Interview with Houston Astros Legend J.R. Richard
I should preface this interview by saying that I am a HUGE J.R. Richard fan and have been ever since my parents used to tell me stories about the man as a young boy. My Dad and I would be watching a baseball game on TV and I’d ask him something like “Who was the best pitcher you ever saw?” That’s when he would tell me (and my Mom overhearing the conversation would also chime in) about some guy I’d never heard of named J.R. Richard. Richard, for those who aren’t aware, had amazing talent and was just coming in to his prime when he was cut down by a stroke during pre-game warm-ups on July 30, 1980 (an event, it turns out, which occured only a few short hours before I was born). I’d hear about how that 1980 Astros team—the first ever Astros team to reach the playoffs—lost to the Phillies three games to two in a best of five. What if J.R., who was having his best ever year in 1980, had been around? It’s one of those questions that many Astros fans continue to ask themselves to this day.
Above: J.R. Richard, with a Travis County sherrif’s hat on, holding court at the Astros CAREavan tour stop in Austin, Texas on January 25th.
This past week, J.R. Richard joined a handful of other Astros players on the team’s annual winter CAREavan tour and the organization was kind enough to grant me an interview during their stop in my hometown of Austin.
Q: Mr. Richard, thank you very much for taking the time to answer some of my questions. First off, what keeps you busy when you’re not doing promotional work for the team?
Richard: Well, I do a lot of fishing, but my main thing is talking to people because I’m a people person. The basic point of that is I like to give back to people what’s been given to me over the years. The fans seem to appreciate it, so I try to show my appreciation by coming out here and giving them something back. It’s a chance to mingle with them one-on-one. So, I think it’s great to come back and do this for the people. I enjoy it.
Q: From what I understand, you also work with baseball camps and are active in your church.
Richard: Yes, I’m the associate minister at the church, which is at 8404 Delano (in Houston). The whole thing to me, to boil it down in a nutshell, is about giving. It’s about giving something back and showing your appreciation for what’s happening to you. Also, how you’re able to give it back to someone.
Q: I’m curious…do you watch baseball games on TV?
Richard: I watch baseball games on TV periodically, yes. I take a pen and paper and I analyze the pitcher and what he can do different to make himself more consistent.
Q: Do you have a favorite player—either on the Astros or in the MLB—that you enjoy watching pitch?
Richard: At this time I don’t. I think that he plays for Boston, but he’s from (Houston)…
Q: Josh Beckett?
Richard: Yes, Beckett. He’s pretty good right there. Beckett is one of the premier pitchers at this time.
Above: J.R. Richard from a 1978 press photo.
Q: Let’s talk about the 1979 season. You had a great year throwing nearly 300 innings, with over 300 strikeouts, a 2.71 ERA, and less than 100 walks; yet, you came in third in NL Cy Young voting. My question for you is do you feel like you were a victim of the time that you played? By that, I mean statistics have become much more emphasized that maybe you would’ve been more appreciated had you played now.
Note: Bruce Sutter won the 1979 NL Cy Young. He saved 37 games, tying the all-time NL record for saves. J.R. Richard’s teammate, Joe Niekro, won 21 games (tied for first in the NL) and came in 2nd in voting. J.R. Richard won 18 games and came in third.
Richard: I’m going to tell you why. He also pitched with Bruce Sutter…Lee Smith. His record was better than Bruce Sutter’s record, but Bruce Sutter got elected to the Hall of Fame. Now you explain that to me, because I don’t understand it.
Note: Bruce Sutter had 300 saves, a 2.83 ERA, 861 strikeouts, 309 walks, and a WHIP (walks and hits over innings pitched) of 1.140 over 12 seasons. Lee Smith had 478 saves, a 3.03 ERA, 1251 strikeouts, 486 walks, and a 1.256 WHIP over 18 seasons.
Above: Bruce Sutter’s 1979 Topps card.
Q: I don’t understand it either. Some of your numbers match up well against Sutter’s, but you also threw almost 200 more innings more than he did. Of course, you had only 18 wins that year. Joe Niekro, with numbers inferior to yours but who had 21 wins, was one spot ahead of you in voting.
Note: Sutter had an ERA and WHIP of 2.22 and .977. Richard’s was 2.71 and 1.088. When you consider that Richard threw nearly a seasons worth more innings than Sutter, those numbers become much impressive for Richard’s Cy Young case. Additionally, in many other pitching categories from 1979—both traditional and modern—Richard is at or near the top of the league leaders list. Joe Niekro, who led the league in wins, is many times not even in the top ten.
Richard: If it walks like a duck, and it quacks and has feathers, is it a duck or not?
Q: One thing people might not know about you is that you were a decent power hitter. I mean, you hit 10 home runs in your career! And, some might be surprised by this, but two of those were hit off future Hall of Famers. Do you remember who those pitchers were?
Richard: No, it didn’t make any difference. If you were out there, it was me against you and you against me.
Q: Well, one of them was Tom Seaver and the other was Phil Niekro.
Richard: I remember Tom Seaver. I remember Phil Niekro’s, too. And I bet you they can remember me right now. (laughing) I think they’re still looking for Tom Seaver’s ball. (laughing)
Q: Something else I find interesting is that you hit three of your home runs in Atlanta at the old Fulton County Stadium. Why’d you hit so many home runs there? You hit more home runs there than any other stadium!
Richard: I don’t know…maybe because of the pitchers. I don’t know. I can’t tell you why or why not. That’s just the way it happened.
Q: I think it’s incredible that, in Houston in the late 1970s, you could go to the Astrodome and see J.R. Richard pitch and, the next the day, you could see Earl Campbell play. Did you ever have any relationship with Earl or any of the Oilers players?
Above: Earl Campbell on the cover of a 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Richard: Yes. Matter of fact, Earl and I became very good friends. I’m a very good friend of Earl because we stayed in the same neighborhood. I’d see him walking, or he’d see me walking, and we’d walk around together. The camaraderie was good. I wished him the best and he wished me the best. We never did try and compete against each other on who was the best. I done mine and he done his.
Q: Finally, do you have any thoughts on this 2013 Astros team? Do they remind you of any of the teams you played on?
Richard: My answer to that is I think the 2013 team will surprise a whole bunch of people. And the reason I think that is because I talked to the manager (Bo Porter), and the other people there, and they’re in the process of changing the whole scheme in Houston. I mean, it should mean something to be an Astro…A better ballplayer, a better way of thinking, a better attitude. So that’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to get a different attitude because the people want to win. But if you don’t breed winning, they’re never going to win. You’ve got to learn to breed a positive, winning attitude in them and they’ll change. See, things don’t change until you change. If you stay the same, everything around you remains the same. Once you change, things change. It’s real simple.
Q: Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Richard.
Richard: Thank you.
Once again, I’d very much like to thank the Houston Astros and J.R. Richard for making this interview possible. Also, I have edited some of the questions and responses slightly for clarity and brevity.