Quantcast

Lost Greatness, Scar Tissue, and Survival: The Life of Baseball's Brief Superstar, Dickie Thon

A tragic beaning ruined the career of shortstop Dickie Thon, but there's much more to his story than one at bat gone wrong and greatness denied.

Greg Hanlon

In the Houston Astrodome, the sound of bat striking ball wasn't so much a crack but a dull thud. The dome was a notorious pitcher's park, it's huge, plastic grass outfield swallowing fly balls, its cavernous depths making it hard to track the ball from the pitcher's hand.

Dickie Thon stepped onto that plastic grass and into the batter's box for his second plate appearance of the day. It was the Astros' fifth game of the 1984 season. He assumed his normal coiled stance, leaning in, his front foot nearly touching home plate. He had come up with the Angels, where he was teammates with Don Baylor, who for years held the modern-day record for being hit by pitches. Baylor had told him to stake his claim to the inside edge of the plate. His lightning quick wrists meant he was entitled to that space just like he was entitled to his burgeoning greatness.

Read More: The Long Wondrous Life of Marv Levy

Thon remembers what happened next as another dull Astrodome thud. The ball ran up and in, and up and in—home plate umpire Doug Harvey said it moved 10 inches—and hit Thon's earflap and then socked him on the orbital bone above the left eye, fracturing it. The broken bone would heal, but the scar tissue that built up behind Thon's retina, rendering him nearly blind in that eye, would remain. With that, Thon went from being a potential Hall of Famer to a hard luck journeyman.

It kept happening: The ball riding in toward his face, chasing him, Thon realizing what was happening but powerless to move. He had leaned out over the plate again, had guessed outside half, had disrespected the pitcher, had been too sure of himself, and now he was about to pay the price for his hubris.

Then he'd wake up. Then he'd go to the ballpark to play a Major League Baseball game in several hours. He told me over the phone that he still has that dream, though not as often as he did when he was playing.

Image via WikiMedia Commons

On their homestand to start the 1984 season, the Astros had been struggling to score runs, managing two or fewer in three of their first four games. But Thon, the team's 25-year-old shortstop, was hitting well. Since becoming an everyday player in 1982, Thon had become the Astros' star, amassing 13.5 wins over replacement in '82 and '83—when he made the All-Star team and finished seventh in the MVP voting—and getting off to a .353 start in '84. He had no trouble hitting in the dome — he hit .303 there going into '84 — because he was the type of player who made difficult things look easy: Textbook fundamentals, smooth footwork, wiry strength. He was just 5-11 and 160 pounds, but his hands were vises and his forearms were full knotted with muscle.

His demeanor, like his game, was easy. He had grown up in middle class comfort in the Rio Piedras part of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where his great-grandfather had immigrated from Germany. His grandfather had played in the Puerto Rican winter leagues and had been close friends with Negro League stars who played winter ball like Monte Irvin and Willard Brown. After their careers, those legends would visit Puerto Rico to spend time with Thon's grandfather. When Thon's career began to take off, he stepped into his greatness with the understated air of expectation of someone who had grown up in the presence of Hall of Famers.

Bill Doran, the Astros second baseman, was Thon's best friend on the team. He spoke to me about the polish on Thon's game, like the touch and timing of his flips from short to second on double plays, with the reverence of baseball men describing five-tool players and how they fulfill a platonic ideal of the form of a ballplayer: "He could hit, he had the quickness, he had the range, he had the arm strength, he could steal bases. Dickie was about to set a different standard for shortstops, and he was just getting started."

The opposing pitcher in the Astros' fifth game of 1984 was Mike Torrez of the Mets. Torrez was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Thon, wrapping up an eventful career that had begun in 1967 and had made him something of a baseball Forrest Gump, with a knack for finding himself associated with iconic people and moments. He had been traded for both Reggie Jackson and Dock Ellis. He recorded the last out for the Yankees in the 1977 World Series, then switched over to the Red Sox, where he gave up Bucky Dent's famous home run in the 1978 pennant playoff game. The first man he embraced after the last out of the '77 World Series was Thurman Munson; two years prior, while Torrez was playing for the Orioles, Munson had charged the mound on him to ignite a bench-clearing brawl. In 1984, Torrez remained what he always was: A sinker-slider type pitcher who made hitters conscious of both sides of the plate. He had struck Thon out looking on his first at bat by pinning a fastball to the outside edge. The second at bat is the one everyone remembers.

Thirty-one years after the beaning, the scar tissue behind Thon's retina still hasn't fully healed, and his vision and depth perception remain everyday disabilities. Driving for longer than 45 minutes, and reading, give him a cross-eyed sensation and a headache. He speaks with a Spanish-inflected accent and comes across as laid-back and sensible. He admits to occasionally succumbing to bitterness about what happened to him, but mostly he is proud: He hung on for 10 more years. Playing in the big leagues is hard enough. Doing so when his vision in one eye is like "looking through a sheet of wax paper," as Thon describes it, is a remarkable feat of perseverance and resourcefulness.

"Sometimes I say, 'What if I didn't have that accident?'" he says. "But I try not to dwell on it. It's part of the game. It happens to pitchers, with their arms. That's why the game is hard."

Save for Thon's wife, nobody knew about the extent of his disability because he kept it hidden: "I was afraid they wouldn't give me a chance to play," he says. Eye tests revealed that his vision in his left eye was ever-improving, eventually climbing to 20-30, but in reality Thon was gaming the tests: He underwent so many tests that he took progressively more educated guesses based on the blurriest fragments of visual information.

Keeping the secret became a heavy burden, which ultimately severed his relationship with the Astros. They believed that Thon's vision was getting better, and that the only thing keeping from from regaining his superstar form was the psychological hurdle of staring down blazing fastballs. In the spring of 1985, Astros general manager Al Rosen told reporters, "If he does come back to his old form, we're a contender. People talk about whether he's as good as Ripken or Yount, but I think he's a better player than either one of them."

A month into that year, Thon was hitting .207, with a .224 slugging percentage. His eyes were tired from playing every day. He walked into General Manager Al Rosen's office and asked to be put on the disabled list, where he spent nearly two months before returning.

In spring training of 1986, he was again named the team's everyday shortstop. Dick Wagner, the new general manager, told reporters, "I think this is the year for Dickie Thon to show he can play every day."

He hit .248. By the second half of the season, he was coming off the bench.

Things came to a head between Thon and the Astros in spring training of 1987, which Thon began by hitting 0 for 8, with two errors. Media accounts held that Thon, in a fit of despair, up and left camp. But Thon says he asked Wagner for time off to rest his eyes, but that Wagner was unsympathetic, which forced his hand. "When I needed rest, he said I was mentally not prepared to play the game. I had to leave because I needed some time off, but they treated me like I did something wrong," he said.

He eventually returned to the team and hit .212 in 32 regular games. Upset over his poor performance and feeling like he was hurting the team, he left the team again. Astros public relations man Rob Matwick told reporters that Thon "definitely showed a lack of confidence in himself."

Thon told me, "They portrayed to the media that I had a breakdown, and that I didn't have confidence. But I couldn't explain my side to the media, because I didn't want to give up to them all the things that were happening."

The Thon family must have felt it was the victim of a cosmic joke: Dickie's younger brother, Frankie, had been a great 17-year-old player in Puerto Rico, a second baseman as smooth around the right side of the keystone as Dickie was around the left. During one American Legion game, Frankie was staring into space near the bag between innings when the customary catcher's practice throw hit him in the face and fractured his cheekbone, permanently blurring his vision and ultimately requiring three operations. He was signed a month later by the San Francisco Giants, but his vision never cleared and his career failed to launch.

Dickie Thon was determined to stick in the big leagues—even after the accident and even after the falling out with the Astros. He was disabled, he was isolated, but he kept clawing.

The Astrodome. Image via WikiMedia Commons

Adjustments had to be made: Old Thon crowded the plate, hoping to use his strong hands and quick wrists to turn on inside fastballs. New Thon stood far away from the plate, his stance opened up so he could see the ball with his good right eye to compensate for his bad left eye. He replaced his old 34-inch bat with a 38-inch one, hoping to serve the ball to right-center field, giving himself an extra-half beat to ascertain the flight of the pitch. Standing so far away from the plate was also a concession to his instinct to bail out on pitches coming inside: This way, he could bail out without fear that the ball would break over the plate for strikes.

Fear, and Thon's attempts to hide this fear, governed him in all sorts of ways. He refused to wear a facemask, and took batting practice without a helmet so he could feel more protected during games.

Along with his fear, he had to manage his spurts of visual concentration, because concentrating for too long gave him a headache. Before his injury, he'd take 100 groundballs before games, delighting in his perfection of his craft. Afterward, he'd take 25, just enough to get loose.

The biggest change to his approach was in his demeanor: Because he was playing scared, he compensated by adopting an aggressive, edgy demeanor. He got into two fights on the field and was feisty with umpires. Pre-injury Thon was on a free and easy path to greatness. Post-injury Thon was a combative survivor.

"After I got hit, I had to psych myself into being aggressive." he said. "I felt that when I was relaxed, and everything felt good, I began to think about my injury too much. But when I was aggressive and upset, I wouldn't think about my injury."

"I didn't enjoy the game the same way. It was more work for me. Before, it was fun. After that, it was, 'I gotta do this to work for my family, to work for my future.'"

All of the scrapping paid off. Thon never regained his greatness, but by 1989, two years after leaving the Astros, he again became a full-time player as a member of the Phillies. His comeback story was written up in Sports Illustrated, and he stuck as a full-time player for two more seasons before tapering off the next two years and retiring after 1993 at age 35. Overall, he spent 15 years in the big leagues and made at least $6 million. Because of baseball's escalating salary structure during his career, he actually made more money after the beaning than before.

He has five children and three grandchildren with his wife, and both of his parents are still alive. His injury might have detracted from the enjoyment he got from playing the game, but he still loves baseball, and he stays busy teaching the game to children and working with the Puerto Rican winter league. (Last year, he was in charge of operations for the Cangrejeros de Santurce, or, the Santurce Crabbers.) A devout Catholic, Thon says his life has had "many blessings," and he sees his injury as a stroke of bad luck in a life otherwise defined by good luck: "I've had a lot of good things happen to me. I try to think about it that way," he says.

He often travels to Houston, where he still has a home, and where the Astrodome has fallen into dilapidation and disuse. When he played shortstop, opposing players who advanced to second base used to complain to him about how difficult it was to pick up the ball. Sometimes it was hard for Thon to see the ball and sometimes it wasn't. That fateful day in 1984, Thon remembers, it was: "Maybe that had something to do with it," he says, without giving it too much thought.

After the beaning, Torrez called him in the hospital to apologize, but the two didn't see each other in person until 2011, during a celebration for the 1986 World Champion Mets, which both men attended because they were in town, even though neither of them played for that team. Torrez apologized to him again, but Thon told him what he told him in the hospital: That he had no hard feelings, and that it was part of the game.