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Friday, March 4, 2011

The lion in winter: Durham Bulls all-time home run leader Chris Richard retires

Posted by on Fri, Mar 4, 2011 at 8:06 AM

Chris Richard scores in a 2010 game.
"They say athletes die twice," Chris Richard says, near the end of a long, reflective interview. He pauses. That pause lasts just long enough for the listener to realize that he's been talking about death, in one way or another, the whole time.

Richard, the Durham Bulls' all-time franchise leader in home runs with 84—a number amassed over four seasons as the team's regular first baseman—is presumably here to talk about his retirement. A couple of days later, he will go on the radio to broadcast the news, even as he prepares to represent the Bulls as the face of the team at Fanfest, which takes place today and tomorrow at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

But the sense is inescapable that if the Tampa Bay Rays called him tomorrow to ask him to come back to the Bulls, he'd do it. Richard, a San Diego native, lives in Durham year-round. He's in a stable relationship here with his girlfriend, Ashley Hester. He's in good shape. He works out nearly three hours a day. He stays sharp with the bat, using the Personal Pitcher machine his father designed for him years ago. He is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. He is, at 36, a welcome and steadying veteran presence in a minor-league clubhouse buzzing with callow prospects and occasionally aggrieved big-league failures: good-natured and professional, easygoing but exemplary in his competitive demeanor, intelligent and friendly, patient—watch his diligent, cerebral at-bats over a couple of years, and his agreeability with the media, and you see the breadth of his patience. He's the guy reporters want to go to for comment, because he tells you the truth and is willing to go into the details of what he does—batter's eyes, swing mechanics. He is the guy you want representing your team at Fanfest, because he isn't faking it. Sit down with him for an hour or so, it becomes clear that he is above all an honest, living, breathing human.

But death is shadowing him.

The Tampa Bay Rays did not sign him again this season after four excellent campaigns: They went with a younger first baseman. "I was a little disappointed," he says. "I thought I had a good year last year." Richard led the International League in OPS among hitters who played in at least 100 games.

"I understand where they’re coming from; it’s a business. I still love the guys I played with. And there’s a possibility that maybe if someone gets released, or an injury or someone gets called up, maybe there would be a spot for me." So maybe take "retired" as a present condition, not an epitaph.

Still, you can see why he's been thinking about retiring for a couple of seasons now. Chris Richard is 36, after all. That's old for a minor-leaguer. Teams want prospects. The guy the Rays signed to play Richard's position in Durham is 28—not exactly a youngster himself.

Oh, Richard had an offer or two from other teams for 2011, but of the scanty and non-guaranteed kind that pointed to the likelihood that he would just be there for ballast in spring training and then released. He's too old, too wise for that.

Age, wisdom: death. When he talks about his first major-league at-bat, 11 years ago, the most life-affirming instant in a player's life, death is hovering nearby. Richard describes standing in the on-deck circle as a 26-year-old St. Louis Cardinal and watching his life flash before his eyes—"like when you die," he says. "You start to think about every moment in your life that has led to this."

He had decided when he was 12, with a buddy of his, to aim to be a major-league baseball player. He almost quit after his first year of junior college, when he hit .170.

But he didn't. He made the major leagues. His buddy didn't. He was a 19th-round pick out of Oklahoma State, the 519th selection in the draft—not exactly a blue-chipper—but he survived all those spring trainings, especially those late Marches when the dedicated organizational hatchet-man would roam the training clubhouse telling guys they'd been released.

"Always the same time every year," Richard says. "You had your head on a swivel wondering who he was going after next." The players referred to the hatchet man as the Grim Reaper.

After Chris Richard's life flashed before his eyes, he stood dazed in left field where he was playing, and then hit a home run on the very first pitch he saw in the major leagues. Dead center field. Thank god Jacque Jones was playing center for Minnesota that day, Richard says: The ball just barely cleared the wall and Torii Hunter would have caught it. Richard tied a record—first-pitch big-league homer—owned by 26 players in all of history. A veteran teammate by the name of Mark McGwire played a telephone prank on him after the game, then came into the clubhouse and gave him a hug.

Richard was using Fernando Tatis' bat that day because he had just been called up from Triple-A Memphis and had none of his own. Fernando Tatis, a journeyman third baseman, is known to history as the only player ever to hit two big-league grand slams in a single inning: his signature moment. Years later, in 2009, Chris Richard would have his own signature moment: He hit two grand slams in a single Durham Bulls game at the DBAP, tying an International League record not accomplished in nearly 60 years.

Another of Richard's teammates in St. Louis that year, the catcher Keith McDonald, actually outdid him: McDonald hit homers in his first two major-league at-bats. Their teammates started asking them, joking, what was in the water down in Memphis.

Chris Richard never did steroids. He broke into the majors when it seemed like everyone else did. Later in the interview, things he says make it clear that steroids killed far more non-users than it will ever kill users. It has been the death of many careers like Richard's. Those other guys were bulking up at superhuman rates while players like Richard were lifting weights like humans. And it cost them. It killed them. They were mortals among miracles of medicine.

Richard was traded to Baltimore not long after hitting that first homer in 2000. The Cards needed a relief pitcher, so they dealt Richard for Mike Timlin. He hit 13 more homers for the Orioles in just 199 at-bats, and hit 15 more the next season as a regular left fielder.

Then he had to have shoulder surgery. Then he had to have two more shoulder surgeries. Major ones. Capsule, labrum, the whole thing. After the last of those surgeries, in 2003, doctors told him that if he ever wanted to be able to play catch with his son he ought to retire. His shoulder was a mess.

But he didn't have a son. Or a wife. Or anything other than baseball. "You have to make a lot of personal sacrifices in order to play this game," he says. "But there is so much lost. You sacrifice weddings, family, your relationships. Back in the day, there were players who wouldn’t see their kids being born."

Sacrifices: Deaths. You trade in births for deaths. Ultimately your own.

After they told him to quit, "I went through a really tough time. Up to that point, baseball was everything. I had been looking at it as: This is my life. My existence is based on my performance. My value is based on how well I do. That’s a terrible way to live. It’ll make you crazy."

But he wanted to play again. He wasn't ready to die. He came back in 2005, reborn as a first baseman. He wound up hitting 115 more home runs over six Triple-A seasons. He even made it back to the majors with the Rays in 2009. One more cup of coffee, as Bob Dylan might put it. He got 19 at-bats in place of the injured Carlos Pena, toward the end of a lost season in Tampa. Didn't hit well. Made a costly throwing error against the Yankees right after his callup. You don't get much of a chance to prove yourself in the majors. "It’s a cutthroat business, I’ll just say that," Richard says, after trying out several other ways of saying it and then discarding them.

***

During his years in Durham, Richard has occasionally guested at private baseball lessons with his teammate and friend, Elliot Johnson. He has also volunteered as a mentor to ballplayers from North Carolina Central University. He likes teaching. It's no wonder: He's a natural. He's friendly. He's patient. He understands kids. He says you get results if you make learning skills so fun that the kids are nearly tricked into acquiring them.

So he's starting the Durham Baseball Academy in a building right near the old Durham Athletic Park. The website, www.durhambaseballacademy.com, isn't up yet, but it will be soon. Richard will offer private, 50-minute lessons in an indoor space, using tees and the Richard family's patented Personal Pitcher. Maybe he'll break out the WebGlov, too, for some fun fielding challenges. Ages 8-18 are welcome, he says.

What else? He spent part of the off-season trying to get grass to grow in his yard. This spring, you'll hear him on Durham Bulls radio broadcasts occasionally, offering color commentary alongside play-by-play man Neil Solondz. He'll be a natural at that, too.

He is a fixture at the DBAP, the closest thing the Bulls have to a franchise face (other than Wool E. Bull, whose face isn't real). Happy to sign autographs, do those ads, go to Fanfest. It's hard not to see him at first base. It will be hard not to see him fall behind in the count, say 1-2, with runners on the corners; step out of the batter's box and walk away, showing the comforting No. 27 on the back of his jersey; take a couple of practice swings, a deep breath, a decision to shorten his swing; be patient. Usually, it seemed, he worked the count back to 3-2, waited for the runner on first to break for second, and then singled, sagely, shrewdly, right through the hole to drive in a run. Or he would launch one of his Richard-the-Lionhearted three-run homers into the right-field seats.

So if the Rays don't call him and ask him to suit up again, will he miss it when he shows up to the DBAP—but not to play?

"I think I’ll be alright. It might be different when it happens. There’s a family there. It should be okay—I think. We’ll see." He laughs a little, listening to himself edit himself, then sips his cup of coffee.

***

Fanfest is today and tomorrow at the DBAP, from 11 a.m.—2 p.m. Visit www.durhambulls.com for more information.

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