Remembering Dickie Thon

The shortstop was laying down on a Sunday afternoon, praying. “I kept thinking, ‘I want to live. I want to see my family again.’ I didn’t know how bad it was. I was scared. I said, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Richard William Thon was born June 20, 1958 in South Bend, Indiana. His father, Freddie Thon, Jr, was a promising pitcher, but calcium deposits in his arm prevented him from signing a contract, so he went to Notre Dame. Two weeks after Dickie was born, Freddie graduated with a business degree and the family returned to Puerto Rico, where he would coach little league for his sons (and also future Major Leaguer Ed Romero, currently the manager of the Astros’ New York-Penn League affiliate in Tri-City).

Thon’s great-grandfather moved to Puerto Rico from Bavaria and married a Puerto Rican girl. Dickie’s grandfather, Freddie Thon Sr., was a native Puerto Rican, educated in New York and Pennsylvania, who starred for the San Juan Senadores in the Puerto Rican Baseball League for fourteen years on a team which also featured Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, and would also start Puerto Rico’s first dry-cleaning chain. He was invited to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but made enough money to turn them down.

Thon was signed by the California Angels as an amateur free agent on November 23, 1975 while at San Antonio High School in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. He reported to Low-A Quad Cities in 1976 and hit .276/.362/.366, striking out just 19 times in 284 plate appearances. Thon moved to the California League in 1977 and hit .316/.387/.444 in 56 games before skipping Double-A and reporting to Triple-A Salt Lake City where in 77 games, he hit .288/.357/.431.

In 1978 Dickie took a step back, posting a .657 OPS in his second turn through the Pacific Coast League. That year, though, his brother Frankie was playing second base for his American Legion team in San Juan. Between innings in a game, Frankie was kicking at the dirt and looking back at the outfield while the pitcher made his warmup throws. The catcher popped up and fired the ball towards second before realizing that Frankie wasn’t looking. He turned when the catcher shouted and the ball caught him below the left eye, shattering Frankie’s cheekbone. He would sign with the Giants the following month and play in parts of three seasons, but Freddie Thon said he was never physically sound again. Frankie would undergo three operations, his vision never recovered, and he retired from baseball in 1981.

The following season, Thon spent just 38 games in Salt Lake before getting called up on May 20, sending down shortstop Orlando Ramirez who was 0x12 in 13 games. Ramirez would never play in the Majors again. Over the next 80 games, Thon would hit .255/.282/.315 for the Angels, playing every position in the infield. 

Thon began the 1980 season in Salt Lake but was called up in late May. In his season debut – the first game of a double-header against the Rangers – Thon went 5x5 with a double. He would finish the season with a .597 OPS, recording a -1.0 WAR for the Angels. 

The Angels traded Thon to Houston on April 1, 1981 for pitcher Ken Forsch. The Astros won the NL West in 1980 with a 93-70 record, but the Phillies knocked the Astros out of the NLCS three games to two. Astros shortstops combined to hit .239/.284/.319 in 1980 with Craig Reynolds posting a .566 OPS. With the Astros signing Don Sutton in December 1980 to join Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro and Bob Knepper, the Astros were able to trade Forsch for Thon. 

Dickie Thon got his first Astros start on Opening Day, at second base. He went 0x3 in a 2-0 loss at Dodger Stadium and collected his first Astros hit on April 18 against Pittsburgh and would only hit .157/.271/.176 in his first 29 games. The 1981 season was interrupted by a labor dispute in June, and so when play resumed in August, Thon finished the 1981 season on a tear hitting .409/.422/.523 in 10 starts (20 appearances). The highlight of the 2nd half was Nolan Ryan’s 5th career no-hitter on September 26. 

The Astros won the 2nd half, making the playoffs for the second straight season – a first in Astros history. Facing the Dodgers, Houston won Game 1 on a two-run walk-off homer by Alan Ashby. Dickie Thon didn’t play. The Astros won Game 2 when Denny Walling pinch-hit for Dickie Thon with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom 11th, and knocked a single to right, scoring Phil Garner. Needing just one win in the next three games to advance to the NLCS, Bob Knepper was tagged for three runs in the 1st inning (future pitching coach Burt Hooton was the winning pitcher) in a Game 3 loss. Fernando Valenzuela got the complete game win in Game 4, and Nolan Ryan took the loss in Game 5 to allow Los Angeles to advance to the NLCS and eventually win the World Series.

1982 was Thon’s first shot at everyday playing time and he was firmly entrenched as the starting shortstop. He had a rough opening month to the season, hitting .218/.283/.291 in 20 April games, but after a week off to start May, finished the season hitting .283/.333/.410 with 29 doubles, nine triples, and three home runs. In 136 games (540 plate appearances), Thon posted a 5.1 WAR (FanGraphs) helped, in large part, by his stellar defense and 37 stolen bases. He would hit .276/.327/.397 and lead the league with ten triples. Even more remarkable was Thon's penchant for hitting at the Astrodome. In 73 games at home, Thon hit .315/.382/.457 compared to .236/.266/.335 away from the comforts of the Dome. He was 24 years old.

But the Astros would finish 77-85, 12 games back of the Braves in the NL West. After seven seasons, Bill Virdon was fired midway through the season with former Colt .45 Bob Lillis taking over the team and leading them to a 28-23 record through the remainder of the year. 

Houston traded backup first baseman Danny Heep to the Mets for a 28-year old pitcher named Mike Scott, but with Art Howe out with injuries, Phil Garner played third base while Ray Knight played first. Bill Doran was at second and 25-year old Dickie Thon anchored the infield at short. He would go on to have one of the greatest offensive seasons in Astros history.

Thon opened the season with a seven-game hitting streak, and hit safely in 18 of 22 games in April including a 3x5 day on April 15 in which Thon drove in four runs in a 7-6 extra-inning win over Montreal. Twelve days later Thon went 1x3 with 2RBI and Nolan Ryan struck out Montreal’s Brad Mills to break Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record. 

At the All-Star Break, Thon was hitting .307/.352/.466. Defending World Series champ Ozzie Smith won the fan balloting for the NL’s All-Star starting shortstop, but Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog admitted that Thon should have been the starter, and a post-season poll of players agreed.

Thon’s average would stay over .300 until August 28, and his OPS would only dip below .800 on the last day of the season, when he went 0x4 with a walk to end the year hitting .286/.341/.457. He led the team in homers (20) and stolen bases (34). His wOBA was .349, with 124 wRC+. FanGraphs listed his Baserunning value at 0.4, while his Offensive rating was 19.6 to go along with a 27.5 Defensive rating. His 7.2 WAR season is still 9th-best in franchise history, and only Cesar Cedeno’s 1972 season in which he put up a 7.8 WAR was higher until the Bagwell/Biggio era began. It’s still the 20th-highest WAR season ever posted by a Major League shortstop.

To put Thon’s 1982 and 1983 in perspective, his 12.3 WAR over those two seasons are higher than any other career WAR for an Astros shortstop. Adam Everett’s career WAR was 8.7. Craig Reynolds, whom Thon replaced at shortstop, would play in over twice as many games as Dickie Thon but post a 7.9 WAR for his career. Dickie Thon is the only Astros shortstop in history to play in over 100 games and post positive ratings in Baserunning, Offense, and Defense. 

Al Rosen, Houston GM, said that Thon was the defensive equal of Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, and Marty Marion. “When I see Dickie Thon, I see a future Hall of Famer.”

“He has got to be considered the best all-around shortstop in the league now,” third baseman Phil Garner said in August, after a 10-4 win over Pittsburgh where Thon got two singles, a homer, and a stolen base, “Ozzie Smith is exciting, fun to watch on TV, but Dickie is a better all-around ballplayer. He’s a very solid player who’s going to get nothing but better.” 

Manager Bob Lillis agreed, “He hasn’t had the publicity that some other players have. But he will.” Padres manager Dick Williams called Thon “the best shortstop in our league.” Bill Doran: “I’d be afraid to think how great Dickie can become.”

The Astros finished 1983 85-77, 3rd in the NL West, six games behind the Braves. 

Heading into the 1984 season, Manager Bob Lillis said, “When you look at him, he gives the appearance that he’s a small kid. But if you take a close look at him you’ll see that he has tremendous strength in his forearms and wrists.”

In what was becoming routine, the Astros dropped three of their first four games to open the 1984 season including two of the first three games in a series with the Mets at the Astrodome. They were already three games back of the division leaders prior to the Sunday series finale on April 8. Announced attendance was 10,625. Still, Thon was seemingly picking up where he ended 1983. He had hit safely in all four games, including a 3x4 day in the second game – the lone Astros win of the young season. 

The opposing pitcher was Mike Torrez, against whom Thon was 4x12 with two doubles coming into Sunday’s game. Torrez was in the final year of an 18-year career and had a 184-155 record with a 3.93 ERA coming into 1984. Signed by the Cardinals in 1964, he played with St. Louis, Montreal and Baltimore. In 1976 he was traded with Don Baylor to Oakland for Reggie Jackson (and others), and then was traded in April 1977 to the Yankees for Dock Ellis (and others). During the rest of the 1977 season with the Yankees, Torrez was 14-12 with a 3.82 ERA and was 2-0 in the World Series, allowing five earned runs in 18IP. He signed as a free agent with the Red Sox and was traded for a PTBNL to the Mets in January 1983. Torrez led the league in 1983 with 17 losses, 108 earned runs, and 113 walks as a 36-year old pitcher. He was the Opening Day starter for the Mets in 1984, and didn’t make it out of the 2nd inning – giving up 6H/6ER. This game against the Astros was his second start of the year.

In the first inning, Thon had taken a called third strike on a fastball that grazed the outside corner of the plate, and was looking for the same pitch in his next plate appearance, which came in the 3rd inning.. With a 2-1 count, Thon was looking for that outside pitch and crowded the plate. “I was young and stubborn and crowding the plate too much. I was giving the pitcher no respect,” Thon later said. 

Torrez was trying to pitch Thon inside. “After I got him away, I decided to bring it in. He has a tendency to crowd the plate and lunge for balls, so I thought I’d jam him. It was a strategy decision, nothing more, but my ball was sailing that day.” Torrez said “He started out over the plate thinking I was going outside again and my fastball just took off. He didn’t have time to get out of the way.”
Torrez shouted to warn Thon, but he never heard it. “He ducked,” Torrez said, “but he ducked into it…Please tell his family that I hope everything is okay.”

Umpire Doug Harvey said after the game that the ball had moved ten inches, starting out waist-high and tailing up and in.

Bill Doran said, “I was nearly sick to my stomach when I saw him lying there.” Dickie’s sister-in-law – the wife of Frankie, who suffered the 1978 injury – was so distraught by Dickie’s injury that her water broke.

 “The earflap of his helmet absorbed some of the impact as he was struck just above the left eye.” (SI) Dr. Bill Bryan, the Astros’ team physician, was sitting in his box seat at the Astrodome and jumped on to the field. “I heard a bone break…most people heard the ball hitting the helmet. I heard it hitting the bone, like a dull thud.” Bryan told the AP “there is no doubt his batting helmet was an important factor in limiting the severity of the injury.”

I didn’t move,” Thon noted, “I just stood there. When I saw it, it was too late…I didn’t even know where the ball had hit me at first. All I knew was that I was in pain.” Torrez, as well as every Astro in the dugout, rushed towards Thon, who never lost consciousness. Manager Bob Lillis said Thon wanted to get up, the team made him stay down until a stretcher could take him off the field.

He was rushed to Methodist Hospital – less than three miles away – and X-rays showed a fracture on the orbital rim. Doctors ran a CAT scan to make sure there wasn’t brain damage. The Astros lost, 3-1. Three days after Torrez’ pitch, surgeons wired the bone back in place, but his vision dropped from 20/20 to 20/300, eventually peaking at 20/30. 

Torrez called Thon in the hospital the next day. “He told me he was sorry, that the ball got away from him, that he wasn’t throwing at me. I don’t think he was.”

The Astros lost their next two games to drop to 1-6, five games back after seven games. 

Within a week the Astros were talking about Thon returning within a month, but with scar tissue building up around his retina combined with fluid and blood in the back of the eye, Thon’s depth perception suffered to the point where he couldn’t see where a car should stop at a light. “I have no depth perception,” Thon told the Associated Press, “Glasses won’t help right now. It’s not even to that point. I’ve tried batting practice, but the ball is a blur…I keep telling myself it will get better in time to play this year. The doctors have to tell me that, but I don’t think I’ll be there. I know the eye is not close now.”

On June 9 the Astros signed their 3rd Round pick, Ken Caminiti, out of San Jose State University.On June 16 – with the Astros 28-35 and ten games out of the lead, they held a press conference to announce that Thon wouldn’t be back in 1984. Thon said, “The doctors have told me it may take six months or a year before my vision improves enough for me to play, or they said I could get lucky and play this year.” GM Al Rosen questioned whether Thon’s eye would ever be the same. “It’s like somebody taking wax paper, crumpling it into a ball, then smoothing it out on the table. You still have all those cracks in the paper.” Twice a month Thon would get a check-up at the Baylor Ophthalmology Department.

But in August, the Astros went on a tear. They began the month 50-57 but went 14-5 over the last 19 games of the month. Ultimately, though, they never made a play for the playoffs. Sitting at 80-80, the Astros dropped their final two games of the season at Cincinnati to finish 80-82, 12 games back of the Padres. Craig Reynolds hit .260/.286/.364 with six home runs and seven stolen bases, the weak link in an offense that otherwise was the 4th-best in the National League. 

On August 28, the Astros traded Ray Knight, a 31-year old corner infielder with a .540 OPS, to the Mets for players to be named later. Those players would be Gerald Young and Manuel Lee.

“There’s no question we’d have been in contention this year if Dickie hadn’t gone down,” said first base coach Denis Menke.

Mike Torrez was released by the Mets on June 22, signed as a free agent with Oakland, and was released on August 9. He retired after the season.

1984 off-season
Thon began his comeback in the 1984 off-season. “The toughest part was that I thought I’d be out only a month,” he said. “I’ve had to learn patience. Sometimes I was very irritable at home, but my wife and I have a deep faith in God. I’m just happy to be alive – I know things will get better.” He tried to play in the Arizona Instructional League – as it was then called – but had trouble following the ball and was hit on the leg by a pitch (“He didn’t flinch,” reported Astros camp director Les Moss). 

He made plans to return to Puerto Rico for winter ball. “I don’t know how I’ll do,” he said, “but I think I’ll be okay.” Thon hit a 380-foot homer in his first game for the San Juan Metros (the new name of the San Juan Senadores – Dickie’s grandfather’s old team) but took leave of the team after three games. “I didn’t feel right,” he said, “I wasn’t ready to play.” His departure from the team prompted rumors that Thon would quit baseball. Thon refuted those rumors, saying, “I never said I was going to quit. I just said I wasn’t going to play then. I was not seeing the ball too good at the time. I needed to work at a slower pace.” 

Thon took batting practice without a helmet to build up his confidence, spent the winter performing eye exercises, and retooled his stance so as to follow the pitch more easily with both eyes. He reported early to Spring Training for the 1985 season and doubled in his first plate appearance. “They told me I can go at my own pace. I want to prove that I can play and that’s what I’m doing right now…I’ve got to prove that I can perform on the field and that I deserve to be there.” 

So many reporters were asking Thon about the pitch, and his recovery, that first base coach and hitting instructor Denis Menke began serving as Thon’s spokesman. “It got to the point where it was taking away from his work,” Menke said, “From now on, he’s decided to just let the results do the talking.”

GM Al Rosen was optimistic, “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…Compare their output, and imagine what it might be if they were playing in (the Astrodome). And we don’t have any Bostons or Seattles or Minnesotas in this league, either.”

“He’s seeing the ball better,” Lillis said in Spring Training, “but he still needs to pick up the rotation, the spin of the ball, to see what type of pitch it is, and the location.” Lillis and the Houston coaching staff noted that Thon wasn’t as aggressive at the plate, “feeling” for the ball just to make contact. “If you have fear at the plate, you’re not going to be a good player,” Lillis said. Due to Lillis’ fear of Thon’s fear, he platooned Thon with Craig Reynolds at short in 1985, letting Reynolds hit primarily against right-handed pitching.

Thon got a single off of Fernando Valenzuela in his 2nd plate appearance on Opening Day 1985 and, despite starting the season 1x9, put together a six-game hitting streak in early April. But Thon’s eyes grew tired the more often he played. He was hitting .207/.258/.224 – he had one double in 62 plate appearances – when he Astros placed Thon on the DL at his own request on May 19. 

“Dickie told me personally at home last night after the game,” said Al Rosen, “and then he came in early today before the game and expressed his concern over his playing ability.” Bert Pena broke his wrist against San Francisco on June 7, and the Astros activated Thon the following day. Over the remainder of the 1985 season, Thon hit .264/.311/.394 with six home runs.

The Astros went 83-79, finishing 12 games behind the Dodgers. Al Rosen left the Astros in September to become the President/General Manager of the San Francisco Giants, where he won the Major League Executive of the Year award in 1987. 

Thon was optimistic about the 1986 season, especially with his left eye recording 20/30 vision. “This year I feel a lot better than I did last year at this time,” Thon said in Spring Training. “I think the best thing I can do is play and get the competition. That’s what I need.”

New General Manager Dick Wagner replaced Bob Lillis with Hal Lanier prior to the 1986 season. Lanier hated platooning players, especially at shortstop, for defensive reasons. “I’m going to give Dickie every chance in the world to be a starting shortstop. I think this is the year for Dickie Thon to show he can play every day…if he can come back to anywhere close to where he was before he got hurt, he’ll be a big part of our ballclub. He fits right into the mold of the ballclub I want because of his aggressive play.” 

Thon played in 106 games in 1986 – the high-water mark of the franchise up to that point. He posted an exact same .653 OPS as he did in 84 games in 1985. As the season wore on, Lanier began to use Thon as off the bench. Twenty-four of his 54 appearances after the All-Star Break were pinch-hit/defensive replacement appearances. 

The Astros went 96-66 and won the NL West by ten games – and were still 12 games behind the NL East champion New York Mets. Thon appeared in all six of the NLCS games against New York, and was 3x12 with a solo home run.  Former Astro Ray Knight hit the sacrifice fly in the top of the 9th of Game 6 to score the tying run for the Mets and, seven innings later, got the RBI single that put the Mets up 5-4 in the top of the 16th.

In 1987 Dickie Thon started Spring Training 0x8 with two strikeouts and three errors. Frustrated, he left camp on March 14 without a word. Lanier was stunned, “He (Thon) didn’t say anything to me and it would be unfair to make a comment until I’ve spoken with Dickie.” Craig Reynolds noted that Thon wasn’t acting like himself over the previous few days, saying, “He didn’t speak to me and I’m not going to say anything until he does. Dickie doesn’t need any pressure put on him right now. He’s had enough of that already.” The Astros said they would fine him $1,000 for every day Thon missed (they would later rescind that).

After a 2 ½-hour eye exam on March 20th showed that Thon’s vision hadn’t changed since the previous year, Thon asked the Astros to arrange psychiatric assistance. His agent, Tom Reich, said, “Dickie is suffering from a lot of stress. Obviously, at this point, Dickie isn’t ready to play.” Back in Houston, Thon said, “I’m not going back to camp anytime soon. I don’t know when I’ll go back to Florida. They want me to make a decision right away, but I’m not going to do it.”

In early April, the Astros gave Thon an ultimatum.  GM Dick Wagner told the AP, “We have advised Dickie by letter to be here Friday (April 3) or be placed on what is called the baseball restricted list. We have to do this because we are so close to the opening of the season and he’s not in shape…he’s missed three weeks and his contract is very specific about this.”

Thon reported and spent 20 days on a rehab assignment at Tucson and returned on May 9. He made his season debut on May 11. He was hitting .212/.366/.273 in 32 games before Thon told Lanier at 3:30pm on July 3rd – before a game at Philadelphia – that he was leaving the team. “I am through this year,” Thon said, “I just don’t want to play this year because I think it’s dangerous…I feel a lot for that team, but I’m not seeing the ball, and I’m not able to help the team.” When asked if his departure meant he was retiring, Thon replied, “I don’t want to use that word. I don’t know what will happen later.”

The Astros were angry. Publicity Director Rob Matwick said Thon “definitely showed a lack of confidence in himself.” GM Dick Wagner put Thon on the disqualified list for the remainder of the season, and Thon knew his days with the Astros were over. “The way (Wagner) has been dealing with my situation, I won’t be around here anymore…It’s difficult to walk away from a game I’d do anything to play. I’d do anything to play again.” He became a free agent on November 9, 1987.

Thon spent 1988 with the Padres, posting a .684 OPS in 95 games before the Phillies purchased his contract from the Padres in January 1989. In three seasons with Philadelphia, Thon hit .259/.302/.374, enjoying a brief renaissance in 1989, hitting .271/.321/.434 with 15 homeruns. Following the 1991 season, appropriately won the Tony Conigliaro Award. Conigliaro was hit in the face by a pitch at Fenway Park in August 1967 and missed the rest of the 1967 season and all of 1968 before returning in 1969 and homering on Opening Day. He posted a career season in 1970 but vision problems forced his retirement in 1975, at age 30.

Dickie Thon played with the Rangers in 1992 and the Brewers in 1993 before retiring, but never posted an OPS over .670 from 1990-1993. 

Jim Deshaies: “I didn’t get to Houston until ’85, so I missed Dickie’s big year here in ’83 and his injury the next year. But I remember everyone telling me that before he got hurt, Dickie was on his way to being the best player in the league.”

Ruben Cortez, an old friend from Puerto Rico says, “How many men have the strength to come back from such a disaster? And believe me, what happened to Dickie was a disaster. He was climbing to the top, and all of a sudden he got hit by a train.”