This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.
It’s a newfangled idea, this blogathon, a creation of the digital age. The new-school twist is that it has an old-school standard bearer—somebody so integral that his name is right there in the title. All it takes is one capital letter to get a blog-a-Thon.
Dickie Thon, of course, has one of the sport’s more interesting stories. In 1983 he was a would-be superstar, whose Silver Slugger season as a 25-year-old shortstop with Houston inspired then-Astros GM Al Rosen to label him a future Hall of Famer. Only five games into the following campaign, however, a Mike Torrez fastball shattered Thon’s eye socket, permanently impairing his vision. He returned to play nine more years in the big leagues, but never approached the type of success for which he’d once been predicted.
That chapter of Thon’s career has been documented to the point that it’s pretty much all anybody remembers about him. So I set out to do an interview in which I didn’t ask a single question about that fateful day. He spoke to me from his home in Puerto Rico, about topics that included ranching for Nolan Ryan and taking out the garbage for Joe Maddon—both of which, frankly, are way more interesting than ocular impairment. He also discussed Mike Scott’s scuffball, while opting against labeling it as such. “That pitch that was impossible to hit,” was as close as he came.
(My only regret: Being sidetracked from a follow-up question about mustache dominance in the Astros clubhouse between Thon and Phil Garner. Gotta leave something for the next blogathon, I suppose.)
That said, I bring you the Thonathon. Take it away, Dickie:
You played with Nolan Ryan on three teams. Did you guys mingle at all?
I met Nolan at first big league spring training in 1977. I was 18 and Nolan was the star of team. He was always very nice, very cordial with me.
Mike Krukow once told me that, after playing with Manny Trillo on three different teams, he was especially protective should an opposing pitcher come inside on him. With that in mind, did Nolan take special care of you?
I don’t think I ever got hit when Nolan was pitching. [Laughs.] It was a known fact that he would protect his players.
When I got hit [in the eye] in 1984, I couldn’t play for the whole year, and Nolan gave me a job at his ranch. I didn’t make that much money at the time, and I needed to work. Nolan was that type of guy. He had farm in Alvin, Tex., about a half-hour from where I lived in Sugarland. He had me packing hay for the horses into a truck. That was my job, to pick up the hay and put it in a truck. He used to do that, too, himself.
Had you ever worked on a farm?
I’m a city guy. I grew up in the city. I had no experience. I did that for a couple weeks, then I went to Puerto Rico and worked there.
Who was your most memorable teammate?
Nolan was one. Jose Cruz was another. Every time Jose Cruz didn’t get a hit in a game, he’d walk from the stadium back to the hotel. I was a young guy, and because he didn’t want to go by himself, he’d ask me to walk with him. I didn’t think we were going to walk that far, but we’d walk miles and miles. He wanted to get his frustration out. If he went hitless and thought he should have had a hit, he’d go crazy. The furthest we walked was maybe 10 miles. Nobody ever knew who we were.
I’ve spent enough time around big league teams to know that generations of position players have chased the pursuit of throwing a perfect knuckleball during pregame warmups. Please tell me that Joe Niekro inspired Houston players to new heights in this regard.
Alan Ashby wanted to throw—and did throw—a very good knuckleball. Ashby caught Neikro a lot. He was very good. I’d warm up with him once in a while, and he threw a lot of knuckleballs to me. I never did try it myself.
You were managed in Milwaukee by your keystone partner in Houston, Phil Garner. What was the difference between Scrap Iron as a teammate and as manager?
As a player, he was more vocal. As a manager, he was more serious. We were very good friends. As a manager, he didn’t treat me like a special friend. He treated me like another player who had a job to do. As a player, he’d get into your face and tell you if things needed doing. He helped me a lot. He told me to relax and let the game come to me. When I first came to the Astros, Craig Reynolds was the shortstop, and an All-Star. They had won the division the year before, and at beginning I didn’t get to play too often. Garner used to tell me to relax and play the game and don’t think about it. Just let it go.
That leads into another question. Your son, Dickie Jr., is trying to follow in your footsteps as a minor leaguer in the Blue Jays organization. I’ll give you two options, but you can only pick one. You can help him the same way Garner helped you—with emotional matters, like how to handle road life or troublesome teammates or the simple grind of the game, OR you can offer advice on practical matters, like fixing a hitch in his swing or helping him throw across his body while charging a grounder. Which of those would you choose, and why?
I think mechanics. Nowadays kids don’t play enough games. In the 1970s I played winter ball in Puerto Rico against other big leaguers. I learned a lot of mechanics from those players—Reggie Jackson, Dusty Baker, Thurman Munson, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson. There were lots of very good players, and you’d learn so much from them. Nowadays they don’t have that, because those kinds of players don’t play there anymore. The league here [in Puerto Rico] was special. Some of the teams were better than some of the teams in the big leagues. That’s why learning how to play the game right is so important.
Dickie Jr. probably will start in Class-A this year. He had some kidney problems and lost most of his first two years. He’s a little behind, but he’s much better physically now.
Speaking of managers, you played Single-A ball at two stops—Quad Cities [Iowa] and Salinas [California], in 1978 and ’79—with Joe Maddon, when he was 22 and 23 years old. You were a teenager. Please tell me you have a great Joe Maddon-as-a-young-man story.
We were roommates for two years. He was my cook. He loved to cook Italian. I used to eat so, so good. He told me I needed to take the garbage out. That was my job. His was to cook. One time [in Iowa] I forgot to take the garbage out after we ate. That was my job, but I went out without doing it. When I got back, all the garbage was in my bedroom, all over my bed. He taught me a lesson: always take your job seriously. I never did it again.
Mike Torrez said he didn’t throw the fateful pitch on purpose, and you’ve said that you believe him. Tell me about one time you thought you were drilled on purpose.
Tom Seaver hit me on purpose. I hit a homer in my first at-bat against him one day, and in my second at-bat he hit me in the shoulder. He hit me pretty good. That’s the way veteran pitchers would let you know they were there. You’re a young guy. Stay away from the plate. In my next at-bat, I took him deep again to let him know I was not afraid. I didn’t take it as if he was doing something to hurt me. It was just part of the game. [On July 9, 1983, Thon homered as the third batter of the game, on the back end of back-to-back shots with Terry Puhl. After Puhl popped up to third to open the third inning, Seaver hit Thon. Thon homered in his next at-bat, leading off the fifth, to give Houston a 6-2 lead. The Astros won, 7-3, handing Seaver his ninth loss of the season.]
After you left the Astros, you went 7-for-14 against Mike Scott with a triple and two homers. Was any of that success because you knew his secrets?
Mike was very aggressive pitcher, so I knew he was going to come after me, and I was ready to hit against him. I didn’t want him to get ahead of me because he had that pitch that was impossible to hit. I wanted to hit his first pitch.
The pitch that was impossible to hit had its own secrets behind it. Did knowing some of those secrets help you?
He would not throw it right away. Usually he would throw it to strike you out. That was an advantage I had because I saw him pitch so much. He was very aggressive with his fastball, and would then go to his slider and that pitch that would move like crazy. I didn’t want to get to two strikes on him. I’m pretty sure I never did. I was swinging.
When you were playing behind him defensively on the Astros, did you know when that pitch was coming?
Usually they gave the sign for the split-finger fastball. That’s when the pitch was coming. He had signs for a fastball, slider, changeup and the split-finger. That was the pitch. I knew when it was coming.
Speaking of opponents, you faced the only other Dickie in modern big league history, Dickie Noles, five times. You ended up with two hits, one of them a triple, and a .400 batting average. It’s difficult to compare your careers because he was a pitcher, so I’ll use your head-to-head record to declare you the greatest Dickie in the history of the game. This is your chance for an acceptance speech.
Dickie was a tough pitcher. He’d knock you down in a hurry. I always respected him because he very aggressive and had good stuff. Knowing Dickie Noles, I don’t accept that I’m the best Dickie. We’re probably about the same.
Because the admittedly weak conceit of this post is a Thon-a-thon, in addition to the very worthy cause at hand, do have a charity you’d like to direct readers to?
I always felt the Sunshine Kids, the cancer research institute is a good thing. Anything that has to do with helping kids with cancer is a good thing.
Jason Turbow is the author of “The Baseball Codes.” His next book, “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic,” about the championship A’s teams of the early 1970s, will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in spring 2017.
This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.