Dear Houston Astros:
As you know, J.R. Richard died yesterday.
You damn well better not retire his No. 50.
Not now. Not after all these years. Not after you failed and failed and failed and failed. Not after you brushed the matter aside, stammered and stuttered, but never did a damn thing. Certainly never did the right thing.
J.R. Richard is, arguably, the greatest pitcher in your franchise’s history. The numbers speak for themselves: 107-71, 3.15 ERA, 1,493 strikeouts in 1606 innings pitched. He led baseball twice in strikeouts (with 303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979) and once in earned run average (with 2.71 in 1979). A 20-win season, followed by three-straight 18-win seasons. An All-Star Game start. Even a cameo appearance in a Bad News Bears flick. He was, along with Nolan Ryan and Goose Gossage, the most feared pitcher of his generation. A legitimate ace.
But after his career ended thanks to a debilitating stroke, you kicked him (and his legacy) to the curb. All of us in the baseball media heard the whispers—he was using drugs when he played; he sued us; he wasn’t appreciative, grateful, etc. All the old, familiar blatherings of a white, conservative business kicking a lowly ex-employee (a black one) to the curb. Meanwhile, your hall of retired numbers features such luminaries as Larry Dieker, Don Wilson and Mike Scott.
Then, J.R. Richard died. And you saluted him with press releases and the inevitable moment of silence. Perhaps you’ll add a No. 50 patch to your sleeves. Name a stadium BBQ stand J.R.’s Heat. Whatever.
Do not retire his No. 50.
To retire his number now would be to commit the same bullshit the Pro Football Hall of Fame did when it inducted former Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler after he died. You can play all the triumphant music you want; have legends from team lore speak in hushed tones of a great man; even drop a, “We just wish J.R. was with us …” line.
But, truth be told, he was with you. For more than 40 years since his last pitch.
You ignored him in life.
Ignore him in death.
It’s your classless fate.