Until recently, baseball fans thought a Dickie Thon was a marathon for people named Dickie. Then Thon, who's actually a Houston Astro, became such a force as a major-leaguer that Cincinnati Pitcher Rich Gale was moved to describe him as "the best all-around shortstop in the National League."
At the end of last week Thon hadn't gone more than 11 at bats without a hit all year, had stolen 21 bases and was among the league leaders in average (.310), hits (120), runs (54) slugging percentage (.480) and game-winning RBIs (10). Furthermore, he was a major reason why Houston had won 13 of its last 18 games to take possession of third place in the National League West.
"He ought to be a leadoff hitter," says the Mets' Rusty Staub, "but he's filled the three hole well for them." He certainly has. The most impressive aspect of Thon's performance this season has been his productivity. In 496 at bats last year Thon had only three home runs and 36 RBIs. But in 387 at bats through the end of last week he had hit 13 homers and driven in 54 runs. Thon has gotten only one homer in the spacious Astrodome, but two each in single games in San Diego, Atlanta and New York. At 5'11" and 170 pounds, Thon gets most of his power from a short, wristy swing. "I try to be quick," he says.
He's equally adept at shortstop, where he has exceptional range and is overcoming a tendency to rush his throws. No wonder Cardinal and National League All-Star Manager Whitey Herzog was quoted as saying that Thon, not his own Ozzie Smith, should have been voted the league's starting All-Star shortstop. Batting for Smith in the fifth inning, Thon contributed a single to a run-scoring rally and made a couple of nice plays in the field.
Thon, 25, displaced Craig Reynolds as the Astro shortstop midway through last season and went on to hit .276, steal 37 bases, field .975 and average 4.97 chances per game. The 1982 All-Star shortstop, Cincy's Dave Concepcion, batted .287, stole 13 bases, fielded .977 and averaged 5.09 chances. "Once Dickie was given the chance to start, he had the security to relax and play well," says Pittsburgh Shortstop Dale Berra.
"I first saw Dickie Thon in A ball in 1977," says Smith, indisputably the best-fielding shortstop in baseball. "I could tell he'd be a fine addition to any club. The first thing I look for in a shortstop is soft hands. The next thing is quick feet. Then you go to the arm. He had all those qualities." Houston Manager Bob Lillis, who's known for understatement, calls Thon "a pretty complete player." Adds Astro Second Baseman Bill Doran, "I always know I'm going to get a good throw from him on the double play, and it'll be accurate and have something on it—a rare combination."
Thon is a pretty rare package himself. For one thing, he was born in South Bend, but didn't speak fluent English until he was old enough to vote. His father, Fred Thon Jr., was getting his B.S. from Notre Dame when Dickie was born. Soon afterward the family returned to its home in Puerto Rico, and Fred went to work for an oil company. Dickie continues to live in Rio Piedras and counts two other major league shortstops, Jose Oquendo of the Mets and Ivan Dejesus of the Phillies, among his neighbors.
Dickie may be the most talented member of a distinguished line of ballplayers. His grandfather, Fred Thon Sr., 66, a retired businessman and engineer, played winter-league ball with the likes of Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin. An island legend as a pitcher and outfielder—he sometimes played both on the same day—Fred later managed the Bayamón winter-league team.
Dickie's father, a former semipro player, was his first coach. "At first Dickie didn't think about a career in baseball because he was so good at other sports," says Fred Thon Jr., 46, who now lives in Enfield, Conn. and is African and South American sales manager for a specialty paper company. "He was an excellent sprinter, volleyball player and basketball guard. He was the type of kid who walked around and dressed like an adult, and when he was young, his technical knowledge of baseball was as good as that of any college player."
After his senior year in high school, Thon played shortstop for Puerto Rico's Puerto Nuevo team, which finished third in the 1976 American Legion world championships. He was immediately besieged by scouts. "I was ready to play for anything," he says, "but when the Brewers and Pirates offered me bonuses of only $5,000, my father made me hold out for more." Later that year he signed with California for $20,000.
The minor leagues are often a hellish experience for Hispanic players, who suffer from culture shock, language difficulties and homesickness. Thon had it easier than most. "I had a couple of friends, Juan Carrero and Nelson Rodriguez, who had been in the minors," he says. "In the winter we'd go to the beaches and run and work out. It was like a little spring training before the real one. And they told me about conditions in the minors, so I had no visions of nice hotels."
Once in the minors, Thon advanced so quickly that not even his wife, Maria, could keep up with him. The day she arrived at Class-A Salinas in 1977, he was promoted to Triple-A Salt Lake City. And in the summer of 1979, three days after she'd joined him at Salt Lake, he was summoned to the Angels. He was 19 at the time.
After making the Angels, however, his progress stopped. "They had me on the bench most of the time, and when they did use me, it was often at second," he says. "I think they gave up on my arm."
On April 1, 1981 he was traded to the Astros for Pitcher Ken Forsch. "Dickie was the one I wanted, nobody else," says President Al Rosen. In Thon's first season with Houston he was again used as a sub, but he began the 1982 season as a starter when Reynolds came down with dizzy spells, and he eventually won out in head-to-head competition.
People close to Thon say his personality has as much to do with his success as his skills. "He sacrifices everything, practicing and practicing," says Maria.
"He was always a very stable kid," says Fred Sr., "and that comes from his father." Not to mention his grandfather. On the road Thon is a TV-watcher and a newspaper-reader; at home he plays the doting father to daughters Soleil Maria, 4, and Vanessa Cristina, nine months.
Thon has been playing on one-year contracts while establishing his market value. Rosen sounded overblown in spring training when he boasted that Thon was the best two-way shortstop in the league. Now the boast sounds prophetic—and potentially expensive. "When you're quick and fast," says Staub, "when you can play shortstop and produce runs like Dickie, you're really going to be in demand." In other words, contract negotiations could soon be a marathon for a person named Dickie.