Higher calling: Reno’s Rob Richie reached the Major Leagues then gave it all up
Rob Richie was Northern Nevada’s bolt of lightning, a thunderous clap of thunder and a meteor flashing through the sky.
Power, speed, quickness, style and grace. That was Rob Richie on a football field, basketball court and baseball diamond. And then he was gone, stunning us with a departure equally as graceful and powerful.
“I have to do what makes me content,” Richie told Steve Sneddon of the Reno Gazette-Journal in February 1990 upon his shocking retirement from Major League Baseball at the age of 24.
Richie delighted Northern Nevada sports fans for six years, from 1981-87, taking Nevada high school sports and Nevada Wolf Pack baseball to another level. His rarely seen ability in three vastly different sports was enchanting and inspiring and he belonged solely to Northern Nevada.
Bob Richie, a high school star athlete for Hawthorne High in the 1940s himself, recognized his son Rob’s special talent quickly, moving his wife and five older daughters to Reno in 1981.
“By the time (Rob) was a freshman in high school, that’s when I made the decision to put him in school in Reno,” said Bob Richie, who moved to Hawthorne from his native Oklahoma when he was 16 and later worked at an army ammunition depot in Hawthorne from 1948-85. The Nevada State Journal, in an era when newspapers deemed it necessary to point out when an athlete was anything but white, described Bob Richie of Hawthorne High in 1947 as “a dusky meteor” and “a colored streak of lightning when he got hold of the ball.”
A little more than three decades later Bob Richie just wanted his son’s streak of lightning to get some attention. A meteor, after all, might blaze through the sky in Hawthorne and not be seen.
“I just noticed an awful lot of athletes in Hawthorne go unnoticed down through the years,” Bob Richie said in 1986. “I wanted to give Rob the best shot he could possibly be given.”
Rob Richie was definitely noticed in Reno. Few male athletes in the history of Nevada high school sports, in fact, have been as dominating in three sports as Richie was in 1982 and 1983 for the Hug Hawks.
Richie completed his senior year at Hug in 1983 as the Most Valuable Position Player in Northern AAA baseball. That wasn’t an easy award to win in 1983 considering Carson High’s Matt Williams was on the verge of an outstanding career at UNLV and the major leagues.
Richie hit a home run in his final high school at-bat in a 12-9 loss to Carson in the Northern AAA Zone Tournament. He also had a single and a triple in the game and also hit another ball over the fence for another apparent home run but missed first base and was called out.
Earlier in the same Zone Tournament Hug lost 2-1 to Carson as both Richie and Williams hit home runs.
Richie’s high school baseball career was filled with highlights. He homered in both games of a doubleheader against Modesto and drove in eight runs in 1983. He played on an All-Star team of California and Nevada players (Williams and Reno High’s John Savage were Richie’s teammates) coached by Carson’s Ron McNutt against a team of all-stars from Japan. He had an RBI triple in the fourth and final game of the series at Moana Stadium.
Richie was also a standout pitcher in high school. He beat Sparks 1-0 in April 1983, striking out nine and allowing just two hits. The game’s only run came on his RBI triple. He fanned eight and allowed just three hits in an 8-1 win over Granada of San Ramon, Calif., as a junior. He fanned six in six innings and also went 3-for-4 at the plate against Reed in March 1982.
Baseball was merely how Richie ended his two seasons at Hug. He was also a standout football and basketball player. In his first game for Hug in the fall of 1981 he caught two touchdown passes of 25 and 45 yards from quarterback Gary Stolo (Stolo was also a standout shortstop in baseball) against Enterprise High of Redding, Calif.
“After that the defenders starting playing off me,” said Richie, who finished his 1981 season with 18 catches for 253 yards and just those two touchdowns.
“Robbie is probably the best receiver in the league,” Stolo said in 1981.
Richie proved to be the best as a senior, catching 23 passes in 1982 for 572 yards and five touchdowns. After the year he was named All-Northern AAA First Team at both wide receiver and defensive back.
“I like playing receiver,” Richie said in 1982. “You have a chance to go one-on-one with people and I can use my speed. I go up (jump) better and I’m taller than most defensive backs so those are advantages.”
Richie was even better in basketball. He was named the Northern AAA Most Valuable Player in 1983 as a senior, leading Hug to the Northern AAA Zone title.
He was also named after the year with Bruce Barnes of Carson High as an Honorable Mention All-American by USA Today. Yes, he was getting noticed throughout the nation now.
Richie was just 6-foot-1 in high school but was often used at center and power forward by Hug coach Dave Christiansen because of his ability to get off the floor.
“He’s probably the best rebounder in the league because of his jumping ability,” the Gazette-Journal wrote in 1983.
Richie had 17 points and 16 rebounds against Wooster in the Zone Tournament in 1982. He averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds a game as a junior and was named to the Northern AAA Second Team.
As a senior he scored 28 points in January 1983 against McQueen. A month later he turned in one of the best Zone Tournament games in Nevada history with 43 points and 20 rebounds in an 82-63 win over South Tahoe and legendary coach Tom Orlich at the Centennial Coliseum in Reno, connecting on 17-of-25 shots.
“I thought I had 20-something points,” Richie said after the game. “I couldn’t believe I had 43.”
Christiansen told Richie to take over the game and Richie did just that. “I wasn’t asserting myself in the game,” Richie said. “Coach told me to assert myself more.”
Orlich, who won 521 games as South Tahoe coach from 1975-2001, including state titles in 1987 and 1992, was a Richie fan after the game. “He plays like that and it’s pretty tough to win a game,” Orlich said. “He was just phenomenal.”
After his senior year Richie was voted the Top Male Athlete in Northern Nevada by the area’s athletic directors.
Bob Richie’s plan of getting his son noticed simply worked to perfection. College scouts clearly recognized Richie’s conspicuous talents and he likely could have played any of his three sports at the Division I college level.
“Unless I grow a couple inches I guess I’m through with basketball,” Richie told the Gazette-Journal in the spring of 1983. “And football was just something I picked up the last couple years (at Hug High). So I don’t think I’ll miss it.”
Richie signed with the Wolf Pack to play baseball on May 1, 1983 after turning down scholarship offers from Hawaii and UNLV.
“This is a big step for our program,” said Wolf Pack coach Gary Powers in 1983, after just his first season as head coach.
Richie had a solid season for the Pack as a freshman in 1984, hitting .298 with seven homers, 39 RBI and 13 stolen bases. He was named to the All-West Coast Athletic Conference (now WCC) Second Team.
Richie then hit .322 as a sophomore in 1985 with eight homers, 40 RBI and a team-best seven triples. He also walked 29 times and struck out just 20 times and again was named to the All-WCAC Second team.
He drilled a three-run home run to center field, breaking a 3-3 tie, to beat Fresno State 6-5 on April 4, 1985. The week before, in the second game of a doubleheader against Eastern Oregon, he hit two homers and drove in five runs.
Powers also used Richie on the mound in 1985 in eight games (five starts). He was 1-1 with a 5.86 ERA, striking out 39 in 35.1 innings. He pitched two shutout innings in relief against San Diego in March and also hit his first home run of the season.
Richie’s best game on the mound for the Pack came on April 6, 1985 against UNLV in the Best in the West Tournament at Fresno State. He pitched a complete game and didn’t allow an earned run in a 4-2 win, allowing six hits while striking out 12. Former Carson High star Matt Williams went 1-for-4 against Richie for the Rebels. The win snapped a Wolf Pack 15-game losing streak against the Rebels.
Richie also pitched well against UNLV a month later in a season-ending 8-7 loss. He went 5.1 innings and allowed six hits and five runs but just one of the runs was earned and he fanned four.
Richie then blossomed as a junior in 1986, hitting a team-best .407 with 15 doubles, six homers, 48 RBI and 13 steals. He was named to the All-WCAC First Team and was clearly on the radar of major league scouts.
“He’s a three-dimensional player,” Powers said in 1986. “He can run, hit, throw. He’s an exceptional athlete but also an extremely coachable young man and a pleasure to be around. Kids like that don’t come around every day. I wish they did.”
Powers, just in his fourth season as Pack coach, then went a bit further in his praise of Richie.
“He is without a doubt the best player I’ve coached at UNR.”
The Texas Rangers then drafted Richie in the fourth round of the 1986 draft. Richie, though, turned down the Rangers’ offer and decided to remain with the Wolf Pack for his senior year in 1987. His decision stunned the Rangers and Northern Nevada.
“The money situation (Richie reportedly turned down a $75,000 bonus from the Rangers) was not real important to him,” Powers said in 1986. “He was always dedicated to his education.”
Richie also discovered another passion in his life his junior year at Nevada. He became a Jehovah’s Witness.
“Money’s not important to me,” Richie said in 1986. “It’s not about money. It’s something I’d rather not talk about.
“After three years I just feel I have to graduate (with a degree in criminal justice). Basically it was professional baseball versus a degree.”
And the degree won.
Fourth-round picks don’t normally return to school for their senior season.
“We’ve met every demand he’s had,” Rangers scout Jack Hays told the Gazette-Journal in 1986. “Everything he told us he wanted we’ve given him. The whole situation baffles me. I’ve never run into a situation like this.”
The Gazette-Journal’s Steve Sneddon then prophetically wrote, “He’s the kind of fellow who could live his life nicely without Major League Baseball.”
Sneddon asked Richie if he would feel that something was missing from his life if he never played professional baseball.
“Not really,” Richie answered, “if I found something else that was satisfying to me. I feel I can.”
Richie then returned for his senior season at Nevada and left the school with his degree and almost every offensive record in Pack history.
He led the Pack in hitting once again at .389 in 1987 and also led the team with nine homers, 50 RBI, nine triples and 20 steals. The Sporting News named him an All-American, the Pack’s first All-American since pitcher Fred Dallimore in 1966. The WCAC also made Richie a First Team All-Conference selection. Richie’s nine triples led the conference in 1987 and his 22 career triples remain a WCAC record to this day.
Richie ended his Wolf Pack career as the undisputed best player in school history, the career record holder in games played (198), at-bats (723), runs scored (197), hits (254), doubles (55), triples (22), home runs (30), RBI (181), walks (120) and steals (47). He also hit .353, which was fourth all-time when he graduated.
“I just remember being part of the ground floor of the program (Powers’ era) and being part of the group that really started to get this program going,” said Richie in 2006 when he took part in a celebration honoring the 11 Pack players (at the time) that played for Powers to reach the major leagues.
“I haven’t regretted my decision to come here (to the Wolf Pack) at all,” Richie said in 1987.
The Detroit Tigers then drafted Richie in the second round of the June 1987 draft. He signed a reported bonus of $25,000, about a third of what he would have gotten the previous year because he now (with his college eligibility expired) had no bargaining power.
“There was a lot of negative talk about him because he didn’t take that offer (from the Rangers in 1986),” said Northern Nevada-based Tigers scout Dick Wilson in 1987.
Richie reported to the Tigers Appalachian League (Rookie League) in Bristol, Va., to start his career. He would play just three games in Bristol, going 3-for-12 with five RBI. The record also shows that he did not hit a home run for Bristol but he did hit a ball over the fence with the bases loaded in a game for an apparent grand slam. Richie, though, passed the runner who was on first base (he didn’t notice he had done so until he rounded third and headed home) and was credited with just a single (and three RBI).
“I was watching the ball,” Richie said after the game. “I never saw Steve (Pegues). I didn’t realize he was behind me until I passed third and I wondered what he was doing behind me.”
Richie would finish his first season of pro ball at Lakeland (Fla.) of the Class A Florida State League (the Tigers’ spring training home), hitting an impressive .294 with one homer and 32 RBI in 204 at-bats.
That prompted the Tigers to promote him to the Double-A Eastern League in 1988 at Glens Falls, N.Y. (just north of Albany and Saratoga Springs). Richie established himself as one of the top prospects in the Tigers’ organization at Glens Falls, winning the Eastern League Most Valuable Player award (another former Wolf Pack player, Brock Stassi would win the award in 2015 while playing for Reading).
Richie hit .309 for Glens Falls with 24 doubles, seven triples, 14 homers, 82 RBI and 24 stolen bases. He hit a 450-foot homer in his first at-bat of the season against Vermont.
“I believe you are going to see this boy in the major leagues for quite a few years once he gets there,” Glens Falls manager John Wockenfuss told the Gazette-Journal a month into the 1988 season. “He could be a 20-35 (a year) homer guy in the big leagues.”
Richie missed the first month of the 1989 season because of off-season shoulder surgery but returned to play 69 games at Triple-A Toledo and hit .293 with six homers and 26 RBI in 215 at-bats. The Tigers, on their way to a 59-103 season, then brought him to Detroit in August 1989.
Richie would play in 19 games for the Tigers and hit .265 (13-for-49) with four doubles, two triples, a homer and 10 RBI. He started 13 games (10 in left field), playing alongside veterans Fred Lynn, Chet Lemon and Gary Pettis for the most part in the outfield.
Richie showed tremendous promise for a young player with just one full season (1988) and parts of two others (1987, 1989) in the minors.
He drove in two runs with a double against the New York Yankees’ Andy Hawkins in his major league debut on Aug. 12, 1989. He tripled off veteran knuckleballer Tom Candiotti of the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 3, driving in two runs. He then tripled off Bret Saberhagen of the Kansas City Royals the next night and followed that with a two-run single off Terry Leach the following night.
Richie was clearly not overwhelmed by major league pitching just two seasons removed from playing at Moana Stadium for the Wolf Pack. He doubled off Melido Perez of the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 9 and two weeks later drilled his first major league homer, a two-run shot, off John Dopson of the Boston Red Sox at Tiger Stadium. His final big-league hit was a single off Oil Can Boyd of the Red Sox on Sept. 24.
“He was a good strong hitter with a Billy Williams type of swing,” said the Tigers’ Chet Lemon, comparing Richie to the former Chicago Cubs and Oakland A’s Hall of Famer.
Richie, though, was already starting to think seriously about a life without baseball.
“All of the glamour didn’t really make it for me,” Richie told the Gazette-Journal in 1990. “I could have handled that part of it. But I couldn’t play baseball and do the other things I wanted to do in my life.”
Richie told the Detroit Tigers in early February 1990 that he was retiring from major league baseball at the age of 24, roughly just 10 years after his father Bob moved him from Hawthorne to Reno. Detroit, Northern Nevada and all of major league baseball was stunned.
Bob Richie was disappointed.
“I told her (his wife Linda) when we went to see him play last year (in 1989) that ‘he won’t be playing after this year,’” Bob Richie told the Gazette-Journal in 1990.
“I wasn’t going to say anything (to the media) but I decided I should speak so some other kids can see what’s happening to me and my family. Maybe it will keep some other kid from being exploited.”
It was Bob Richie’s belief that the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion persuaded Richie to give up his major league career.
“If he had quit baseball for any reason other than Jehovah’s Witnesses, we could’ve accepted it,” Bob Richie said. “We talked to him at length. We explained to him it was nothing but a cult. They separated him from his family. They put ideas into his head.”
Powers, who remembered Richie turning down the Rangers four years earlier, said in 1990 that he wasn’t surprised by Richie’s decision. “He’s struggled with that stuff for a long time,” Powers said. “I think other people in his life wanted him to be more successful at baseball than he wanted to be.”
Dick Wilson, the Reno-area scout who helped persuade the Tigers to draft Richie, told the Sacramento Bee in 1990, “I think he’s being misled and misguided. I’ve tried to explain to him that he’d do more good, have more impact, being Rob Richie, the Detroit Tigers outfielder, than doing that door-to-door stuff (for Jehovah’s Witness). He just told me, ‘God and baseball don’t mix.’”
Wilson didn’t agree.
“He told me, ‘I got to the big leagues and that’s it,”’ Wilson said. “I told him, ‘That’s not it. You’ve got to prove you can stick.’ He didn’t prove anything except that he was the best they had at the time. They were looking for help, taking anybody. I said, ‘Rob, you took the easy way out.’”
Rob Richie clearly found something to do with his life other than baseball.
“I just felt it was in my best interest,” he explained to the Gazette-Journal in 1990. “I tried to serve God and play professional baseball but it didn’t work out. I couldn’t see myself compromising my faith any longer. It (baseball) had to go. I don’t have the same view of a lot of society. I don’t put baseball on a higher pedestal than my relationship with God.”
Richie became a probation officer in Toledo, Ohio, earning roughly $25,000 a year. The average salary in the major leagues in 1990 was just under $600,000 a year. It would be over a million a year by 1995 and it is now over $4 million a year.
“I haven’t done anything to dishonor my parents,” Richie said in 1990. “There’s no room in my life for material thoughts. I can’t live on the basis of how people think of me.
“(Baseball) just didn’t fulfill my dreams. I didn’t want to let the sport overtake me and I saw that happening to me, even in the minor leagues. Baseball couldn’t pay me enough to make me miss seeing a young person turn his life around.”
Lou Whitaker and Chet Lemon, two Detroit Tigers who were also members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, were impressed by their rookie teammate’s decision.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Rob,” Lemon told the Detroit Free-Press in 1990. “He was a lot more content with the simple life. He wanted to be a servant to his congregation. How many people have a life of money and still aren’t happy? Everything is about priorities and perspective.”
Richie’s priorities were with his faith.
“I don’t feel like I’m punishing myself,” he said in 1990. “Baseball is not in my plans. I didn’t go through all of this (retiring) just to go back (to baseball) later on. I feel I’ve made a decision I will stick with.”
Richie, who later moved to Kentucky with his wife Loreece (they met while at Hug High) and just turned 55 years old (Sept. 5), never did go back to baseball.
The question remains, even 30 years after The Decision, just how good Rob Richie would have been in Major League Baseball.
“He might have hit a ton. Who knows?” former Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson told the Detroit Free-Press in 1990. “The boy’s a winner and he’ll always be a winner for doing what he did. His religion is very important to him. He never put baseball above it. That takes a lot of courage.”
The Free-Press in 1990 likened Richie to another famous baseball player who had a brief career. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham played just one game in the major leagues and retired to become a doctor. His story was fictionalized in W.P. Kinsella’s book, “Shoeless Joe” and portrayed by actor Burt Lancaster in the movie “Field of Dreams.”
“If I’d only got to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy,” Graham says in Kinsella’s book. “You have to keep things in perspective. I mean, I love the game. But it’s only that. A game.”