Dickie Thon Mania: Eric Thames isn’t the First Brewer to Start his Milwaukee Career with a Bang
The sudden emergence of Brewers first baseman Eric Thames has drawn many comparisons to the rise of former Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, who similarly found his stroke overseas after an undistinguished beginning to his Major League career. But within Brewers history, his unlikely breakout recalls the blistering start to the 1993 season from Dickie Thon, a star-crossed infielder who was just happy to have a job.
In 1982 and ‘83, Dickie Thon was one of the more exciting players in the National League. Manning shortstop for the Houston Astros, Thon’s speed was amplified in the wide-open spaces of the Astrodome. In those two years, he hit 19 triples and swiped over 70 bases. He added some power to the repertoire in ’83, slugging 20 homers to go with a .286 batting average and sterling defensive play. He was an All-Star, won a Silver Slugger and placed seventh in MVP voting. He was off to a similarly hot start in 1984 when, in the season’s fifth game, a fastball ran up and in on him, glanced off his helmet and fractured his orbital bone.
The fracture caused a knot of scar tissue to form behind Thon’s retina, nearly robbing him of sight in his left eye. As the saying goes, the hardest task in sports is hitting a baseball. To do with limited sight in your lead eye is nearly unfathomable. Thon managed to keep his vision problems semi-secret, but his struggls at the plate were obvious. He bounced around for a decade after his beaning, eventually settling into a role as light-hitting infielder. By the spring of 1993, after being released by the Texas Rangers, he was about to turn 35 and hadn’t batted higher than .255 since his injury. The Brewers, with third baseman Kevin Seitzer lost to free agency and having cut ties with long-time second basemen Jim Gantner, picked up Thon with the intention of using him as a back-up infielder. It was the kind of the role that defined the tail end of a journeyman’s career.
Thon stokes a hit at County Stadium.
When a leg injury sidelined second baseman Bill Spiers, Thon was suddenly forced into a starting role. He went 1-3 in the season opener and got two more hits the next day. In game three, he had a double and three RBI. On opening day in Milwaukee, he ripped three more singles. By the day’s end, he was batting .476. Thon remained so hot through April that manager Phil Garner, desperate to get Thon into the lineup, played him in three different positions. Thon hit safely in every game he started that month, running up a .396 batting average and making it seem as though he had finally found whatever he had lost in that fastball to the helmet. There was a comfort for Thon in his “supersub” role, one aided by being reunited with Garner and fellow reserve infielder Bill Doran, both of whom had been in the Astros lineup the afternoon Thon had been hit.
Even with Thon among the league’s leading batters, the Brewers struggled out of the gate. Injuries decimated the starting lineup and their pitching was among the league’s worst. Thon continued to hit through the month of May, but the illusion of his success was beginning to lift. Through the lens of modern advanced statistics, Thon’s big April was is far less impressive than it was in 1993. Nearly half of everything he put into play fell in for a hit, an unsustainable burst of fortune for a non-power hitter. He also drew a total of one walk for the month, giving him the ever-rare stat line in which his on-base percentage was lower than his batting average. By the end of May, his average was down to .340. He dipped under .300 a week and half later and finished at a .269 mark. The Brewers released Thon after the season and he never played Major League Baseball again.
So far in 2017, Eric Thames’ numbers have been as solid as Dickie Thon’s were hollow. But for the moment, they share a place in team lore as players with unclear expectations who traveled odd career paths to eventually capture some unlikely attention in their first weeks as a Brewer. Here’s to hoping Thames keeps that sweet swing into June and far beyond.