Dickie Thon described it this way: “It was like a boom … a dead sound. Like a thud.”
Today, the boxscore reads HBP (hit by pitch) but, for Thon, it was more than that. The Astros All-Star shortstop had been hit by a pitch major league pitches four times prior to April 8, 1984. No. 5 — a fastball by New York Mets pitcher Mike Torrez — fractured Thon’s orbital bone around his left eye, changing his life and career.
A fuzzy 30 year old video shows Thon frozen at the plate as the baseball exploded off his left ear flap and grazing his temple before striking his eye. Harvey said Torrez’ fastball started out waist high, then suddenly took a sharp right. Thon crumbled. The Dome went quiet as Thon slowly rocked back-and-forth, his right arm covering his face. Home plate umpire Doug Harvey leaned over and saw that Thon was still conscious. Jose Cruz, who was in the Astros’ on-deck circle, Torrez and Astros manager, Bob Lillis circled around him.
”The first thing I thought of is that I want to make it, I want to live and see my family again,” said Thon.
Nothing was the same after that moment.
Thon spent the next week in the hospital and underwent surgery to have a small piece of bone realigned.
Torrez called Thon the next day to apologize.
“I don’t blame Mike Torrez,” he told the New York Times. “I blame myself. I think, ‘Why did I let this happen?’ I just stood there.”
In the weeks and months following his surgery, Thon said he remembers waking up each morning and he’d lie still and look around the bedroom. He would try to focus on an object — the alarm clock, a light bulb, a photograph — testing his ability to see clearly. He struggled. Thon’s eyesight went from 20/20 before the pitch to 20/150. Over time his sight improved to 20/40. Still, tracking a moving sphere traveling towards him at 90+ mph, was much more challenging.
Thon attempted to take batting practice, but the white sphere was a blur coming at him.
“I still had a blind spot in my left eye,” he said. “I had to concentrate on seeing the ball.”
As time passed and Thon healed, a new challenge arose; scar tissue was forming around the retina in his left eye, further blurring his vision and impeding his depth-perception.
”I drive home and I can’t always tell how far the traffic light is,” he told the media.
Thon and the Astros came to realize there was no chance he would return in 1984. His season was over after just five games. So, instead of playing, Thon watched in uniform from the bench.
After two fitful seasons of ups-and-downs, Thon arrived in Kissimmee, Florida in the spring of 1987 optimistic and ready for a fresh start. But he struggled early and often both in the field and at the plate, going 0-for-8 and committing three errors in the three spring starts. Thon walked out of camp hours before a scheduled. Frustrated by his struggles he was ready to quit baseball. He was no longer the same player — the 1983 All-Star — that hit .286/20 HR/79 RBI/34 SB). The Astros brass encouraged Thon to see a doctor. He underwent more than two hours of intensive eye exams.
Team doctors cleared Thon, but his performance deteriorated and his playing time dwindled. He played in 32 games during the 1987 season, hitting .212 in 83 plate appearances.
“When I got hit, I was a .280 hitter, and I went down to .240-something,” he said. “I learned to play the best I could … I couldn’t see the ball very well after I got hit in my left eye. I had to make adjustments. It’s tough to do that in the big leagues, but I did manage to play 10 [more] years.”
Thon signed a free agent deal with the San Diego Padres in 1988. Over his last five seasons he jumped from team-to-team including stints with Philadelphia, Texas and Milwaukee before retiring after the 1993 season.