Gene Richards’ love of the game

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Gene RichardsThere have been just two players from historically black colleges taken with the first pick of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft.

Blair’s Gene Richards was the first. He barely edged South Carolina State teammate Willie Aikens for that honor. After the San Diego Padres took Richards with the No. 1 pick in 1975, the California Angels took Aikens at No. 2.

It was a bittersweet moment for each. Both had planned to return to South Carolina State for their senior seasons until they received word the Bulldogs’ baseball program had been discontinued.

“There were other avenues,” Richards said. “I had spoken with Clemson and Virginia Tech. But of course, if it was at all possible, if the program was still there. I wanted to go back to SC State.”

As disappointed as he was, Richards has always believed things happen for a reason. By not going back to school for a senior season, he might have avoided any possible letdown after two stunning seasons at SC State and a spectacular 1974 summer season in the Shenandoah Valley League.

The fleet-footed Richards batted .450 during his sophomore season before hitting .414 as a junior. Against SVL competition considered superior to what he faced in school, Richards turned heads by hitting .366 with 32 stolen bases.

Aikens, arguably, posted even better numbers, swatting 17 homers in the SVL after his junior campaign at SC State netted him a .360 average in a team-leading 12 home runs.

On day before the 1975 draft, Richards told The State that he was flattered to hear he might go No. 1 overall.

“I’m delighted to hear that,” he said. “I started playing sandlot ball with the goal of making baseball a career.”

One day later, he said: “I know I have some things to learn ... but I know I can learn. I enjoy roaming centerfield as much as I enjoy running the bases.”

Running the bases definitely was the reason San Diego pursued Richards. He would repay their interest with a rapid rise through the minor leagues.

Richards spent the 1975 season at the Padres’ California League farm club, Reno. There, he led the league with a .381 average, 181 hits, 148 runs scored and 85 stolen bases en route to the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

After another dominating performance for the Padres’ Pacific Coast League affiliate, Hawaii, Richards broke camp with the Padres in 1977. Even Major League pitching did little to slow Richards’ ascent. He concluded his rookie year with 56 stolen bases, 11 triples and a .290 batting average.

For six consecutive seasons, Richards ranked among the league’s top 10 in triples. He led the league with a career-best 12 during the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Just when it appeared he was going to settle into a long career, disaster struck. A devastating knee injury brought his career to a premature end at 31.

Still, in just seven years, he became the Padres’ all-time leader in batting average (.291), triples (63) and stolen bases (242). Those records remained until Tony Gwynn eventually broke all three on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Today, Richards finds himself back in Reno, where he opened Gene’s Road to the Big Leagues baseball school at The Stadium Sport and Fitness Club.

His first lesson — there are no short cuts to the big leagues. He believes that the decline of young blacks playing baseball has as much to do with not wanting to fail as anything else.

“If you’re a prime athlete, football and basketball is easy,” he said. “But kids find out it’s hard to hit a baseball. When you say there are more white players than black players, its because the (black players) are very lacking in fundamentals. White kids continue to go after it because they see baseball as an easier avenue for them than football or basketball. Black players gravitate to football and basketball because it affords them an easy path. They don’t have to hone their instincts to play those sports. Baseball requires honed instincts and a lot of black players don’t want to give their time to it.

“They’re still a lot of prime students, though,” Richards added. “All we have to do, in my opinion, is have instructors.”

Richards has no idea what would have happened to him if it was not for baseball. Growing up in the Columbia hinterlands left few choices beyond the game.

“My goal was to go to school and then be a teacher,” he said. “But it very well could have been something else. Maybe even the military if it wasn’t for baseball. I say that because when you come up in an environment like that, you tend to do what is available to you. In our situation, the military is something we all tended to do.”

Today, Richards has the best of all worlds. He’s teaching and he has an army of talented young kids learning to play the game the way he did. With any luck, a few might even have a professional career of their own.

“There are people who want to pay you for your athletic skills, to play the game of baseball,” Richards said. “You can’t beat opportunities like that.”

Reach Patrick Obley at (803) 771-8473.

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