At this point in his life, he seems completely at ease with all of that, comfortable with how it has all worked out. So this was a sweet moment of celebration and affection.
“Regardless of what happens in your life, the point is not being knocked down,” he said. “The point is getting back up.”
J.R. Richard, who has seen just about the highest peaks and lowest valleys life can deliver, was back in his home state of Louisiana on Friday as one of eight recipients of the Sam Lacy Pioneer Awards at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in New Orleans.
Maybe this was a way of bringing his life full circle. He was once the most feared pitcher in the game. And then he was a cautionary tale of struggle, and eventually, redemption.
This is the J.R. Richard of today. He moves a bit slower than he once did, but he smiles broadly and laughs loudly. When a stroke ended his baseball career at 30, his life spun downward, fueled by bad business deals, two divorces and a home foreclosure.
He lived on the street for a time in 1994, an almost incomprehensible fall for a man who had once seemed to have the world in the palm of his hands. From those depths, he has risen, thanks to the help of countless people and a gradual understanding that his life could still have meaning.
“I learned when life throws you a lemon, you learn to make lemonade and you let nothing hold you down,” he said. “Everything is up to you. Life is great. I’m not complaining about life.”
That he does through speaking engagements and involvement with several Houston area ministries. He counsels at-risk kids, the homeless and others in need.
He has no regrets about any of it, from the shortened baseball career to the time on the street.
“Tomorrow is not promised to you,” he said. “Some days are good. Some days are bad. You keep on going. You don’t feel bad for yourself.”
“That’s where I really met God and turned my life around,” he said in a 2015 interview. “God wouldn’t do things to hurt you, but he will do things to get your attention.”
His baseball career is the stuff of a legend. He made his MLB debut at 21 years old in 1971, struck out 15 Giants, including Willie Mays twice. He did it with a blazing fastball, a bat-shattering slider and a boundless confidence.
In five full seasons, he led the National League in strikeouts twice, and walks three times. His best season was his last full one, in 1979, when he struck out 313 batters in 292 1/3 innings and had a 2.71 ERA. As former teammate Art Howe said, “He was on another planet.”
He was as intimidating as almost any man who has ever thrown a pitch in the major leagues. Sure, sometimes his control wasn’t the best, and that also was part of what made him so great.
“In my baseball career, I knew who I was,” he said. “I didn’t want to be just another statistic. I wanted to be the best.”
Because of his control, he bounced back and forth between the minors and majors between 1971 and 1974. Almost everyone who faced him in those years as a story to tell.
One of those was Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who was sent up to take batting practice against a young, wild Richard when veteran third baseman Enos Cabell declined. Smart move. Richard drilled Bochy with his first pitch, breaking a toe.
Richard won 20 games in 1976 and 18 games the next three seasons. In three starts before the 1980 All-Star Game, Richard threw three straight complete-game shutouts. But on July 30, 1980, Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed while playing catch in the outfield before a game.
Doctors told him he’d had three prior strokes before the big one. He underwent emergency surgery to restore blood flow to his brain, but his baseball career was over. He underwent two years of rehab in the hope of pitching again, but he never got there.
When he speaks to groups, he tells them that he spent a long time figuring out what to do with the next chapter of his life. That’s what Friday night in New Orleans represented. That he did figure it out. That he found another way to contribute. That he found meaning.
“I want to give back to the kids,” he said. “I’ve had my time.”
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.