He hit the majors with the force of a roundhouse right, belting an opposite-field home run in his second big league at bat, in the Indians' 1980 season opener. "The morning of the game I was so nervous, I threw up twice," Charboneau recalls. "I wanted a hit real bad, because I'd been told they give you the ball." That was on the road, against California. By the time he reached Cleveland, Charboneau loomed as large as Gulliver in the Land of the Little People. When he was introduced at the home opener, the delirious crowd gave him a two-minute standing ovation. He returned the favor by going 3 for 3, with a double and a homer.
"I really wasn't a franchise player," Charboneau says. "I wasn't even that good. I couldn't run. I wasn't gonna steal bases or drive in lit) runs. But baseball was dead in Cleveland, and the Indians needed someone to generate some interest in the club, to make baseball fun again. I was just the guy the media picked. It was a little embarrassing until I realized it was just writing."
Super Joe lived up to his early press notices. Despite missing much of the last six weeks of the '80 season because of a pelvis injury he incurred running into a railing at Comiskey Park, he hit .289 and belted 23 homers—the most momentous of which reached the third deck of Yankee Stadium. He beat out Boston's Dave Stapleton for Rookie of the Year. After the season Charboneau said, "I've heard about the sophomore jinx, but I plan to ignore it. I'm going straight to my junior year."
Instead he flunked out. In 1981, during a headfirst slide in spring training, he says, he felt something snap in his back. He was suddenly Average Joe, hitting only .210 in 48 games. Charboneau blamed his back; the Indians blamed his head. "For every good game I'd have three bad ones," he says. To offset the pain he began swinging from his hips, which reined in his power. From there on it was all downhill: the bat-heaving tantrums; the demotion to Charleston in Triple A; the spinal surgery; the helmet-heaving tantrums; the long days on the bench with Chattanooga in Double A; the second back operation: the wrist surgery; the longer days on the bench with Buffalo in Double A; the week's suspension for giving the bird to Bison fans, who booed him for not running out a grounder: his release from the Indians organization; the last-gasp try with a Pittsburgh Pirates Class A team; the ankle surgery; and then, in 1985, the end of the line.
"Once I got hurt, I couldn't handle anything," Charboneau says. "I concentrated more on the pain than the pitch." He had always thought ballplayers should play through their injuries—the way Roy Hobbs did in The Natural, in which Charboneau had a bit part as a ballplayer—until he got injured himself.
The more hobbled Charboneau was, the more he despaired. "I lived with the frustration of being unable to bend down to pick up my helmet, of having to run the bases at three-quarter speed, of knowing that when I slid, it was gonna hurt," he says. "It was a scary feeling."
Many of Charboneau's memories of baseball are tempered by a sort of weary sadness. "Baseball is full of peaks and valleys," he says. "When you're hurt, it's even valleyer."
Charboneau has a pragmatic view of things. "I never would have gotten hurt if I hadn't played with reckless abandon," he says. "Then again, if I hadn't played with reckless abandon, I never would have made it to the majors." He looks away, and his gaze is caught by a mote in the air. "That's the way it goes," he says. He reaches out and swipes at the mote with his hand. "It happens." He opens his fist, but he doesn't find anything. "That's the nature of life."
With all his fame, Charboneau never had a contract for more than $75,000 a year. "The season I had in 1980 is worth a few million dollars nowadays, isn't it?" he says with a shrug and a sigh. His major league totals read: 29 homers and 114 RBIs in 647 at bats. "I look at that and I'm happy," he says. "Baseball is an amazing game. It just keeps going on. In terms of playing time, I was a Hash in the pan. Still, three years is a long time. In a way I think it's lucky I got out when I did. The longer you have a dog, the more attached you get to it."
Does he resent being labeled a Hash in the pan? "Not too much," he says. "It means I made it to the stove, at least."