By Ross Forman
Three years into his big league career, Dickie Thon contributed with two playoff appearances. He was 21 years old in 1979 when he broke into the majors with the California Angels. Thon, a middle infielder, played in 35 games that season, plus one in the American League Championship Series.
“That was something else in 1979,” Thon said. “I had just turned 21 and had just come up from AAA. Even though we lost (the ALCS), that was quite an experience, playing with Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew, Joe Rudi, Bobby Grich and others. We had a great team and I learned a lot from those players.”
Spring forward to 1981. Thon played 49 games for the Houston Astros, then four in the National League Championship Series.
“When I got to Houston in 1981 they were coming off a division-title season and that was a great team. I didn’t have the chance to play right away, but it was a great experience. I had to work very hard to establish myself with Houston,” Thon said. “When I joined Houston, I was really just maturing as a player and certainly as a hitter. I was a leadoff, line-drive hitter. One who just tried to get on-base whatever way possible. I’d often try to steal bases and be aggressive.”
Later in his Houston career, Thon was moved to third in the lineup and showed some pop in his bat in 1983 when he hit 20 home runs.
“I was a different kind of player, because I could hit for power and also could run. I stole 37 bases in 1982, and then 34 in 1983,” he said.
There was a time when Thon was thought of as a possible future Hall of Famer, however, his career was permanently altered on April 8, 1984, when he was hit in the face by a Mike Torrez fastball. His 1984 season was brought to a screeching halt after the pitch broke the orbital bone around his left eye. Thon returned the following season, but he suffered problems with depth perception that permanently hampered his potential.
Thon spent parts of 15 seasons in the majors with stints in California (Angels), Houston, San Diego, Philadelphia, Texas and Milwaukee. He played 1,387 games from 1979-93 and was a career .264 hitter. Primarily a shortstop, Thon had 4,449 major league at-bats, with 71 home runs and 435 career RBIs. He also had 167 career stolen bases.
“The things that stand out the most from my career were the playoffs, the good pitchers who I faced and the good pitchers who were on my team,” Thon said. “I got to play with Nolan Ryan, and other greats. That’s one of the things that stays fresh in my mind, perhaps more than other things.”
Thon led the NL in triples (10) in 1982 and twice had 15 or more home runs in a season. He scored a career-high 81 runs in 1983.
“I got stronger and better as a hitter as I got older. I was gaining weight and gaining confidence as a hitter,” said Thon, who at 24 played in the All-Star Game with locker-mate Willie Mays.
“The Astrodome was a tough park to hit homers in. The pitchers certainly had an advantage there.”
No wonder 14 of Thon’s 20 homers in 1983 were on the road.
“I had a good hitter in front of me with Houston, Jose Cruz. I think they pitched to me more because they didn’t want to face him,” Thon said.
Thon and the Astros were back in the playoffs in 1986, but lost in six games to the eventual World Series champion New York Mets. Thon appeared in all six NLCS games in ’86 and had a .250 batting average, including a home run.
“1986 was the year that we all finally matured as players,” Thon said. “We had a very good team, but lost to the Mets, which was a complete team, obviously a tough team to beat. Actually, I thought we should have beaten them. We had a lot of good players, good teammates.”
“The highlight of ’86 was when we clinched. The key to that team was the good pitching and solid defense, plus timely hitting. We worked very hard in 1986, and it was special to win over some very good teams.”
What about 1981?
“That was a transition year for me, having been traded (to Houston) during spring training,” he said. “When I came in, there were guys like Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz, and it was a very good team, with very good pitching. I remember, it was a solid team, a winning team. Our opponent in the 1981 NLCS, Los Angeles, had a very good pitching staff. There were a lot of very good teams that year, such as the Dodgers, Cubs and others.”
“I played 14 years, but never had the chance to play in the World Series. You have to take advantage when you get that opportunity.”
Thon played for the Padres in 1988, then the next three seasons in Philadelphia. He played his second to last season, 1992, for the Texas Rangers and his final season with the Brewers.
“Going to Philadelphia was a rebirth of my career because I was almost out of baseball at that time,” he said. “Those years in Philadelphia were very enjoyable, especially because I was able to play on a regular basis, which many thought I would not be able to do.”
“The thing I remember about Texas was, being teammates with Jose Canseco and Nolan Ryan. I remember the steroid controversy and how hard Ryan worked. I remember Ivan Rodriguez as a young kid, plus Ruben Sierra. I could tell even back then that they’d be great players.”
According to Thon, the best player he ever saw was Houston outfielder Cesar Cedeno, a .285 lifetime hitter during his 17 years in the majors (1970-86).
“Cesar, he was super,” Thon said. “He could run and hit for power. He was great. I was always impressed by him, his arm and his power. He could do everything. And that says something, because there were a lot of great players who I played against.”
“I tried to learn from the best players of that time, such as Ivan DeJesus, who I really admired. He was a hard-working shortstop who I tried to emulate. Very steady.”
Thon labeled Dwight Gooden, circa 1984, as the toughest pitcher he ever faced.
“I would have liked to have faced Nolan Ryan, but I never had that chance,” Thon said.
Thon rarely appears at card shows, though he signed this past summer in Houston at the Tristar Productions’ three-day show.
“When I was young, I had a bunch of cards,” Thon said. “When I was a player, I had the chance to collect a lot of things from a lot of very good players. But I never did, though I should have. When I first came up, (sports memorabilia) was not that big of a deal. Certainly not like it is now.”
“I never asked Ryan for anything. Same for (Mike) Schmidt, (Pete) Rose and other baseball legends who I played with and/or against. Mostly out of respect.”
He did, though, have a Roberto Clemente bat that a fan gave him in Pittsburgh.
“I gave it to a friend, which is something I now regret. I know it’s a big item, something I wish I still had,” Thon said. “When I was a player, I never thought that collectibles were going to get that big. I saw the players as normal, everyday, hard-working people. Nowadays, the players are looked upon as movie stars, and that’s a big difference. Just getting to them is a big difference.”
The one autograph on Thon’s wish list is, believe it or not, his former teammate Nolan Ryan. Thon made his cardboard debut in 1980 (Topps No. 663), and he still has many of his old cards.
“I like them all. Each is nice to have,” he said.
Thon said he rarely receives fan mail, with all of it addressed to him and sent to the Astros. The letters he does receive, he answers.
Thon, now 48, lives in Houston and is the owner of a professional volleyball team in Puerto Rico that plays from January through April. According to Thon, it is a very competit ive, 10-team league that he’s been involved with for two years.
Thon’s daughters, Soleil and Vanessa, played college volleyball and are now in the league. His wife also played college volleyball.
“I’ve always enjoyed volleyball,” he said. “The biggest similarity between baseball and volleyball is you have to work hard. I just try to always be supportive of the team. I’m not a (George) Steinbrenner-type owner. I’m still a rookie owner and I’m learning a lot.”
Thon does not play.
He coached in the minor leagues when he retired, but has been out of baseball for about six years. “I hope to get back in (the game) eventually,” he said. “I still enjoy the competitiveness of baseball and the teaching, be it in the minors or majors.”
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the 04-27-07 issue of Sports Collectors Digest, a sister publication of Tuff Stuff magazine. To see what else SCD has to offer go to www.sportscollectorsdigest.com