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J.R. Richard: When the Bottom Falls Out

By Andrew Knox
The 700 Club

CBN.comJames Rodney “J.R.” Richard made quite an impact on baseball in 1971. In his major league debut with the Houston Astros, he had 15 strikeouts, and the rookie took down the great Willie Mays three times. J.R. became the most feared pitcher in the game. Imagine… standing in the box against the six foot eight Richard, firing his 100-mile-an-hour fastball at you. He proved he had power and finesse with 300 strikeouts in back to back seasons!

In spite of that impressive record, J.R. doesn’t spend much time talking about his career.

“My baseball career was in the past,” he says. “I try to leave it in the past.”

It all got started growing up in Louisiana.

“When I was young, I was always throwing,” he recalls. “That was part of my entertainment in the country. You didn’t have anything to do so you’d just go out there and start throwing.”

One day young J.R. spotted something on the side of the road. Amazingly, it was a book on pitching! So J.R. began to teach himself how to throw like a real major leaguer. He went on to pitch an entire high school season without allowing a run and emerged with his secret weapon -- a ferocious slider.

J.R. Richard and Andrew KnoxHe also provided offense. It wasn’t uncommon to see him hit one out of the park. J.R. is the best player a baseball fan has never heard of. But why? Why is he unknown to so many and a distant memory to others? We turn to the 1980 all-star game for answers…

J.R. was having a great season and named starting pitcher for the national league. But all summer he’d been noticing something wrong with his arm.

“I had been complaining to the Houston Astros about having symptoms,” he says. “I couldn’t throw. My arm felt bad.”

Doctors and fans alike did not take J.R. seriously. How could he be hurt with 119 strikeouts and allowing less than two runs per game? Some called him lazy; others said he was a drug user or suffering from “emotional problems.” Richard denied it all, saying something was seriously wrong.

A few weeks after the all-star game, in what was supposed to be a light workout, the 30-year-old suddenly collapsed. A portion of his carotid artery was completely clogged resulting in a near fatal stroke. J.R. underwent emergency surgery -- not to save his career, but his life!

He later attempted a comeback but never pitched in the big leagues again.

With his career over, it all came crashing down -- first a divorce and then so-called friends all wanted a piece of him.

“A lot of bad investments, trusting a lot of people. They get your money, and then they’re gone.”

J.R. lost everything.

Just a few miles from the overpass at 59th and Beachnut in Houston, Texas, J.R. Richard would dominate hitters when he took the mound for the Astros. But when he hit rock bottom, he was homeless and living under that bridge. Thousands of fans who passed by here everyday likely had no clue that the man sleeping on the side of the road was their hero, J.R. Richard.

J.R. says, “I was forgotten. For a while [it hurt], but then you get over it. You’ve got to look at the goodness. It made me look more deeply at myself, to realize it isn’t about your friends, it isn’t about materialistic things in life. It isn’t about the car, the nice house or whatever. It’s about God and God alone!”

J.R. Richard at Mt. Pleasant ChurchAt Mt. Pleasant Church, it’s all about God. This is one joyful place. Yes, it’s in Texas, but for J.R. it’s a world away from his spot under that bridge. You see, J.R. is now the Associate Pastor at Mt. Pleasant. He no longer serves up fastballs but an honest message about Jesus Christ.

So how did the man under the bridge end up in the pulpit? After living on the streets for three months, a friend found J.R. and helped get him back on his feet. J.R. wanted to serve God.

“I’m not gonna say that I just woke up one morning, and I’m all ‘holier than thou,’ no,” he says. “God does things in time. I’m not perfect, but I’m working on perfection. The Devil is not going to come to you in your strength. He’s going to come to you in your weakness.”

He urges his congregation to be faithful to God and not blame Him for struggles they face.

“You may give Him a week, and when things don’t work out, you say, ‘Ah, forget about this God stuff.’ But you’ve got to give Him your life.”

You may not be homeless, but perhaps feeling hopeless nonetheless. J.R. can pass on a valuable lesson he learned when he was down and out.

“I know that everything you want in your life God has already put it in you,” he says. “So feeling sorry or you wanting a pat on the back is not going to get it. God said by your faith you are healed!”

Pastor Shanks says, “What you’re seeing now is J.R. in a different season. What we saw after his tragic end in baseball was one season in his life. God has brought him into a new season. When God can restore dignity and self-respect, this is priceless!”

What is priceless to J.R.? The faithfulness and love of God.

“If man would quit looking at himself and start looking to God, he’d become a lot better off,” says J.R. “If you want to talk about love, God gave His only begotten Son. John 3:16 said that. Now you can’t love anybody more than that!”

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