Archive for the ‘J.R. Richard’ Category

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J.R. Richard, 1978

January 30, 2007
 

Ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

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.

 
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J.R. Richard, 1979

January 26, 2007
 

Ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

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.”

From BaseballLibrary.com:

“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.

It wasn’t.

“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.)

 
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J.R. Richard, 1977

January 24, 2007
 

Ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Part 1

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.)

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