A Different Look: Rogers, Richard, And The Media

By Tony McClean
Updated: July 8, 2005

Kenny Rogers and J.R. 

Kenny Rogers and J.R. Richard

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — During all the hype and fury over the Kenny Rogers incident last week, the reason why Rogers went after a TV cameraman was lost. Several members of the Rangers’ media squad insinuated that Rogers, who had missed a start against division rival Anaheim with a broken finger, had deliberately missed the game as a contract ploy.

There were some that also claimed the Rangers’ organization even planted the story of Rogers’ discontent. The veteran hurler had been seeking a contract extension from the team as far back as spring training.

Now I’m not here to justify Rogers going medieval on a pair of defenseless TV cameraman, but the Texas baseball media has a brief history of dismissing certain player actions as a possible ploy in contract negotiations.

The Rogers incident is eeringly similar to a near-tragic incident back in the early 80’s involving Texas’ other baseball team, the Astros, during the All-Star break. The similarities are a sad commentary of the current relationship between the media and certain athletes.

Back in 1980, Houston signed native son Nolan Ryan to a then, unprecedented $1,000,000 contract. With the Ryan Express, veteran Joe Niekro, and budding superstar J.R. Richard on the same staff, the Astros looked like one of the teams to beat that season.

The 6-8 Richard was coming off a banner season in 1979. After getting off to a slow start, Richard won 11 of his last 13 decisions to finish with an 18-13 record. In addition, he led the league with a 2.71 ERA and set a new personal high with 313 strikeouts.

At the time, Richard joined Ryan and Sandy Koufax as the only modern-era pitchers to strike out 300 batters in consecutive seasons. But despite leading the league in ERA and strikeouts, J.R.’s 18 wins were not enough to win the Cy Young Award. Instead, he finished third in the voting behind reliever Bruce Sutter and teammate Niekro, who had won 21 games.

Richard’s momentum from 1979 continued at the start of the 1980 campaign. J.R. ushered in the new season against the Dodgers, retiring the first 19 batters he faced before finishing with a two-hit victory. In his next start, he would pitch five scoreless innings against Atlanta before leaving with shoulder stiffness and a no-decision.

In his third start, also dominating L.A. once again, Richard threw the only one-hitter of his major-league career, allowing only a fourth-inning infield single to Reggie Smith. However, things would take a dramatic turn.

Richard would begin to take himself out of games early, complaining about a variety of ailments: shoulder stiffness, back stiffness, forearm stiffness, a “dead arm”. Despite his aliments, by the All-Star break, J.R. was leading the league with a 10-4 record, a 1.89 ERA, and 119 strikeouts.

Unfortunately, rumors about Richard was much more insidious. What started as whispers soon worked its way into the mainstream media. Some accused him of being jealous of Ryan’s salary, even though Richard had never complained about Ryan’s contract.

There was also talk that he was “loafing”, even though he had not missed a single start in the five years preceding 1980. Some suggested that he couldn’t handle the pennant-race pressure with Los Angeles, blindly ignoring the fact that he had gone 11-2 during the 1979 pennant stretch run against Cincinnati.

According to astrosdaily.com, much of the talk had racial undertones, and that cannot be ignored. It is just inconceivable that this kind of rumor-mongering would have occurred if instead Ryan had been taking himself out of games early.

The events that followed points out the irresponsibility of the media and the Astros at that time. After complaining of dizziness on July 14, Richard was placed on the DL and underwent a battery of tests. Some arterial blockage was found in his right shoulder, but it was not deemed to be serious.

In fact, the team doctor suggested that Richard’s problems might be emotional in nature. Just days later, on July 30, J.R. collapsed during pre-game throwing drills with a teammate and was rushed to Southern Methodist Hospital.

Sadly, it turned out after all that he wasn’t lying, he wasn’t faking, he wasn’t loafing, and his problems were not emotional in nature. Richard had suffered a major stroke and would have died that day without emergency surgery.

The incident was and still remains as one of the darkest moments in the relationship between the media and the players they cover. Again, this is not to justify Rogers’ acts. He was correctly suspended and I think he definitely should miss the All-Star game.

But Rogers, like Richard in 1980, had no previous history of ambivalence with the media until these incidents. There are some of our media brethren that feel the need to make up a story when one really isn’t there.

And less you think this is a racial issue, you’d be mistaken as well. Rogers is white, Richard is black and both were done a slight disservice by the media. Hopefully, when this is all said and done, some of us in the media will think long a hard before making such accusations without substantial proof.

NOTE: Astrosdaily.com contributed to this story.