J.R. Richard, 1978January 30, 2007
Conclusion (continued from here)
I don’t remember this part, but my friend Bill estimates that I dropped twenty-five or thirty feet before hitting the steep embankment, then I bounced and tumbled another hundred feet or so. When I stopped somersaulting I was in a forward-swaying seated position, a thin ribbon of blood pulsing in what seemed to be slow motion from my head out onto the scree, an image which reminded me, even in the moment, of the way guys bled from mortal bullet wounds in Sam Peckinpah movies.
No clouds in the sky. Some dry desert brush here and there. Bill seemed to arrive at my side almost instantly, more scared than anyone I’ve ever seen.
“Holy shit, Josh! Holy fucking shit!“
A couple had pulled into the rest area just before I’d flown over the cliff, and the woman drove off to find a telephone so she could call an ambulance while the man made his way down to us to see if he could help. Based on the small number of other cars on the desert highway we’d been on, I’d guess that the rest area we’d stopped at generally went hours or even days without having a visitor. I asked small-talk questions of the man who’d come to my aid as he and Bill each took one of my arms and gently half-lifted, half-dragged me toward the highway. He was an air traffic controller. He and his wife were on their way to Colorado where he was starting a new job.
“Colorado’s beautiful,” I said.
Bill and the air traffic controller set me down on the ground by a shallow roadside ditch and as we waited for the ambulance I started to go into shock. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that I was going into shock. All I knew was that I was beginning to feel very cold on a warm sunny day, and my vision was going white and grainy, like a television tuned to a station losing its signal. I thought I might be dying.
After his failed comeback, J.R. Richard’s sizable baseball earnings gradually dwindled closer and closer to zero, eroded by two divorce settlements and some bad business decisions, including an oil-well scam that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Looking for a job, he approached the team whose cap he would have worn on a plaque in Cooperstown. “I went to [the Astros] to see if I could do some public relations for them,” Richard said in a 2004 Houston Press interview with Dave Hollander. “They said, ‘Okay, we’ll get back to you,’ and time passed and passed and passed. Nothing.”
The paramedics strapped me on a gurney and carried me into the ambulance, where they hooked me to IVs. According to Bill, who was, against their strong recommendations, tailing them the whole way, we went 100 miles an hour for forty miles or so, which was how far away the closest hospital was. At the hospital, I felt okay with Bill by my side as a kind nurse filled me with painkillers and removed rocks embedded in my knees, knuckles, and head, then sewed up the large rock-eructing gashes. But that quiet fear that I’d felt when I’d been going into shock returned when an orderly wheeled me away from Bill so I could have x-rays taken of my head.
I lay on the stretcher alone in a shadowy metallic room for a while. My thoughts started to wander. Maybe there was hidden internal bleeding. Maybe a massive secret blood clot had formed and was just waiting for the right moment to fatally clog some vital artery. It happened all the time. One minute you’re tossing the ball around in the outfield with Wilbur Howard and the next minute men in dark suits are walking toward you to escort you off the Astroturf forever.
Finally a couple x-ray technicians came in. I wanted them to talk to me, to talk me through it, but they were busy bitching about some work-related problem.
“He thinks his crap don’t stink,” one of them said.
“I pulled enough overtime the last month,” the other said, seeming to talk past him. “I got what’s known as a life.”
“And that big smile on his face all the time?” the first one said. “Lord.”
They never acknowledged me at all, even when they were inches away, repositioning the stretcher. It was a chilling little preview. The world is going to keep on going right along just fine when you die. As they x-rayed me, a shred of “Pancho and Lefty” was still echoing around in what I considered at that moment to be my possibly hemorrhaging brain, the haunting part near the end of the song where a ghostly chorus joins in to help tell the doom-limned tale.
All the federales say
They could have had him any day
Those federales, those men in dark suits approaching with orders to remove. Yes, they could have had me that day. Broken neck, shattered skull, subject of a phone call to the next of kin. As it turned out, every inch of my body hurt and I was stitched up like Frankenstein and I could barely move, but I hadn’t even broken a single bone, and the x-rays found nothing. I was free to limp out of the hospital, leaning on Bill. Everything seemed to glow. I called people close to me and told them I loved them. I tried to write postcards to say the same thing but it hurt too much to hold a pen.
The next day Bill and I bought flowers for the nurse who’d derocked me. I don’t remember the details of the flower transaction, but I have since discovered that there is a possibility, however slight, that we bought the flowers from Chris Barnes, the actor who played Tanner Boyle. According to a Bad News Bears fan site, as the years went by Barnes became extremely uncomfortable with the constricting renown caused by his generation-defining portrayal. Probably every two seconds someone had come up to him and yelled “Let them play!” in his face, causing him ultimately to take it on the melancholy lam like Bill Bixby in the television version of The Incredible Hulk. In a 1998 Los Angeles Times article quoted on the above-mentioned site, Ann O’Neill reported that Barnes had moved to Utah and gotten a job in a flower shop. Though the article didn’t specify the exact location of the flower shop, it’s easy enough to imagine him gravitating toward a place far from everything except quiet rocky desert and the occasional desert-chewed nurse-thanking dufus.
We headed back toward California, where my plane home to the liquor store and Saturday nights at the International was leaving from, and after several hours of driving we ran out of daylight on the outskirts of Las Vegas. We got a room near the strip at a Motel 6 and decided despite my condition that it would be ludicrous to pass through that city and not gamble a little. I loaded up on codeine and we made our way slowly to Circus Circus.
Inside the casino, I gently lowered my bandaged body down in front of a slot machine. Bill found a spot farther down the row. Trapeze artists and tightrope walkers occupied the spaces high above all the random flashing and chiming and low-lit humans solemnly trying to be lucky. Once in a while you see how singular life is, how virtually impossible, how blessed and inane. “And yet we were always being found innocent for ridiculous reasons,” writes Denis Johnson in Jesus’ Son. It was a spring night in 1995 in Vegas. I looked as if I’d fallen into a dumpster-sized blender. I started feeding the machine and pulling the lever. It was a spring night in 1995 in Houston. J.R. Richard was homeless, taking shelter under a bridge. Within moments bells were ringing and hundreds of coins were spilling onto my lap.