It came to him only once, he said, in a dream.
The pitch bore down, fast and unswerving, rising, rising . . . his head directly in its path, his body transfixed, the terror rising in his throat. And then, deliverance: The alarms went off, and at the last moment, he jerked the ripcord and evacuated the batter's box, the ball passing harmlessly by, no longer a warhead, merely an off-course projectile.
In his sleep, Dickie Thon actually felt himself move out of harm's way. "Like a reflex," he said.
But whatever it was that spared him in his sleep, whether impulse or instinct or simply fear, deserted Dickie Thon on an April night last season in the Houston Astrodome. On that night, Dickie Thon sensed the danger but was frozen by it, locked in horrible fascination as Mike Torrez's fastball hurtled toward him and finally exploded where the flap of his helmet met his face, the impact shattering the bones around his left eye as the helmet was driven into the side of his face.
"I didn't move," Thon said. "I just stood there. When I saw it, it was too late."
And now, Dickie Thon, 26, never will see with the same clarity again, his vision having been permanently impaired by the beaning. There was swelling in the tissue behind the left eyeball, and now it is scarred.
"The analogy we use is this," said Dr. William Bryan, the Astros' team physician. "If you take a piece of wax paper and wrinkle it up, then try to straighten it out, it still has wrinkles. The ophthalmologists tell us that's how the back of Dickie's eyeball looks."
When they tested Thon's vision after the beaning, it was measured at 20-300. "At first I couldn't see at all," said Thon, whose vision had previously been 20-20. "I couldn't read, I couldn't drive, I couldn't see nothing."
Last fall, when they tested his vision again, it measured 20-40. Doctors say it won't get any better. "It affected his visual acuity--his ability to read letters--and his depth perception," Bryan said.
Thon has no problem driving now, or reading a magazine, or playing with his daughters, Soleil Marie and Vanessa. But he is here in the Astros' training complex, a short ride from Disney World, to test the limits of what he can do with a bad eye. He wants to find out if he can still play baseball.
"This is what I know how to do," he said. "Baseball has always been my life."
In 1983, Thon was an All-Star, the National League's answer to Robin Yount or Cal Ripken Jr., a shortstop who could field, hit and hit with power. Thon, who came to Houston from the Angels in a trade for Ken Forsch on April Fool's Day, 1981, hit 20 home runs in 1983, led the league with 18 game-winning hits, drove in 79 runs and batted .286.
The 1984 season ended for Thon in the third inning of the fifth game, on a 1-2 pitch by the New York Mets' Torrez, a right-hander nearing the end of an 18-year career. He was released by the Mets before the end of the season.
In his career, Torrez hit 59 batters, which is hardly an extraordinary number. No one ever has suggested that he hit Thon deliberately. Thon doesn't believe it himself, which is why, he says, there is no bitterness
"He (Torrez) called me," Thon said. "He told me he was sorry and didn't mean it. He was real nice.
"It was a freak accident. You can't feel sorry for what happened. I just have to keep going.
" . . . I'm lucky to be alive. I'm happy to be alive. I'm doing everything I can to play again. It would be a plus. But there are more important things."
But here, in Kissimmee, nothing matters more than the game.
"I'll do whatever it takes to play again," Thon told Harry Shattuck of the Houston Post. "I'll never quit. I'm going to keep trying until they don't give me any more chances."
Bryan, the team doctor, was one of the first to attend Thon after his beaning. "I ran out on the field and it looked bad," he said. "We thought he was knocked out, but he was just stunned. We thought there may have been brain damage, but the neurosurgeon ruled that out."
On the Astros' radar gun, which is said to run a little high, Torrez's fastball was clocked at 92 m.p.h.
For weeks afterward, Thon's eye remained discolored and swollen, and when he held a press conference in Houston two months later, many of those present feared that a comeback was out of the question. Bryan was not among them.
Bryan is an orthopedic surgeon, not an eye specialist. Dr. Dan Jones, chairman of Ophthalmology at the Baylor College of Medicine, and Dr. Stephen Ryan of the USC School of Medicine have been primarily responsible for Thon's care. But as team doctor, Bryan has come to know Thon well.
"I became more positive as time went on and I learned about Dickie's personality," he said. "I realized how tough he was.
"You can't discount the psychological side. If he doesn't come back, it won't be for psychological reasons, but because of physical impairment."
The task for Thon is two-fold: To be able to hit and field something he cannot see well--a baseball--and to overcome something he can't see at all--fear.
"Even with one eye he can hit a lot better than a lot of shortstops," said Jose Cruz, the Astros' left-fielder and Thon's close friend. "I'm glad to have him back."
The aftermath of a beaning: It was a late afternoon in April, 1983, and Dodger Stadium was wrapped in shadows. The lights had not yet been turned on. There were two outs in the ninth inning of a game long since decided when Mike Marshall of the Dodgers was struck in the head by a fastball thrown by Expos' reliever Jeff Reardon. He was not injured, but he didn't start hitting, either, until July.
"I just hope Dickie comes back," Marshall said the other day in the clubhouse at Dodgertown, the Dodgers' spring training facility in Vero Beach.
"He's a great guy. You just have to pray for him. That's such a thing to come back from and coming back from an injury makes it doubly tough.
"For me, it was more psychological than physical. But having to deal with the psychological and not knowing whether you can see, that takes a brave man. I think that shows his character."
According to Bryan, the energy of a pitched baseball is three times the energy needed to break a man's skull if the skull is hit directly. Until the pitch by Reardon, Marshall never had been beaned in his life. The experience is not easily forgotten.
"For me, it pops into your mind, but when I stepped into the batter's box I forgot about it. I can honestly say there was no time I was in the batter's box that I thought to myself, 'Get ready to duck,' or 'What if it comes inside?'
"Sure you think about it, but it's like a race-car driver hitting a wall or a boxer getting knocked out and going on. It's something you've prepared for for your whole life. In the last 10 years, how many guys have been seriously beaned--about one a year? Playing those odds is one of the hazards of the game.
"It amazes me when a race-car driver hits a wall and gets back in there."
But race-car drivers are crazy, someone said.
"Some people probably think we're crazy, too," Marshall said.
Like Thon, Marshall said he froze at the plate.
"But you don't practice moving your head," Marshall said. "Your eyes don't move and your head doesn't move. Your goal as a hitter is to keep your head still.
"Counting batting practice, games, extra-batting practice, I figure I take 100 swings a day. That comes out to about 25,000 swings a year. And I've been hit once in the head. Ever. One ball comes to your head, and your head doesn't move. Yeah, I definitely froze.
"But you can't worry about it, it's part of life."
Denis Menke, a former infielder for the Braves, Astros and Reds, is Houston's batting coach. His brother, Alan, was a minor league first baseman--until the day he was beaned in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. A half-season later, he was released and never played baseball again.
"I don't think he ever conquered the fear," Denis Menke said. "He tried different things, opened his stance, but he couldn't stay in there against the pitcher."
Alan Menke now owns a bar, the Red Barn, in Bancroft, Iowa, a small town about 100 miles south of Minneapolis. He doesn't remember the name of the pitcher who hit him, but he remembers the lights being bad. He didn't go to the hospital, but he said his head swelled.
"The next day it rained," he said. "And I remember being glad that it did.
"I must have been a little gun-shy, because I never hit well after that," he said.
Dickie Thon's attempt at a comeback began in the Arizona Instructional League last fall. He appeared in five games and had five hits.
And in the batting cage, he had Denis Menke pitch to him--and asked Menke to throw inside. There's no doubt, Menke said, that if Thon makes it back, that's the way opposing pitchers will work him, too. Inside.
"I hope they do, because that's his strength," Menke said. "I told him, 'Nobody can throw you anything up high.' He hits a ball up high as well as anybody in baseball."
Thon returned home to Puerto Rico, where he had grown up, but quit after just three games. He says he was upset that the owner of the team in Puerto Rico was exploiting Thon's presence, using him as a promotional gimmick. He also admits that he may not have been ready to return.
It was not a happy time. When two reporters here approached his wife, Sol, who was watching Thon during a base-running workout, he yelled: "Get away from my wife. Leave her alone."
Later, he explained. "A guy in Puerto Rico was all over her. He had a tape recorder and she didn't want to say anything," Thon said. "I'm sorry if I sounded mean."
In his first intrasquad game here, Thon had two hits. His best hit of the spring so far was against Toronto, a double to the base of the wall in left, 330-feet away, off Toronto's Roy Lee Jackson.
Thon was hitting just under .400 in his first five games, but he also had made four errors. On one play, he went to the hole to backhand the ball and lost sight of it, looking up when the ball had remained in his glove. Moments later, however, he ranged far to his left to cut off a ball headed up the middle.
"My timing is bad," he said. "I'm rushing everything. I don't do anything smoothly.
"Hopefully, it's getting better. I'm seeing the ball better and better."
The question, of course, is whether better will be good enough. Bryan quoted figures that said a batter has four-tenths of a second to pick up the spin of a ball delivered from 60 feet 6 inches away. That's all the time he has to determine whether a pitch is a fastball, slider or curve.
Eyeglasses can't help Thon, Bryan said. Neither can surgery.
"The scar tissue cannot be overcome with eyeglasses or lasers, and surgery is out of the question," Bryan said. "Dickie's injury is unprecedented, because of the way the helmet was driven into his face. In other cases, like Tony Conigliaro's, he was struck directly in the eyeball. That's why it's so difficult for us to say whether he'll return.
"But it's incredible, the power of the body and brain to adapt to such (visual) defects, and I think that's what's happening."
Thon said there were times last season when he wasn't sure he could make it back. "I didn't know if I should play or not, but I'm seeing better and hopefully I'll be able to adjust even if I don't have my best eyesight."
Menke says Thon hasn't been quite as aggressive at the plate.
"It looks like he's just trying to make contact, instead of saying the hell with it and swinging away," Menke said. "But the more he gets back into his game and has some success, his confidence will come back."
And perhaps the fear will lessen. "Sometimes it's hard to overcome the fear of being hurt," Thon said. "I'm trying to concentrate on seeing the ball and getting out of the way. I know I can do it. It's something I am working on."
Cruz, who was the on-deck batter when Thon was beaned, discounts the fear factor. "I've been hit in the helmet many times," he says, "and when I am, I get closer to the plate. Dickie is like that. He goes out there and doesn't care who's pitching.
"I want him to live in the present. I don't want him to look in the past."
But the past is there. By April 1, the Astros must decide whether to renew Thon's contract at his present salary of $675,000. All indications are that the Astros will renew, even if he isn't ready at the beginning of the season. If they don't, he will be paid only for spring training.
"That's a decision we can't help them with," Bryan said.
"But it'd be tragic if he doesn't come back to his greatness."
That is Thon's hope--and dream. Maybe this time, reality will be sweeter than any dream.
"I have a lot of faith in God," he said softly. "If He wants me to play again, I will."