Hey Astros… don’t wait too long. Retire J. R. Richard’s number!

The Houston Astros should avoid a mistake that the Detroit Tigers made in terms of honoring one of their greats.

The Tigers are retiring the number 11 in honor of Sparky Anderson. It is a wonderful tribute by the team to immortalize the Hall of Fame manager along with the other Detroit legends.

No doubt his entire family will be there, as will members of his colossal World Champion squad of 1984. And certainly there will be stirring highlights on the video board of the many wonderful moments involving Sparky in Motown.

Do you know who will be missing?
Sparky Anderson, who passed away this November.

It was hardly a sudden death. And he didn’t die as the current manager of the Tigers. Sparky retired after the 1995 season.

Opening Day 1996 could have been a nice time to honor him.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000 and gave a memorable speech.

Maybe that year, the Tigers could have put #11 on the wall.

In 2005, the Cincinnati Reds retired Sparky’s number to honor his days at the helm of the Big Red Machine.

Detroit? Bueller?

With a decade and a half to pull off the honor, they are doing it now? I don’t care how rocky things ended after the 1995 season. There is a lot of water under that bridge.

Posthumous honors are nice but in this case unnecessary.

Which brings us back to the Astros.

James Rodney Richard, better known as J. R. Richard, was on his way to being a Hall of Fame pitcher. I have absolutely no qualms making that claim.

He became a 20 game winner and a Cy Young contender by age 26 in 1976. From that season through 1979, he developed into a 300 strikeout artist, averaging more than 9 per 9 innings. He was an ERA leader, piled up complete games in the teens and had the most devastating fastball in the National League.

And along the way he helped forge the Astros identity as a pitching powerhouse. In 1980 he was well on his way to having his best season of his career when he suffered the stroke that ended his career at age 30.

That 1980 team, which paired Richard with another fireballer named Nolan Ryan, lost the National League pennant to the Phillies in the tightest best of 5 series of all time. The 1981 team lost the Divisional Playoff to the Dodgers by the slimmest of margins.

It is not outrageous to think that with J. R. Richard healthy, they would have advanced both seasons. (And both teams that eliminated Houston went on to win the World Series.) Perhaps he would have been around for the 1986 NLCS, another razor thin affair, this time against the eventual World Champion Mets.

Richard never returned despite a valiant attempt to come back in 1981.
He lost his money and was living under a bridge in 1994. He has recovered his life to a degree and is now a minister.

He is alive.
And he represents a devastating “What If” in baseball history. Could those Astros with Ryan, Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch, Joaquin Andujar and J. R. Richard have compiled one of the greatest pitching staffs of all time?

How many pennants would be won in bright orange?
Would the Astros have the World Series title that still eludes them?

Richard was a large man physically, but the shadow his stroke left on the team looms even larger. And he is a man who has shown an amazing ability to rebound in his life.

And his #50 isn’t retired.
The ownership has changed since 1980. Whatever bad blood had existed between Richard and the team should be tossed aside.

And for a team with a grand total of one pennant, they already have their share of retired numbers. Legends Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are honored. So is Richard’s teammate Nolan Ryan. Fan favorites Jimmy Wynn and Jose Cruz have their numbers retired. So does Larry Dierker, who had success as a player and manager, and Mike Scott who nearly pitched the Astros to the 1986 World Series.

Also Don Wilson and Jim Umbricht have their numbers retired, both posthumously. Wilson died in a strange accident involving his car in his own garage. Umbricht died of a malignant melanoma. Both of their death’s were sudden and caught the Astros by surprise.

No doubt if Richard’s stroke caused his death, then #50 would have been retired in Houston as well. There is no need to wait for tragedy.

He is alive.
He should be celebrated.

Don’t wait too long, Houston. Don’t do what the Tigers did.

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I miss the Houston Astros

I really do… I wish the Astros were still around.

But alas the Astros are no more and probably never coming back.

Now wait a second Sully, you might be saying. The Houston Astros are still here! Yeah they had a disappointing season last year, but they have a new manager in Brad Mills and play in a winnable division.

Heck, the Astros are celebrating their 45th anniversary! They aren’t going away.

Yes, there is a team called the Houston Astros still playing… but they aren’t THE ASTROS!

You can miss something that hasn’t really gone away.

I miss Harrison Ford. I know he’s still alive and making movies, but I miss the cool “Han Solo/Indiana Jones/John Book/Rick Deckard/Dr. Richard Kimble” star who I haven’t seen in over a decade.

The Astros used to be one of the truly unique teams in baseball… and I would argue that their unique identity is long long gone.

They were an antidote to baseball tradition.

Teams like the Yankees/Red Sox/Cubs and Tigers were teams of the past. They embraced tradition when I was growing up. They played in traditional ballparks, wore the same uniforms that they had in the 1930s and had deep roots in their fan base.

The Astros looked to the future.

Once they changed their name from Colt .45s to the Astros, they turned their back on the wild west and became the outer space team.

Their logo was other worldly.

Their stadium looked like a UFO (or maybe the ship from Lost in Space.)

Even the grass they played on was other worldly.

(It’s not called Reds-turf or Pirate-turf.)

And of course there were the uniforms… the bad ass orange uniforms.

I personally loved them, but even if you hated them, there was no mistaking who was playing.

You would never turn on the game of the week and think “Which team with bright orange uniforms are playing?”

Besides the aesthetics there was a certain style to Astros baseball. They were not a slugging team. Save for the occasional Bob Watson or Glenn Davis, they lacked a masher and survived with line drive hitters like Jose Cruz.

But they were a pitching team.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s who was more intimidating than J. R. Richard or Nolan Ryan on the mound?

They were a futuristic, other worldly, innovative bad ass pitching franchise.

And they were super cool.

And now what the hell are they?

Do they have cool futuristic uniforms anymore?

No, they have generic looking uniforms… with both script AND pinstripes.

Come on, Stros!

Pick either pinstripes or script.

Both pinstripes and cursive script looks silly.

And the Orange motif is gone! Their alternate uniform is RED!

Oh that’s original.

They play in the same division as the Reds and Cardinals… way to pick a color that sticks out.

And they have moved out of their old dome into a new stadium which seems designed to create a phony aura of tradition about it.

The quirks are so forced and fraudulent that it is appropriate that the place was originally called Enron Field!

When baseball fields have quirks and irregularities, it should be because the park is adapting to its neighborhood.

The Green Monster is in left field at Fenway because Lansdowne Street is right behind the wall.

The houses on Waveland existed in Chicago before Wrigley Field was built.

Even in the new ballparks, the strange angles and features are there because of geography, whether it be the boats in McCovey Cove or the warehouse beyond Camden Yards.

But the quirks of the former Enron Field are all forced.

Is the slope in center field (AKA Tal’s Hill) and the flagpole in play necessary?

Is there any reason for an old fashioned train carrying oranges to come across the left field wall?

Do the left field “Crawford Boxes” jut out for any particular reason?

Not really, and they have turned Houston into a hitter’s haven and no longer a place for great pitchers!

And doesn’t the free floating Citgo sign over the left field wall seem like an attempt to create a “Fenway” type atmosphere?

I find all of this forced traditionalism by the Astros to be sad. It is as if they are screaming “Look at us! We’re an old school team too!”

No you are not! The Astros had an identity and I think it made them a truly unique team.

And I miss that team.

And I don’t think I am alone.

This weekend, my wife, parents and other members of our family went to Knott’s Berry Farm for my twin sons’ 5th birthday. In the parking lot, I saw a guy with a Houston Astros hat. I asked him if he was a fan and he said “Big time.”

We talked a little about the 2010 prospects for the team (which we both felt were grim.) At the end of our chat I asked “Do you wish they went back to the orange uniforms?”

He responded “You bet. Those were the REAL Astros uniforms!”

I bet he misses the Astros too.

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