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Original Issue

Sweet whiff of success

J. R. Richard, tallest man in the game, may become the first righty in the National League to strike out 300 in a season

At 6'8½", James Rodney Richard, a 28-year-old pitcher for the Houston Astros, has been the tallest man in major league baseball ever since he came up from Denver in 1974, but this year he has ¬¨¬®¬¨‚àÇproved that he is still growing, at least artistically. As of last Saturday, when Richard beat the Pirates 7-2 on a nifty six-hitter, his record was 14-11 and he led the major leagues in strikeouts with 244. That total—39 more than California's Nolan Ryan, in second place, had achieved—gave Richard an average of 8.41 strikeouts per start and 9.72 for every nine innings he has worked. Holding those averages through seven more starts, which Richard is likely to get before the season ends, would enable him to finish with more than 300 strikeouts and make him the first righthander in the modern history of the National League to exceed that mark in a single season.

It is hardly surprising that batters find Richard so difficult to hit. For one thing, his speed is overpowering. Radar has clocked his fastball at 98 miles per hour and his slider at 94. Richard's height is another factor. With a high overhand delivery off the 10-inch mound, he can release the ball from a point more than nine feet above home plate. Add to this his enormously long stride and batters get the impression they are facing someone who is throwing at them too fast from too close and too great a height.

"When he pushes off that mound and lets the ball go," says the Pirates' Dave Parker, victim of two of Richard's eight strikeouts Saturday, "he looks like he's 10 feet away from you instead of 60. It causes you to lean a little bit and makes you think you have to swing the bat quicker. That makes his off-speed stuff work better, too. I think once he improves his control, he's going to be one of the best pitchers in the game."

According to the figures, Richard is already one of the best pitchers in the game. He won 20 games in 1976 for the lowly Astros, 18 last year and each year struck out 214. Too often, however, Richard would suffer one disastrous inning—a barrage of base hits or a parade of walks, or both. Sometimes his gigantic pitching motion would go out of sync and he would overstride, rushing his delivery or trying to throw harder than his maximum. These flaws have been somewhat cured in sessions with Pitching Coach Mel Wright. Along with greater concentration, form improvement has enabled Richard to finish a higher proportion of his starts and increase his strikeout total by 85 over the figure for the same number of starts last season.

Not that Richard has totally eliminated the one-inning blues. In a recent Monday night TV contest against the Cubs he suffered his familiar lapse at the least opportune moment. He had scattered four singles without a walk through the first seven innings, but in the eighth, with an 8-0 lead and two out, he walked three straight batters, gave up a two-run single and walked Bobby Murcer to reload the bases. Richard was relieved by Joe Sambito and Houston won 8-3.

"It hasn't been a strength or stamina problem," Richard explains, "because that same sort of thing has happened to me at the start of the game, or in the second inning, when I'm not tired at all. It's more mental. I should be thinking. 'Just get the ball over the plate,' rather than trying to throw it 300 miles an hour. When your rhythm is right, it will take care of velocity. You've just got to think—and stay with it at all times."

Toward that end, Richard on the mound is a deadpan quasi-robot. Off the mound he is an animated, friendly man who delights in talking about his wife and five children or detailing his fishing exploits. But not to his teammates in the dugout during a game.

"A lot of guys lose their concentration between innings," he says. "I found that's been part of my problem, so I'd rather just sit there and not say much. I don't care about jivin'. I want to keep my mind on what I'm doing. As far as my attitude toward the batter, I figure the guy is out there to do his job, too. If he does—gets a base hit or something—it takes that much away from me, from my family, bread off my table, and money out of my pocket."

The concentration seems to have paid off. Along with more strikeouts, Richard has a 2.99 ERA and should set a personal high this season for complete games and fewest hits allowed per nine innings. He could also have another 20-victory season, even though the Astros' injury-torn lineup has at times during the year lost the big bats of Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson, among others.

"I can't win games all by myself," Richard says. "I can't just go out and do my job and have that be all there is to it. There are nine of us, and everyone's got to do it. This year I did think we were going to win our division. At the start of the season I thought there was great potential on the ball club, that I had the possibility of winning 30 games. But then a lot of guys got hurt and luck didn't fall our way."

Richard signed with the Astro organization shortly after he graduated in 1969 from tiny Lincoln High School of Ruston, La., where he had a 0.00 ERA his senior year and hit four consecutive homers for 10 RBIs in a—brace yourself—48-0 triumph. A three-sport star in the town that gave Bert Jones to the NFL, Richard sorted through no fewer than 200 basketball scholarship offers before he decided that baseball would be the wisest course to take.

"There were other guys in my high school with as much ability as I had," Richard says, "but instead of working at a job, they wanted to drink wine on Saturday nights. They thought that was the in thing to do, and consequently our lives went in different directions. For some people, it takes that to make a world. It doesn't for me."

"Richard's gotten tougher over the years because he's kept working at what he does," says Pirate Manager Chuck Tanner. "A lot of players get to this level and think it's over."

"I know I'm getting better," Richard says. "I'm always learning more about the game, so it's just a matter of time before I get the most out of me."

The most out of 6'8½", 237-pound James Rodney Richard should be something to see.