Says Joe Nossek, an Indians coach and Charboneau's close friend, "The first time I met him, I felt like I'd known him all my life. He's got a quick smile, and he's sensitive to other people's feelings. He's willing to give his time, and that's one of the reasons for his popularity around this town. Sure, the stories about him help, but it's good that people get to know both sides of him."
"I don't do that crazy stuff anymore," says Charboneau. "Not since I got married and we had Tyson. I'm just like everybody else." Well, not quite. While everybody else had to have a Lacoste shirt, Charboneau had to have the alligator. That was two years ago, when he bought the gator as a birthday present to himself. It was two feet long and nasty, and Joe and Cindi would go out at night to catch crickets to keep it happy. When the alligator went after a kitten, though, the Charboneaus gave it to a teammate. As for his beer tricks, nowadays Joe performs those only for close friends.
Things seem to have a way of happening to Charboneau. Last spring when the Indians were in Mexico City for a series of exhibition games, Joe was approached for an autograph by a bearded man, one Oscar Martinez, who asked him where he was from. When Joe said, " California," the man plunged his pen into Joe's left side. The four-inch wound wasn't serious, and the man, who turned out to have a hatred of Americans, was fined the equivalent of $2.27 and released. Joe wasn't particularly upset; he just wondered if the Bic was still writing. The other day while driving to the park in his beloved 1952 Chevy pickup, Joe discovered that his brakes were out, and narrowly missed colliding with a new Cadillac.
Charboneau's road to Cleveland wasn't exactly the Interstate. He was the fifth of seven kids of Kathleen and Arthur Charboneau, who divorced when Joe was very young. Kathleen remembers that Joe loved baseball so much that he slept with his glove under his pillow—in fact, he sometimes still does—and sold frogs at 25� apiece to pay for a pair of baseball shoes. He wasn't what you would call a great player at Buchser High School and, in fact, the scout who first noticed and eventually signed him, Eddie Bockman of the Phillies, was looking at another kid on the team, Steve Bartkowski, now the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback. The Phillies drafted Charboneau after his second year at West Valley Junior College in Saratoga, Calif. and sent him to Spartanburg in the Western Carolina League, where he batted .298 as a part-time player. In the off-season he married Cindi Engle, a synchronized-swimming star whom he had met at a Fourth of July picnic in California a few years earlier.
In 1977 Charboneau was only batting .172 and sitting on the bench for Peninsula in the Carolina League when he asked the Phillies to send him back to Spartanburg. They refused, and Joe quit baseball. He took a job back home as a stock clerk for an electronics firm, played a little softball and lifted weights. When the year was over, Bockman talked him into giving it another try. Then, in February, the Phillies sent him a new contract and Charboneau was so happy he just went to his room for a while and held a bat in his hand. He spent that season close to home in Visalia and set a California League record with a .350 average while driving in 116 runs. At the winter meetings that year the Phillies in their infinite wisdom decided to trade Charboneau to Cleveland for Pitcher Cardell Camper, whom they then released.
Charboneau spent last year with Chattanooga in the Double A Southern League, where he batted .352, his second consecutive league record. Despite missing a month of the season because of a groin pull, he hit 21 homers and had 78 RBIs. Even though he was on the Indians' spring-training roster, both Charboneau and the club assumed he would spend the year at Tacoma in Triple A. "I even had an apartment reserved in Tacoma," he says. But fate intervened in the form of knee surgery for First Baseman Andre Thornton. The Indians decided to move Mike Hargrove to first and give Charboneau an opportunity in left. His size and muscle had already caught the team's attention; his back is so broad that his last name fits comfortably on his uniform without ending up under the armpits. He was special in other ways, too. "Almost immediately, I realized there was something about him," says Nossek. "He emanated greatness. I really think he was born to be great."
In his first game Charboneau homered his second time up. A week later in the home opener he went 3 for 3 with a double and a home run and got a two-minute standing ovation. "I was excited," says Charboneau, "but it didn't really sink in what the ovation meant. I don't think it's sunk in yet."
Who's the one to keep our hopes alive?
Go Joe Charboneau
Straight from 7th to the pennant drive?
Go Joe Charboneau
At the start of the season nobody was thinking about a Cleveland pennant, but here it is September, and the club is five games over .500 and within shouting—well, singing—distance of first place. Managed by easygoing Dave Garcia, whose face could win best-in-show at Westminster, the team is composed almost entirely of players other teams didn't want, but they're having fun proving everybody wrong. The Indians will almost certainly have their best record since 1968, when they were 86-75, and possibly their best since 1959 (89-65). Outfielder Miguel Dilone is batting .345 and Len Barker will probably win 20 games. While Reliever Victor Cruz gets more effective with every meal, Hargrove, Outfielder Jorge Orta and Third Baseman Toby Harrah are helping Dilone give Cleveland the best on-base percentage in the American League. The fans are excited, although they're not exactly filling up Cleveland's time warp of a ball park. They defend to the death Charboneau's right to be Rookie of the Year, so don't bother to mention Chicago's rookie pitcher, Britt Burns.
The one knock against Charboneau as Rookie of the Year is that he's played 43 games as a DH. But that has more to do with a recurrence of his groin pull than with any defensive deficiency. Nossek worked wonders with both Orta and Charboneau, turning them into adequate outfielders. And Charboneau's batting figures are made even more remarkable by the fact that he's missed 18 games because Garcia has set him down at various times to keep him from slumping.