Friday, June 27, 2008

Worst Moments in Astros History

There are dark moments for all professional sports franchises. Typically, a player choking your general manager would qualify as such. The events of the past few days have not put the Houston Astros in the best of lights, but there have been more ominous tones heard in Astroland. So before you cast this as the worst moment to face the Dis-Astros, here's a history lesson on moments where the skies seemed darker.

5. December 7, 1988
Nolan Ryan signs with the Texas Rangers

After the 1988 season, the Astros began a string of significant personnel changes. Manager Hal Lanier was dismissed after the team suffered consecutive disappointing seasons following the NL West crown in 1986. What amounted to a fire sale ensued, as well, the zenith of which being the iconic gunslinger heading North up I-45 to join the Texas Rangers. Called "too old" by then-owner John McMullen, the Ryan Express went on to throw 2 more no-hitters for the Rangers - one more than he did in an Astro uniform.

4. April 8, 1964
Jim Ubricht dies of cancer

Jim Umbricht pitched just two seasons out of the Colt .45's bullpen, going a combined 7-3 in 143 innings of work. However, he would be better remembered in the Houston area for his resiliency, returning to pitch for Houston in 1963 after undergoing surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his leg in March of that year.

On the eve of the 1964 season, Umbricht succumbed to lymphoma at the age of 33. The club immediately retired his number 32, and the Astros' MVP award was subsequently renamed in his honor.

3. June 13, 1999
Manager Larry Dierker suffers seizure in dugout

One of the more bizarre, frightening moments in recent baseball history happened inside the Astrodome during a game between the Astros and visiting San Diego Padres. Larry Dierker, the Astros' manager at the time and former player and broadcaster, suffered a grand mal seizure during the 8th inning. The game was postponed and resumed July 23rd.

"''I was getting ready to step in, and the umpire said, 'Hold on,' '' Jeff Bagwell said. ''I looked around, and everybody was running to the dugout. Larry had collapsed. He couldn't talk. He was shaking violently. He was shaking the whole time. It was shocking. We're all stunned.''

Paramedics in an ambulance rushed to the dugout from center field. Dierker's wife, Judy, left the stands and went to the dugout. As the ambulance was driven off the field, accompanied by a motorcycle escort, Astros players huddled in group prayer. Dierker underwent brain surgery to repair malformed blood vessels two days later.

Thankfully, Dierker returned to the dugout just a month later. The Astros went on to win the National League Central that season.

2. January 5, 1975
Don Wilson dies in his Houston home

Wilson pitched 8 full seasons with the Astros from 1966-1974, going 104-92, making the All-Star team in 1971, and throwing 2 no-hitters - one as a rookie in 1967, the other in 1969. He is also is one of only 12 pitchers to ever strike out 18 or more batters in a start of 9 innings or less. On January 5, 1975, Wilson died at his Southwest Houston home he shared with his wife, daughter and son. Wilson was found in the passenger seat of his brown Ford Thunderbird inside the garage with the engine running. The garage was attached to the house, which caused his son, Alex, to die also and his daughter, Denice to be hospitalized in a coma. The official cause of death states that Wilson's death was accidental.

1. July 30, 1980
J.R. Richard has stroke

In 1980, J.R. Richard was widely considered to be a front-runner for the National League's Cy Young Award and was one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball. The flame-throwing righty had a 10-4 record and an ERA of 1.73 on July 30, 1980 when he suffered a stroke before a game. In the days and weeks previous, Richard had complained of a "dead arm" and shoulder and neck pains. Additionally, in his last start on July 14, he said he was unable to read the catcher's signs. Richard's concerns fell on deaf ears with Astros management, and several in the local media perceived Richard to be whiny for making such claims.

While playing catch before a game on July 30, 1980, Richard suffered a major stroke and collapsed in the outfield. A massive blockage in his right cartoid artery necessitated emergency surgery that evening. A CAT scan of Richard's brain later indicated that he had suffered three separate strokes from the different obstructions in his arterial system. Richard underwent rehab, but missed the remainder of the season. J.R. underwent a lengthy comeback attempt over the next couple of years, but was never able to regain his old, dominant form, and never pitched in the major leagues again.

Though the team still managed to go on to win the NL West that season, long-time Astro fans maintain that had something so colossally tragic not happened to one of their aces, the Astros would have won the World Series that year. The Astros lost the NLCS, 3-2, to the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Richard's personal struggles outside of baseball in coming years make the story much more tragic, though. He lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in unsuccessful business deals and two different divorces. In 1994, a local Houston news outlet aired a story revealing that the former diamond hero was living under a Houston-area bridge. Richard has since regained traction in his personal life, finding solace in the church and becoming a Christian minister and stalwart for youth baseball programs.

The Astros have yet to retire Richard's number 50, an issue that remains a tedious one with the franchise and long-time fans.

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