1. J.R. Richard‘s stroke
This moment could very well have changed the course of Astros history more than any other. Richard had become one of the most dominating and fearsome pitchers in the game in the late 1970s, putting up back-to-back 300 strikeout seasons in 1978 and 1979, the latter of which set a record that held until Cole broke it in 2019.
Richard was in the midst of his best season in 1980, making his first All-Star team and being part of a stellar rotation that included Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch, Vern Ruhle and the newly-signed Nolan Ryan. In his 17 starts that year, Richard went 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA, allowing a microscopic 5.1 hits per nine innings. Then tragedy struck.
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While warming up for a game on July 30, Richard collapsed due to a stroke caused by a blood clot. Though he thankfully survived, he never pitched in the majors again, as his comeback attempt was marred by blurred vision and slowed reflexes. Perhaps if the Astros had taken Richard’s concerns seriously when he removed himself from a start on July 14 due to arm numbness, this could have been avoided.
The team would go on to win its first division title that season, but lost in the NLCS. One has to wonder if the result would’ve been different if they had Richard on the mound, and the same can be said for subsequent seasons. With any luck, he could’ve been part of that 1986 team as well. At the rate he was going, he could’ve had a shot at a Hall of Fame career.
His life story is amazing, as Richard found himself homeless and living under a Houston overpass at one point after his career. He’s since recovered, becoming a minister and coach and working with several charities. He’s also part of the Astros Hall of Fame, which he more than deserves. Richard was arguably the best pitcher to ever play for the team, and his stroke cut short a career that could’ve been one of the greatest of all time.