KISSIMMEE, Fla. — 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."