The Grand Slam Indoor Batting Range in Houston is normally a playpen for youngsters and jocks manquè, but on this rainy mid-March day it is transformed into a spring training site for three bona fide major leaguers. Banished from camp by the lockout, Philadelphia Phillie shortstop Dickie Thon has taken refuge in these noisy confines with two friends from the Houston Astros, pitcher Jim Deshaies and catcher Alex Trevino. For Thon, who played seven seasons for the Astros and has made Houston his home for the past seven years, this afternoon workout is the second of yet another day off the job. He spent much of the morning working with weights and other instruments of bodily torture in a gym near his new five-bedroom house. And now, with Trevino throwing to him from behind a protective screen, he is taking his indoor cuts. Thon has a slightly open batting stance—his left leg pointed outward, his left shoulder slanted away from the pitcher—and his swing is powerful and compact. He is not a big man—5'11", 175 pounds—but his forearms are Pop-eye-thick, and he can sting the ball. The crack of his bat resounds in the cavernous Grand Slam, and he soon attracts an appreciative audience.
Deshaies, who has just finished throwing a simulated inning to the busy Trevino, watches Thon from a chair in an adjoining cage. "I didn't get to Houston until '85, so I missed Dickie's big year here in '83 and his injury the next year," Deshaies says. "But I remember everyone telling me that before he got hurt, Dickie was on his way to being the best player in the league. And now, considering what he's been through, I don't think there are many people in baseball who aren't rooting for him to succeed, me included. Except, of course, on days I'm pitching against him."
Thon, who turns 32 on June 20, gave convincing evidence last year that he had finally emerged from the five-year ordeal that nearly broke him in body and spirit. In his first season with the Phillies—and his first playing as a regular since April '84—he hit .271 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs in 435 at bats. And, as he had done even in his personal abyss, he fielded brilliantly at shortstop. Thon dismisses his climb from the depths as "just a process of getting better every year and of getting a chance to play. I think I'm ready to hit .300 and, if I get 600 at bats, have maybe 20 to 25 home runs. Those wouldn't be bad numbers for a shortstop." In fact, they would be extraordinary numbers for a shortstop who is supposed to be half-blind. Or as Ruben Cortez, an old friend of Thon's 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."
Well, not exactly a train. But entering the 1984 season, Thon was certainly getting close to the pinnacle of his sport. Considered a prime prospect since he was signed by the California Angels as a 17-year-old graduate of San Antonio High School in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, Thon seemed to be fulfilling his early promise in 1983, his third year with the Astros, when he batted .286 (only a September slump kept him from .300), hit 20 homers, drove in 79 runs and stole 34 bases. Defensively, he was the equal of Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and Marty Marion, said Al Rosen, Houston's general manager at the time. Fast company, indeed, but, said Rosen, "When I see Dickie Thon, I see a future Hall of Famer." Dick Williams, then managing the San Diego Padres, called Thon "the best shortstop in our league." And Astro second baseman Billy Doran said, "I'd be afraid to think how great Dickie can become."
Almost everyone in baseball said that success couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Thon was good-looking and self-deprecating. He was a family man and a devout Catholic. He was also something of an exotic. His great-grandfather had moved from Bavaria to Puerto Rico around World War I and had married a local girl. His grandfather Fred Thon had been educated in New York and Pennsylvania, had served in the Navy and returned to Puerto Rico to found the island's first dry-cleaning chain and had become, in his spare time, a legendary pitcher-outfielder in a league featuring Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin.
Dickie was born in South Bend, Ind., the year his father, Fred Thon Jr., was graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in business. The family returned to Puerto Rico soon after, and, except for amateur baseball tournaments, Dickie did not return to the continental U.S. until he signed with the Angels in 1975. He speaks English with a Spanish accent, but he is so devoted to his father's alma mater that he frequently outfits himself in Fighting Irish regalia. His wife, Sol (short for Maria Soledad), is also part-German, and she and their three daughters are fair-haired.
So there he was in 1984, an emerging superstar at age 25, when his bright new world was shattered almost beyond recognition. It was April 8, the fifth game of the season. In the first inning, facing the New York Mets' Mike Torrez, Thon had taken a called third strike on a fastball to the outside corner. He was looking for the same pitch his next time up in the third, and with the count 2 and 1, he leaned in over the plate. "I was young and stubborn and crowding the plate too much," says Thon. "I was giving the pitcher no respect."
He felt he needed to crowd the plate because he had a weakness for letting outside pitches get by. Torrez threw his heater, as expected, but this time it headed inside. By the time Thon picked up the ball in flight, it was too late. Torrez watched in amazement as Thon seemed to freeze in place. The earflap of his helmet absorbed some of the impact as he was struck just above the left eye. Dr. William Bryan, the Astros' team physician, leaped onto the field from his box seat in the Astrodome. "I heard a bone break," he said later. "I guess that's the doctor in me. Most people heard the ball hitting the helmet. I heard it hitting the bone, like a dull thud."
Thon was taken to Methodist Hospital in Houston, where X-rays revealed a fracture of a small bone on the orbital rim. On April 11, surgeons wired the bone back into position, but Thon's vision remained fuzzy. The sight in his left eye had gone from 20/20 before the accident to 20/150 afterward. Eventually, it would stabilize around 20/40. But the swelling of tissue behind the eye had drastically impaired Thon's depth perception. He could not, for example, determine just where a car should stop at a traffic light. Dr. Stephen Ryan, who examined him at the USC School of Medicine, advised against further surgery. Only time, Ryan said, could restore Thon's sight. But time is the one thing a ballplayer, even a young one, can ill afford to lose.
Thon was too concerned with staying alive after the accident to think much about his baseball future. "I didn't even know where the ball had hit me at first," he says. "All I knew was that I was in pain. But I never doubted then that I could come back. I'd been hit before in the minor leagues, once, playing for Salt Lake City, right behind the left ear. I was in the hospital for a day or two after that one. I was dizzy, and I had headaches. But I came back. I knew I could do it this time too."
The doubts came later. Thon played no more for Houston in '84. He tried to play in the Arizona Instructional League, but he had trouble following the ball and was hit on the leg by a pitch. He played three games in the winter league back home in Puerto Rico and even hit a home run in his first game. But it was no good; he just couldn't see well enough. The future, in every way, seemed dim. He knew that many great baseball careers had been doomed by a beaning, including those of Tony Conigliaro and Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Ducky Medwick. He had even seen it happen in his own family: His younger brother Frankie had been a hot prospect until, at age 17, he was hit in the face by a catcher's throw while standing on second base.
For the first time, Dickie and Sol began to think of building a life without baseball. He took an accounting course at Alvin (Texas) Community College, and she began studying for a master's degree in physical education at the University of Houston. "I took a course on sports psychology that really helped," she says. "Of course, Dickie didn't want to see a psychologist. 'Yech!' he'd say to that. But after he got hit, the idea was to put our minds on good things. It wouldn't do to have two depressed people in the house, so I did my best to lift him up. I think both of us got closer to each other then—and closer to God."
Thon was determined to try playing again. He performed rigorous eye exercises—following marks on a thrown golf ball, reading numbers on a spinning phonograph record—and he opened up his batting stance so that he could follow the pitch more easily with both eyes. The Astros platooned him at shortstop with the lefthand-hitting Craig Reynolds in '85 and '86, but Thon could not regain his stroke, and he found that if he played too often, his eyes grew tired. In '87 he fell victim to despair. After going hitless in his first eight times at bat and committing three errors, he bolted from spring training camp on March 14. In April he was assigned to Triple A Tucson for rehabilitation. He returned to Houston in May but played in only 32 games, hitting .212, before he walked away again on July 3, this time presumably for good. An angry Houston general manager, Dick Wagner, put Thon on the "disqualified" list for the remainder of the season. He became a free agent on Nov. 9. As far as the Astros were concerned, Dickie Thon, future Hall of Famer, was a has-been.
Thon was almost convinced of it himself. Angered by Wagner's apparent dictum that he must either play or retire, he was prepared to quit. And then an odd thing happened: With rest, his injured eye got better. He started working out on his own. He felt good. San Diego needed a backup for shortstop Garry Templeton, so Thon signed on. Once again, he was platooned. He played in 95 games with the Padres in '88 and hit a respectable .264. But he found part-time work frustrating and asked manager-general manager Jack McKeon to deal him to another team. "I had to erase a stigma, " Thon says. "I knew by then I could play, but I had to convince others that I could. There were shortstops playing every day who were hitting .220. If my average got that low, I was back on the bench." The Padres sold his contract to the Phillies in January '89. Steve Jeltz, the Philadelphia shortstop, had hit .187 in 148 games in 1988.
"I'm going someplace where I can play," Dickie told Sol.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
"Yes, I am," he told her, leaving no doubt about it in her mind.
The Phillies rewarded him for his comeback season with a new $1.1 million contract, and Thon is determined to prove he's worth every penny of it and more. The spring without baseball has been a torment for him, but he has busied himself helping Sol move into their new house, caring for the three girls, particularly 16-month-old Mariana, and the two frisky Shih Tzu dogs, Nan Shan and Aptsu. But he wants more than anything to get back on a ballfield, a place where he knows at last he belongs.
"This is O.K., I guess," he says, taking his cuts in front of the crowd at the Grand Slam. "But I'd rather get in shape playing. Particularly now. Let's get started!"