J.R. Richard, 1979January 26, 2007
Part 2 (continued from here)
Back in those years that included my brother’s attempt to learn to play the cello, I often fantasized about lucking into the creation of the perfect opening sentence of a novel. I imagined this sentence would have the power to cause an entire book-length fictional world to gush from my pen like water from the widening hole in a sabotaged dam. By the time the 1990s were half over I had filled up a cello-high stack of notebooks with jagged scribbling, more than a thousand pages blackened and blued with self-lacerating complaints that the magical dam-breaking First Sentence had yet to come and deliver me from my life. On particularly frustrating days I ended up Hulking it up a little, flying into private nearsighted ectomorphic rages that metamorphosed me from a timid high-strung liquor store clerk into a rampaging cat-scaring beast with the gamma-ray-infused strength to rip the Meade “Wireless” college-ruled notebooks I favored into tiny terrified shreds. Then I’d clean up the shreds and go find the cats in their hiding places to apologize profusely for the monster within.
In 1980, at the age of 30 and in the midst of his best season yet, J.R. Richard began noticing stiffness in his back, shoulder, and arm. He mentioned it to team trainers and in June as the problem worsened he began begging out of games early. Nobody could find anything wrong, but judging by the occasional grumblings in Houston that Richard (who hadn’t missed a single start in years) was either purposefully dogging it or suffering from some mental phantasm, nobody was really looking very hard.
Besides waiting around in vain for literary genius to strike, I also daydreamed, as did my brother and at least one of my friends, of escaping with violent abruptness from New York City. My brother envisioned only the first step of his escape: driving without the slightest warning to anyone through the Holland Tunnel, away from every last problem, never to return. A friend’s more detailed vision of escape involved reversing the path taken by Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy: Instead of leaving a small, scorpion-infested Texas border town to come to New York City, my friend, a lifelong New Yorker, dreamed of leaving New York City for a small, scorpion-infested Texas border town, where he’d get a job washing dishes in a diner, shack up with a divorced, embittered, chain-smoking waitress, and read a lot. My own vision of escape involved taking a map of the U.S., plunking my finger down on it randomly, and then taking a Greyhound to the random spot to get a job somewhere “sweeping up,” as the wistfully forlorn Bill Bixby managed to do at the beginning of every episode of the television version of The Incredible Hulk.
J.R. Richard’s second to last start in the major leagues was in the 1980 all-star game. He deserved to start the game: he had by then become the best pitcher in baseball. He pitched two scoreless innings, striking out Carlton Fisk, Reggie Jackson, and Steve Stone. His last start was six days later. July 14, 1980. He sailed through the first three innings, giving up no runs and just one hit while striking out four, and in the bottom of the third, in his final major league at-bat, he drilled a double off future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. But with one out in the top of the fourth inning he walked off the mound and into the clubhouse, complaining of dizziness.
He was replaced by Gordy Pladson.
In actuality, I rarely left the city. There was no such thing as vacation time at the liquor store where I worked, but I occasionally took a few unpaid days off every once in a while, usually to go lie around on a parental couch eating cheese and crackers. In earlier years I’d hoped for a life of adventure such as the one featured in the pages of On the Road, but things weren’t really working out quite like that. A few years into my long stint selling liquor, and not long after my brother turned in his rented cello, I told the owner of the store that I needed a week to go out west. I met up with my fellow Kerouac-loving former roommate from boarding school, Bill, in Santa Barbara, and the two of us drove to Utah with two mountain bikes on the roof of Bill’s car.
We spent a couple days camping and hiking in Zion National Park and then set out across the state, heading for the mountain-biking mecca of Moab. I had never actually mountain-biked before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. After driving for hours across a desert, and with several more car-bound hours still ahead of us, we seized the chance to stop at a rest area that turned out to be nothing more than a tin outhouse perched at the edge of a long rocky ridge. There was not so much as a telephone there. After I took a leak I came out of the outhouse and saw that Bill was unhitching his bike from the rack.
“Let’s take a break from all the driving,” Bill said.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. I didn’t yet know how to drive a car at that time and so Bill had been doing the whole job himself while I performed such vital tasks as unscrewing the cap on the bottle of water for him and manning the volume on the tape player. For the past couple hours we’d fallen into a silence that in retrospect seems a little haunted to me, the unending barren wilderness outside the windows taking away our words. I still had a song stuck in my head from the tape that had been playing when we’d pulled in, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard singing Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”
“By the end of [July 1980] Richard was back at the Astrodome, playing catch with former Astro Wilbur Howard under the observation of trainer Doc Ewell. After a 10-minute rest in the dugout, Richard returned to the field to try some more throwing–and collapsed.
“Emergency surgery at Houston’s Methodist Hospital uncovered the root of Richard’s struggles. The branch of his carotid artery that supplied blood to the right shoulder was completely clotted, resulting in a near-fatal stroke. When asked by a reporter if Richard would lose the use of his arm, one doctor replied: ‘Hell, they weren’t worried about his arm; they were worried about his life.’”
Bill set out first on his bike and I followed behind as soon as I got his sister’s bike off the roof. Neither of us bothered to put on our helmets. The ridge was about fifteen feet wide, maybe narrower in parts. It appeared to be relatively flat.
“The stroke had nearly paralyzed the entire left side of Richard’s body. A second operation returned much of his strength and speech, but the fearsome right-hander never pitched in the big leagues again. A brief comeback ended in March 1984 after Richard had gone 0-2 with a 13.68 ERA in six starts for Triple-A Tucson. The Astros gave him his release.”
By the time I began hurtling down the bumpy, deceptively steep incline, Bill had wrenched his own bike to a skidding halt and was running toward me and shouting at me to try to do the same. I didn’t see him, and anyway it was too late. The handlebars had turned into those of a jackhammer. I was going too fast to think. Ten seconds into my mountain-biking career I flew off a cliff.
(To be Hulkinued.)