Saturday, June 20, 2009

Happy Birthday...

Dickie Thon!

Richard William Thon turns 51 today. He was born in South Bend, Indiana where his father was graduating from Notre Dame, but spent almost his entire childhood in Puerto Rico, from which he was signed by the Angels as an amateur free agent at age 16. Up and down with the Angels starting in 1979 at age 21, he was an Astro by the time he started to come into his own, in 1982. That year, he hit 10 triples and stole 37 bases in 45 tries. His overall line of .276/.327/.397 isn't going to turn many heads, but for the Astrodome in 1982, that was awfully solid, good for a 110 OPS+. 1983, then, was like a dream: .286/.341/.457 (127 OPS+), 20 homers, 34 steals (though in 50 tries this time). He made the All-Star team, and finished 7th in the MVP voting.

Maybe another young shortstop over in the AL was doing even more impressive things at an even younger age, but at just 25, Thon looked like a star. Wikipedia even claims that some considered him a future Hall of Famer (and cites Bill James' original Historical Baseball Abstract, which I wish I could find right now, as the source of that), and two pretty good seasons at ages 24 and 25 don't seem to me likely to lead you down that particular path, but he looked poised for a long and successful career.

Then: April 8, 1984.

A fractured orbital bone sounds like a terribly unpleasant thing. You can read about it here, but probably shouldn't do so while having lunch or anything. It can lead to serious vision problems...which is what Thon got when he was struck in the face with a Mike Torrez fastball on that day. His depth perception was shot.

The New York Times archives are full of references to Thon's determination to return to the playing field...and his repeated setbacks. Thon never got back into the game in 1984, and while he played in the Winter Leagues at home in Puerto Rico that winter, he got only 84 games in in '85. And frankly, he was terrible when he did play. He was a tiny bit worse in 106 games in '86, and played 32 awful games in '87, walking away from the team in July (presumably to undergo the eye surgery he had talked about wanting in March of that year) and acknowledging that his career might be over, as many writers seemed to be assuming it was. He'd just turned 29.

But it wasn't over. He signed with the Padres, and did pretty well, putting up roughly average offensive numbers (which are, of course, better than average for a shortstop) as a part-time starter. From there he went to Philly, where he reminded the game of what it might have missed out on seeing a decade or so of, hitting .271/.321/.434 (117 OPS+) with 15 homers. The speed was gone, but otherwise he looked much more like the promising young All-Star he had been than the mediocre backup infielder he had since become.

That performance earned him two more full years with the Phillies (then half-time gigs for the Rangers and Brewers after that), but he was done. He ended with a solid career, above-average numbers for a shortstop in nearly 5000 PA. But of course there's no telling what might have been.

You just have to admire a guy like Thon, though. Taking a fastball to the face would ruin (and has ruined) a lot of hitters. So would the continued setbacks and blurred vision and repeated trips to the minors or DL just a few years after finishing 7th in the MVP voting.

Even better? Thon was hit in the head with a pitch in 1987 -- less than three years after the Torrez incident -- while on a minor league rehab assignment. He missed five games. I'm pretty sure that if the first blindingly fast flying object to hit me in the head didn't get to me, nerves-wise, the second one would.

So no, I don't think it's particularly likely that he was working on a Hall of Fame career when it happened. But he was an exciting player, and a damn good one. And his perseverence in coming back time and again after the incident(s), culminating in his second very good season in 1989, is the kind of thing Disney will (and [gulp] probably should) make a movie about someday. Next time you're up against something that seems too arduous, think of Dickie.

So happy birthday, Mr. Thon. Hope you're seeing OK these days.

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