With the onset of April every spring, one conjures the classic baseball films in cinema lore. Certainly The Natural, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and others of the past several decades come to mind. But it might be a lower-profile film which tells a real baseball story about a fascinating figure which could trump them all.
It goes without saying that the J.R. Richard story is almost totally unknown now. A big league pitcher who dominated baseball until a stroke ended his career and almost took his life, Richard was an imposing figure on the mound as in real life. At 6’8”, he struck out over 300 batters twice in the late 1970s for the Houston Astros and was considered one of baseball’s premier pitchers. But his earnings were mishandled, and after the premature end to his career at age 30, Richard’s life dwindled to the point where he was homeless, living under a Houston freeway overpass. That the team to whom he brought success disregarded him – Richard’s number 50 has not yet been retired by the Astros – was almost as shocking as the near total absence of media coverage about Richard since he involuntarily retired.
That is, until filmmaker Greg Carter recently stepped in. Carter, a Houston native, had known about Richard from his playing days, but he too had not been privy to what happened to the pitcher since the end of his playing days in 1980. “I always thought that JR Richard was a fascinating guy,” Carter stated by phone from his current Los Angeles base. “When I was a little kid in third grade, we would pretend to be J.R. Richard. I was a fan, but when I got into it, there were a lot of things about his character to make it really a story to be told.”
Other than Nolan Ryan, there was no pitcher as feared in the 1970s as Richard, and when Carter explored the story, he found a tale rich in natural drama. “The one thing about JR Richard was that I thought that the story was straight out of the Book of Job,” he elaborated. “That’s kind of the way I approached it. I thought of it as a guy who had everything and lost it. It tied into the biblical aspects of going through the fire and coming out on the other side. Some say that he didn’t quite come out the other side the way I painted it. But it is interesting as a character study to know the will and determination of JR.”
When Carter was in post on a movie in Los Angeles My Big Phat Hip Hop Family, he discovered a producer in Houston who wanted to do a film about Richard, but Carter was hesitant at first. “I thought it was a tough call because it would be a period piece,” Carter stated, “but I said that we would have to go small – no big scenes. We would make a character-driven piece about this guy.”
Diligent research and a meeting with Richard himself convinced Carter to make the film, whose actual tale could be as compelling on film as, for example, the one in Rudy or Raging Bull. “JR was unadulterated power,” he said of the personal meeting. “Just how big his hands were – like you or me holding a golf ball. Standing next to him, I felt small, and I’m 6’5”.”
Shortly, Carter joined the project, which would go on to be titled Resurrection: The JR Richard Story, and would focus on the redemptive aspects of Richard’s downward spiral during and after his peak baseball years, which were arguably just beginning when Richard went down. “I am the son of a preacher,” Carter said, finding a connection to the material. “I think he was proud and would never ask for everything although people [mistook] his pride for arrogance and defiance.”
Certainly, when Richard was being over-played by the Astros, despite warning signs, it can be argued that the team drove him too far, leading to his 1980 stroke, which is portrayed in several of Resurrection’s most effective scenes. “They could have held him back,” Carter said of the Houston franchise. “I think the thing that made this into the fiasco that it turned out to be was that you had a lot of people who were know-it-alls. JR had a problem with the way the Astros were treating him. They ran him into the ground. That’s the team’s mentality, maybe more so with a black athlete. We’re going to work you hard. Like so many things, I pay you to tap dance, you are going to tap dance when I tell you to. They worked JR hard and worked his pitching arm until it cut off circulation until he had a stroke. It took him having a stroke to have everyone say they were sorry.”
In Carter’s film, Richard’s literal rebirth is a key to the story and how the future may play out for Richard. “In the end, there will be a reconciliation with the Astros,” Carter predicted. “He should be a Hall-of-Famer. The organization that you played for should be at the forefront and push it. You have billionaires who own the teams and have millionaires on the field. By the time we get to another owner, I can see the Astros getting him into the Hall of Fame.”
In hindsight, Carter saw his film as a symbol for how athletes enter the professional ranks then decline in the American system due to injury or financial misconduct, both of which happened to Richard. “So many athletes, after their playing days, they are broke,” he reflected. “It’s not just the JR story. It’s a cautionary tale – how things could happen like this. It’s a travesty. As it is, he’s not asking for a handout. He’s just asked to be treated fairly. It was something that never should have happened the way it did.”
Since the triumphs of his film, Carter, a student of Shakespeare, created a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set amongst black and Latino gangs entitled A Gangland Love Story. He next produced Dysfunctional Friends, which he described as “a black version of The Big Chill.” Making his projects consistently for under $500,000, Carter’s next film which he wrote and will directed is called Monica and features a love triangle that takes place against the backdrop of a gentleman’s club.