern Asian woman who was openly incredulous about his intentions. He wanted to use the cello to wrest some beauty from his life, but unfortunately he rarely got around to taking the thing out of its case. Eventually another entry was added into the endlessly rich lexicon of euphemisms for masturbation (e.g., Question: “Where’s your brother?” Answer: “He’s ‘practicing the cello.’”). Nonetheless, he lugged his burden to and from work whenever he had a lesson, shoehorning himself and the obese case into the jammed F train at rush hour all the way from our neighborhood in Brooklyn to his job editing travel books on the Upper West Side. This went on for a couple months. One Sunday very near the time when he finally admitted defeat, he roused himself from an “Is That All There Is?” hangover to practice his assigned homework, another lesson and its accompanying scolding from the Asian woman looming. The apartment looked, as usual, as if it had been ransacked. It may have been around the time when we had a rotting jack-o-lantern with carved-out drunken X’s for eyes collapsing into itself next to a bottle of Jim Beam on our “dining room” table. Bleary-eyed, unshaven, wearing only his boxer shorts and a wife-beater dotted with Ragu stains, my brother performed his first and last opus, a halting, truncated, off-key rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb.
(To be Hulkinued.)