Until recently, baseball fans thought a Dickie Thon was a marathon for people named Dickie. Then Thon, who's actually a Houston Astro, became such a force as a major-leaguer that Cincinnati Pitcher Rich Gale was moved to describe him as "the best all-around shortstop in the National League."
At the end of last week Thon hadn't gone more than 11 at bats without a hit all year, had stolen 21 bases and was among the league leaders in average (.310), hits (120), runs (54) slugging percentage (.480) and game-winning RBIs (10). Furthermore, he was a major reason why Houston had won 13 of its last 18 games to take possession of third place in the National League West.
"He ought to be a leadoff hitter," says the Mets' Rusty Staub, "but he's filled the three hole well for them." He certainly has. The most impressive aspect of Thon's performance this season has been his productivity. In 496 at bats last year Thon had only three home runs and 36 RBIs. But in 387 at bats through the end of last week he had hit 13 homers and driven in 54 runs. Thon has gotten only one homer in the spacious Astrodome, but two each in single games in San Diego, Atlanta and New York. At 5'11" and 170 pounds, Thon gets most of his power from a short, wristy swing. "I try to be quick," he says.
He's equally adept at shortstop, where he has exceptional range and is overcoming a tendency to rush his throws. No wonder Cardinal and National League All-Star Manager Whitey Herzog was quoted as saying that Thon, not his own Ozzie Smith, should have been voted the league's starting All-Star shortstop. Batting for Smith in the fifth inning, Thon contributed a single to a run-scoring rally and made a couple of nice plays in the field.
Thon, 25, displaced Craig Reynolds as the Astro shortstop midway through last season and went on to hit .276, steal 37 bases, field .975 and average 4.97 chances per game. The 1982 All-Star shortstop, Cincy's Dave Concepcion, batted .287, stole 13 bases, fielded .977 and averaged 5.09 chances. "Once Dickie was given the chance to start, he had the security to relax and play well," says Pittsburgh Shortstop Dale Berra.
"I first saw Dickie Thon in A ball in 1977," says Smith, indisputably the best-fielding shortstop in baseball. "I could tell he'd be a fine addition to any club. The first thing I look for in a shortstop is soft hands. The next thing is quick feet. Then you go to the arm. He had all those qualities." Houston Manager Bob Lillis, who's known for understatement, calls Thon "a pretty complete player." Adds Astro Second Baseman Bill Doran, "I always know I'm going to get a good throw from him on the double play, and it'll be accurate and have something on it—a rare combination."
Thon is a pretty rare package himself. For one thing, he was born in South Bend, but didn't speak fluent English until he was old enough to vote. His father, Fred Thon Jr., was getting his B.S. from Notre Dame when Dickie was born. Soon afterward the family returned to its home in Puerto Rico, and Fred went to work for an oil company. Dickie continues to live in Rio Piedras and counts two other major league shortstops, Jose Oquendo of the Mets and Ivan Dejesus of the Phillies, among his neighbors.
Dickie may be the most talented member of a distinguished line of ballplayers. His grandfather, Fred Thon Sr., 66, a retired businessman and engineer, played winter-league ball with the likes of Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin. An island legend as a pitcher and outfielder—he sometimes played both on the same day—Fred later managed the Bayam�n winter-league team.
Dickie's father, a former semipro player, was his first coach. "At first Dickie didn't think about a career in baseball because he was so good at other sports," says Fred Thon Jr., 46, who now lives in Enfield, Conn. and is African and South American sales manager for a specialty paper company. "He was an excellent sprinter, volleyball player and basketball guard. He was the type of kid who walked around and dressed like an adult, and when he was young, his technical knowledge of baseball was as good as that of any college player."
After his senior year in high school, Thon played shortstop for Puerto Rico's Puerto Nuevo team, which finished third in the 1976 American Legion world championships. He was immediately besieged by scouts. "I was ready to play for anything," he says, "but when the Brewers and Pirates offered me bonuses of only $5,000, my father made me hold out for more." Later that year he signed with California for $20,000.