No checking this O's swing

Chris Richard: A smooth stroke refined by his father's invention endures despite a series of shoulder injuries.

August 13, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- Chris Richard remembers standing in the on-deck circle at the Metrodome two years ago, realizing he'd worked his whole life for this. All those swings off the pitching machine his father invented had taken him right where he'd always dreamed he would be.

Then he stepped into the batter's box and became the 80th player in major-league history to hit a home run in his first career at-bat.

Richard remembers having very different thoughts two weeks ago as he stood in the on-deck circle at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field. Another serious shoulder injury had cost him the first four months of the season with the Orioles. He just wanted to prove he could still hit.

Somehow, it happened again.

He stepped into the batter's box and homered, hitting the first pitch over the fence just as he had that day for the St. Louis Cardinals in Minnesota. Richard, 28, smiled again as he rounded the bases, but he downplays the achievement now, sounding like a man who feels he has a lot of catching up to do.

"It was just a coincidence," Richard said. "And nothing more."

Richard will be back where his big-league career started tonight, when the Orioles begin a three-game series with the Minnesota Twins. But the beginning of his story really starts at a garage sale in San Diego.

That's where he found his first pitching machine, at age 13. He and a buddy spent hours feeding each other Wiffle balls through that machine until it finally broke. They tried replacing it, but the manufacturer had stopped producing them.

Fortunately for Richard, he has an inventive father. Bob Richard graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from Penn State, and when that first pitching machine broke, he started tinkering.

Eventually, he came up with a device that pitches golf-ball-sized Wiffle balls automatically, every six seconds. He called it the Personal Pitcher, and pretty soon the Richards were producing others for sale. Slowly, they have built a business with their own Web site and commercials that air before Orioles telecasts.

Chris Richard has been using the machine since he was 14, and he considers it a major key to his success. During baseball season, Richard would return home from practice and take an additional 200 to 300 swings off his own machine. He set it up just far enough from a fence in his back yard where his best swings would produce a home run.

"He would hit until the sun went down," Bob Richard said. "When it rained, he could even take the machine and hit inside."

Physically, Richard was a late bloomer, and at first he felt he needed to hone his hitting skills just to make the JV team. As a senior in high school, he hit .440 but received no Division I scholarship offers.

The goal was always the big leagues, and Bob Richard dreamed the dream right along with his son.

"I remember when he was younger, he asked me one time if he could make the big leagues," Bob said. "I told him, `I don't see any reason why you can't.' "

Richard spent two years playing junior college ball and finally earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he hit .335 with 85 RBIs in 1995, inspiring the Cardinals to make him their 19th-round draft pick.

After the 1997 season, just when Richard's career looked like it was taking flight, he damaged his left rotator cuff making a headfirst slide in the Dominican Winter League. He underwent major surgery on his throwing shoulder, and at points during his recovery he wondered if he would ever play again.

For Bob Richard, those were painful times. He could empathize with his son because he himself had had two serious shoulder injuries -- the first playing fraternity-league football at Penn State and the second in a skiing accident years later.

Now there's a coincidence.

Richard's shoulder healed, and on July 17, 2000, the Cardinals promoted him to the big leagues. He hit that first home run off Twins pitcher Mike Lincoln. Twelve days later, the Cardinals traded Richard and pitcher Mark Nussbeck for reliever Mike Timlin, as the Orioles purged their roster of veteran salaries, trying to acquire young talent.

Of all the players the Orioles received in that trading spree, Richard showed the most promise. With his shoulder getting healthier, he moved back to the outfield last year, but, at season's end, he needed more surgery, this time to reattach the shoulder capsule and clean some fraying around the rotator cuff.

By the time the Orioles activated him off the disabled list this year for that game at Tropicana Field, it was July 31.

"I had a lot of faith in what the doctors and the trainers were telling me," Richard said. "It's a slow process, and I didn't think any negative thoughts. You always try to be positive, and I might have gained some of that from the previous injury."

While he was making his way back, every interview started and ended with questions about his injuries. But in his first nine games, Richard hit .424 with three home runs. Finally, there was something else to talk about.

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