When Achilles was born, his mother, a nymph named Thetis, tried to make him immortal. She held her son by his heel and dunked in the River Styx. He grew to be a mighty warrior with an uncontrollable rage and lust for battle that made him the greatest of all the Greeks who laid siege to Troy in the ancient world.
Achilles battled and overcame the mightiest heroes Troy had to offer. He murdered Troilus, the youngest Trojan prince and war leader, after capturing him. According to The Illead, Achilles killed so many men that the river god Scamander tried to drown him for choking the waters with bodies and blood of his fallen enemies. After his companion was killed and armor stolen by Hector, Achilles’ rage reached its peak. He tracked down and killed Hector, Troy’s greatest prince and warrior, in single combat. Then, to complete his revenge, he proceeded to dishonor Hector’s body by refusing to allow the Trojan funeral rights to be performed.
He proceded to kill Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, whom he believed to be beautiful. Then killed Thersites, a fellow Greek who mocked Achilles’ grief, with a single punch to the face. He also defeated and slew Memnon, the king of Ethiopia.
Seemingly, no one was left who could stop Achilles, who was simply too strong, too full of fury, and too skilled for anyone to match. But Paris, another prince of Troy who was nowhere near as good a fighter or man as his brother Hector, managed to shoot Achilles in the heel that his mother had not dipped into the River Styx, with an arrow guided by Apollo. Somehow, this killed Achilles, or at least led to his death, ending a very short life that burned incredibly bright.
At Twinsfest on Saturday, I had the chance to meet baseball’s version of Achilles: James Rodney Richard. Even at 61, JR Richard is still a mountain of a man. He played at 6’8″ and (allegedly) 188 lbs for 10 seasons, and was the second tallest man in baseball history through 1987. He was drafted second overall in 1969 by the Astros who moved him quickly through their minor league system. He struck out 138 in Cocoa of the Florida State League in 1970 in just 109 innings, putting up a 2.39 ERA and limiting opponents to just 67 hits.
By 1971, the Astros were enamored of the giant right-hander, and gave him four September starts. His debut was a sensation, as he threw a complete game against the Giants and struck out 15 batters. It was an authoritative way to announce his arrival. That said, this next three starts got progressively less successful. His control problems surfaced in his second game, and in his fourth start, he only faced four batters, walking three and giving up a single.
Richard’s struggles continued for several seasons. But by 1976, he appeared to be back on track. But from 1978-1979, Richard was indescribably awesome. He led the Majors in strikeouts both years, with 303 and 313. He continued to have control problems, but it didn’t really matter when he was also limiting the hits he was allowing. NL batters simply couldn’t catch up to what he was throwing. In 1978, he struck out more than 10 batters in a game fourteen times. He K’ed 25 across two consecutive starts in June, and thrice had three straight starts of 11 Ks or more.
In 1979, he led the Majors in Ks, H/9, K/9, K/BB, wild pitches, and ERA, and led the NL in K/BB ratio. He also completed 19 of his 38 starts. It was an exceptionally dominant performance, punctuated by the last four games of the season, when he pitched 35 innings (including 11 in one game) and struck out 50, while giving up just 4 total runs.
He carried over this incredible dominance into 1980 as well. He struck out 13 on Opening Day and 119 in 114 innings. He had won 10 games witha 1.96 ERA when he started the All Star Game. At 30, JR Richard was clearly the best pitcher in baseball. But after that honor, he would start just one more Major League game in his career.
Like Achilles, Richard had a weakness no one else knew about that would fell him too soon. He suffered a stroke that left his left side weakened. When he came back, his velocity was gone and his contol was off again. He never made it back. A series of financial setbacks left him homeless and living under a bridge when his friends and church reached out and helped him back to his feet. Since then, JR Richard has helped organize and teach youth baseball in Houston and is traveling to card shows with Dave Stewart, Dwight Gooden, Fergie Jenkins, Mudcat Grant, and others in the “Black Aces” tour of African-Americans who have won 20 games in a season.
And Richard looks good, even folded into a chair signing autographs. He bantered with Stewart and with Grant, and engaged with fans like me who paid $20 for an autographed ball. And when Carson Cistulli, of FanGraphs, NotGraphs and assorted poetry, told him in a pique of joy, “You’re the baddest there ever was,” he just said, “I know.” Truth.