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Thon Finally Beginning to See the Light : Astro Shortstop Puts Fear Behind Him as He Deals With Beaning

Times Staff Writer

Shortstop Dickie Thon of the Houston Astros is struggling through the painstaking process of learning to cope with a handicap.

“Oh, we try not to dwell on it being an impairment or a handicap,” said Dr. William Bryan, Astro team physician. “He has some scar tissue behind the left eyeball that creates dead spots or black spots in the eye.

“Before the injury, his vision was 20-20. Right after the injury it was 20-300. Now, his vision has stabilized at 20-40.

“If it happened to you or me, we’d get along in daily life quite easily, with a minimal amount of discomfort. But when someone is throwing a baseball at you at 90 m.p.h., and it’s your livelihood, merely getting by may not be enough.”

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In the spring of 1984, Thon, 27, wasn’t just getting by, he was excelling at a sport which possibly is the supreme test of hand-eye coordination. An All-Star in 1983, he hit .286 with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs.

“Hey, before he got hurt, he was the premier shortstop in the game or right in that group,” teammate Joe Niekro said. “He could play this game, do everything you had to do to win.”

But on April 8, five games into the 1984 season, the Mets’ Mike Torrez delivered a fastball that shattered the bones above Thon’s left eye. The beaning caused Thon to miss the rest of the season.

The aftermath of the eye injury has been a lesson in perseverance. First, Thon had to deal with the psychological misgivings of stepping back into the batter’s box.

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“He said he wasn’t afraid, but when people are bending off sliders and curves at 90-plus, there has to be a fear factor,” Astro coach Denis Menke said. “When he first came back, he was jerking his head away just a little bit on the curveball. It was understandable. He wasn’t seeing the ball. Now, he’s getting his confidence back.”

Confidence, perhaps, but not his smooth stroke, which was effective enough to warrant a $675,000 contract. Indeed, the physical adjustments might be more demanding than the mental, since Thon is hitting only .193.

“That’s why I went on the disabled list (May 19),” Thon said. “It’s so frustrating to want to be able to help the team, and when you’re losing to not be able to do anything about it.

“Coming back after almost a year off was difficult. I was improving every day before I was hurt. Doing things easily, smoothly.

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“Now it’s like starting over. I’m trying to compensate and change my stance so that I can pick up the ball, but this is not an easy place to experiment. You want to contribute right away to do something to help the other guys. Not being able to help gets to you.”

Thon’s teammate and friend, veteran outfielder Jose Cruz, is confident Thon will come back. Indeed, he has noticed significant improvement since Thon’s return from the disabled list on June 8.

“I have watched Dickie for many years because we play winter ball together, and when he first came back I knew he wasn’t the same,” Cruz said. “He would open his hip too much on some pitches and he was chasing bad balls. Dickie is a good, aggressive hitter. After he came back this time, you could see the difference. He is attacking the ball. You can get rusty being off for a year. Even for a few days. This is a tough game. It may not be this season, but he will be back.”

Thon, who still turns the double play as well as anyone in either league, also believes his stroke will come back. He hopes it reappears soon, since his replacement, Craig Reynolds, was hitting .296 before being sidelined with back spasms.

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“I try not to give up on myself,” Thon said. “I know it won’t be easy to get back to where I was. But I’m going to keep trying until I play the way I know I should. It’s timing. When you play, you get in a groove. I haven’t found it yet, but it’s there and not too far away.

“I pray that things will be OK. But I pray more that I will be a better person. Praying is for miracles. You just have to work hard to improve, to accomplish what you want.”

Menke agrees.

“No one can see in the mind of Dickie Thon because not many players have experienced that injury and tried to come back,” Menke said. “You try to help him, but it’s basically him. Only he knows what he’s seeing, what he’s capable of.

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