Posts Tagged ‘Herb Score’

Brandon McCarthy, Scored By a Liner

Especially for a pitcher, keeping your head in the game is not supposed to mean to the point where your head nearly gets taken off.

Oakland Athletics righthander Brandon McCarthy throws Los Angeles Angels hitter Erick Aybar a 91 mph cutter practically down the chute in the top of the fourth Wednesday night. Aybar hits it on the proverbial screws. The ball slams into the right side of McCarthy’s head like a bullet, knocking the righthander down on the mound.

Herb Score and Gil McDougald, call your offices?

Aybar’s liner was hit so hard and fast McCarthy had no chance to get his glove up to knock the ball down. The ball hit McCarthy above his right ear, seemingly, as he was in his follow-through. He was knocked around and bent over at the waist on immediate impact before crumpling to the mound, his back to the plate, falling over onto his haunches and finally into a sprawling heap.

Down and holding where the liner drilled him . . .

The entire population of the Oakland Coliseum, including those milling in the Angels’ dugout, cried in horror as McCarthy hit the deck and Aybar ran over first base following the putout. Believe it or not, there was a putout on the otherwise sickening play. The ball caromed off McCarthy’s head toward third base, where Josh Donaldson fielded it on the run and threw Aybar out.

Then, Donaldson ambled over to join the rest of his infield plus both the Oakland and Los Angeles trainers around McCarthy, who managed to sit up and run his hands through his hair, obviously trying to salve pain. Aybar lingered near and then forward of first base. He looked for all the world to see like a man who’d had a gun blast off in his hands completely by accident and seen a respected neighbour take the bullet.

“I didn’t see the ball until it was right on me. All I know is the ball got really big really fast.”—Herb Score.

Alberto Callaspo, the Angels’ on-deck hitter, squatted in the on-deck circle, leaning forward on his bat, shaking his head helplessly. Aybar returned to his dugout in due course and let his head fall into his hands in utter disbelief, promising himself to check on McCarthy as soon as possible.

He was fortunate that A’s fans these days are a civil bunch when it comes to accidents in honest play. When McDougald rifled his liner off Score’s eye in May 1957, the Yankee jack-of-all-trades was hammered with fan abuse enough. Never mind that McDougald had a gentlemanly reputation parallel to Score’s. (“It was,” New York Journal-American writer Til Ferdenzi wrote, “like Sir Lancelot felling Sir Lancelot.”)

The abuse didn’t stop the heartsick McDougald from calling the hospital constantly, even wresting from staffers the direct line to Score’s doctor, in order to keep track of the fallen righthander. More than that, Score’s mother got McDougald on the phone to reassure him about her son, and about himself.

“You feel really bad,” Aybar said to reporters, as translated from his native Spanish. ”[McCarthy]’s a good guy. You never want to hit anybody over the head, and he’s a good guy. Hopefully everything turns out all right and, God-willing, that he gets better soon.”

This wasn’t even close to the way the Angels wanted to finish what they’d started earlier in the week and sweep the high-enough-flying A’s. It certainly wasn’t the way the A’s wanted to go down, if they had to go down to the Angels. “You try not to let it linger,” Oakland catcher Derek Norris said after the game, “but it’s human nature for it to. Your heart goes out to your teammate. You battle with them throughout the course of the season, but we try our best to motivate us to win it for Mac.”

Applause as McCarthy leaves under his own power . . .

When McCarthy managed to get up at last and walk off the field under his own power—he’ll be held in hospital overnight and miss the A’s trip to Seattle—the standing ovation also included everyone in the Coliseum and everyone in the Angels’ dugout.

McCarthy went down for the count with the A’s still very much in the game, trailing a mere 3-1. In fact, the two sides played shutout baseball from the fourth through the eighth innings. The Angels stranded a pair of one-out baserunners in the sixth and stranded super rookie Mike Trout (a two-out walk, a stolen base) an inning later, while going on to wreck a one-out walk (to Kendrys Morales) with a double play. The A’s best threat the rest of the way was first and third with one out in the seventh, before Angels reliever Nick Maronde celebrated birthday number 23 by punching out Coco Crisp and Sean Smith for the side.

It wasn’t until the ninth that someone got really frisky. Eight someones, to be precise, all wearing Angels silks. Peter Bourjos opened with a walk and took second on Aybar’s followup base hit, before Norris’s miscue in front of the plate let Callaspo load the pads on a bunt. Pinch-hitter Macier Izturis wrung a bases-loaded walk and, after Trout (uncharacteristically) struck out, Torii Hunter turned the merry-go-round back on with a base hit. Albert Pujols’s strikeout wasn’t exactly in vain, with Izturis stealing home on the front end of a double steal (Hunter taking second), before Morales grounded out for the side and a 7-1 lead that would hold with only a two-out single and a strand from the A’s in the bottom.

Mussina had to convince himself everything wasn’t coming back at him . . .

But you can’t exactly fault the A’s if their hearts might have fallen out of it just a little bit.

Bang, bang! Or, as one fan tweeted, presumably from the ballpark itself, “like the ball hitting the bat twice.”

Just a year earlier, Colorado’s Juan Nicasio took one on a liner by Ian Desmond. Nicasio was caught in the neck, suffering a fracture that kept him down for the rest of 2011. In 1998, Mike Mussina, then with the Baltimore Orioles, took a comebacker the hard way and subsequently admitted it he struggled “getting over the fear that every ball I threw, every ball that someone made contact with, was not coming back at me.”

One of McCarthy’s own relievers Wednesday night knows the feeling only too well. Pat Neshek took one in a college game. Steve Shields, a journeyman reliever in the late 1980s and early 1990s, got it twice—once when he was in the Red Sox system, and once as a Seattle Mariner: in his second appearance of 1987, Hall of Famer Kirby Pucket lined one off his cheek, breaking it and causing him to miss a month. He didn’t exactly pitch well on his return.

Lou Brissie.

You don’t have to get it in the face to be taken down for any length of time—and even out. Now a popular Angels broadcaster, Mark Gubicza in 1996 was a veteran Kansas City righthander who took one off his left leg, suffering a fracture that caused him to miss the final half of his final Kansas City. Career essentially over, if you don’t count an aborted comeback bid with the Angels. Matt Clement’s career ended similarly: enjoying a career year with the 2005 Red Sox, he took a liner in the face from then-Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford in July. He managed to make his next start, but the Crawford shot did to Clement what Mussina feared would happen to himself, and Clement was gone a year later.

Several generations earlier, Lou Brissie, the courageous Philadelphia Athletics lefthander, took a line shot off a leg from Ted Williams—on Opening Day, 1948. (Brissie had made his major league debut the previous September, in Yankee Stadium, on the day the Yankees honoured Babe Ruth.) What amplified the horror: the leg was the one Brissie begged military doctors to save, when they wanted to amputate, after it had been all but blown to bits in World War II battle. (Brissie needed 23 surgeries and a metal brace in order to even think about baseball, never mind impress A’s emperor Connie Mack with his courage.)

Brissie went down fast and Williams hustled over from first base to see if Brissie would be ok. “Dammit, Ted,” Brissie is said to have cracked, “why didn’t just pull the ball?”

It’s every pitcher’s worst nightmare. And not all of them handle it the way Lou Brissie and Herb Score did. “I talked to Gil and told him it was something that could happen to anyone,” Score would say in due course. “It’s just like a pitcher beaning a hitter. He didn’t mean it.” After missing the rest of the season recuperating, Score would lose his formidable arm—to faulty mechanics, by his own admission, after he tried coming back too soon from an elbow tear.

The medication that kept him pitching finally left him fearful of a line drive to the face . . .

Retiring at thirty, when he was still somewhere about ten dimensions beyond the top of his game, Sandy Koufax admitted he was prompted in considerable part by the medical regimen he underwent to keep pitching with his arthritic elbow. “[T]o walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ballgame because you’re taking painkillers, I don’t want to have to do that.”

He didn’t have to say it. Phil Collier, a San Diego Tribune reporter, who sat on the story of Koufax’s final season for a year until Koufax himself announced his retirement, said it for him. “He took codeine before he pitched,” Collier once said. “Because of the codeine, it affected his reaction time. He was afraid sooner or later someone was going to hit him in the head with a line drive.”

It was hard not to be grateful that Brandon McCarthy wasn’t on anything but his own power when he went down. That may be the only thing about which we can be grateful on McCarthy’s behalf right now. But it was hard not to remember Koufax’s halting admission to suffering every pitcher’s worst nightmare when looking at the number on McCarthy’s back.

Thirty-two.

Endangered Species: The Arms That Lost the Races

While we’re on the subject of the Strasburg Plan, it might be wise to hark back to past young guns whose careers—or, more accurately, the lack thereof, for most—may or may not have factored into the Washington Nationals’ thinking. (Manager Davey Johnson, who’s absolutely on board with the Strasburg Plan, happens to know about at least one of those guns directly.) They didn’t all have fractured comebacks from Tommy John surgery (though a few of them could have used it, if the procedure had been around), but they did have work use or other physical  issues in one or another way that turned them from brilliant or burgeoning youth to gone, or at least nothing near what they first seemed they’d be, before they should have been in prime.

Shutdown time looms for Strasburg . . .

The complete list may be longer than I’m presenting here. But what follows is a roll of pitchers I can recall who started young enough, fast enough, or at least furious enough, and with baseball just about at their mercy, or close enough to it. I’ve written about a few of these cases before, perhaps recently, but it’s hard not to think about them with Strasburg’s pre-planned closure on the horizon. The Nats are being smart to do it; they planned it from the season’s outset. If they’ve been bitten in the rear at all by it, it’s because, well, almost everyone figured the Nats would have a respectable 2012 but almost nobody figured they’d own the National League East and steam toward the postseason.

These pitchers should prove a powerful lesson even now. But to teams without the thinking depth the Nats have shown, they probably won’t. For every Stephen Strasburg who’s being handled wisely following major elbow trouble and reconstructive surgery, there have been, and there will always be, dozens more who won’t be handled that way—whether it’s by playing when ailing (hello, Johan Santana), pitching an unconscionable workload even by the standards of the ancients, an unexpected injury that fouls up just about everything else, a little too much of the spotlight causing a little too much more disorientation, or other troubles.

Rex Barney—Teen phenom with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Harnessed his impossible-to-see fastball by 1948 and won fifteen; had a no-hitter on his resume. End of season: leg fracture in two places sliding into base. Following season: 48 walks in 33 innings, pitching, as one sportswriter phrased it, as though the plate were high and outside. Gone at 25.

Ewell, the whipped . . .

Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell—Six-time All-Star for the postwar Cincinnati Reds. Snapping sidearm motion on a 6’6″ pitcher earned Blackwell his nickname and an image, as one writer put it, of “a man falling out of a tree.” Age 24: Led the National League in wins, strikeouts, complete games, strikeouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and almost equaled Johnny Vander Meer’s double no-hit feat. By age 28: Arm trouble, plus kidney removal and appendectomy. By age 30: A spare part on a couple of Yankee pennant winners and, other than an abbreviated comeback with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, gone at age 32, a shadow of what once terrorised hitters.

Joe Black—1952, as a 28-year-old rookie: Rookie of the Year, finished a league-leading 41 games, first black pitcher to win a World Series. Next season: Told he needed more stuff, including a curve ball his finger tendons made impossible to throw, Black was a wreck. Never won or saved more than six again; done at 33.

Karl Spooner—Turned a 1954 cup of coffee into three squares at 23: back-to-back shutouts toward season’s end, in the first of which he struck out fifteen, for a rookie record that stood until J.R. Richard smashed it. Struck out 27 over the two games. Spring training 1955: Came into a game without a proper warmup and blew his arm out. Struggled through the season, never appeared in the majors again following Game One of the 1955 World Series. “Sooner with Spooner,” the saying Dodger fans came up with over his stupefying 1954 debut, took on a sinister meaning after that.

Herb Score—At 22: Rode bullet fastball to Rookie of the Year honours, 245 strikeouts, and a 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine rate, leading the league. At 23: 20 wins, five shutouts, 268 strikeouts, another league-leading strikeouts-per-nine rate (9.5). At 24: Hit in the face by Gil McDougald’s liner in his fifth start; gone for the year. At 25: Ruptured a tendon in his pitching elbow on a rainy afternoon (he surely could have used Tommy John surgery, had it been invented at the time), tried to adjust his mechanics to compensate, and was never again the pitcher he looked to have been after missing almost two full seasons. By age 29 and a number of faltering comebacks: Finished on the mound, headed for a second career in the broadcast booth.

Steve Dalkowski—Minor league phenom whose heater may have made Score’s seem like a changeup. (What the hey, Ted Williams himself said he couldn’t see it.) Finally harnessed it enough to make the Orioles in 1963 spring training, at age 24 . . . and blew his elbow out pitching to Yankee rookie Phil Linz. Bounced back to the minors; drank himself out of baseball by age 26. Would the Orioles have won their first World Series sooner with a healthy Dalkowski?

Jim Bouton—Age 23: Yankee comer with a hard fastball delivered just as hard. Age 24: Yankee 21-game winner. Age 25: Improving strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP while winning 18 for the last of the old-guard Yankee pennant winners. Age 26: Shoulder and arm miseries begin, never again an effective starter. By age 31: Marginal relief pitcher and gone, mostly because he’s lost whatever was left, though the controversy around Ball Four didn’t help. Brief, memorable comeback with the 1978 Atlanta Braves, including a pitcher’s duel with J.R. Richard in which neither got the decision.

Jim Lonborg—At 25, put it together following his first two warmup seasons with a Cy Young award, the league leadership in wins, starts, and strikeouts. 1967 World Series: Wheeled out on two days’ rest for Game Seven and couldn’t hold his own. Offseason: Knee injury in a skiing accident. Next season: Late start, disoriented mechanics, never again anywhere near the pitcher he was in 1967 despite forging a long enough career. Reversed Casey Stengel’s professional path and became a dentist after his baseball career.

McLain—too many innings and too many controversies equal finished at 28 . . .

Denny McLain—Twenty-game winner at 22. Thirty-one-game winner at 24; 24-game winner at 25. Next season: Suspended over gun carrying. Following season: Arm still wrung by too many innings pitched (he averaged 290 innings pitched over the span; pitched over 320 innings in each of 1968 and 1969) and maybe too many complete games (he pitched 51 of them in 1968-69), he lost 22 for the 1970 Senators and had no arm left by age 28. That proved to be the least of his problems as life went on, alas.

Mark (The Bird) Fidrych—At 21: Rookie of the Year with 19 wins, a small truckload of strikeouts, and an unlimited future. The following spring: dinged his knee, came back too soon, shredded his shoulder, and then made the first of numerous premature comebacks from the shoulder miseries. Finished at age 29. Learned only around his finish that he’d had a frayed rotator cuff made worse by all those undiagnosed comebacks. Went back home, farmed and worked on heavy equipment, died in a freak accident.

Randy Jones—After a frightful (22-game losing) start at age 24, went back-to-back 20-game winning at 25-26, including a Cy Young Award. Slop-tossing righthander. He also threw 600 innnings in those two (1975-76) seasons. 1977: His arm committed suicide; he’d hang in until he was 32 but never had a winning season after 27.

John Candelaria—At 23, he was a 6’7″ hulk leading the majors in earned run average and winning 20 in the bargain. Would have only one 15-win season over the next sixteen in which he managed to hang on. What got the Candy Man? The usual verdict was (and may remain) too much fame.

The Candy Man—sweet to sour too soon . . .

Frank Tanana—From ages 20-24, Nolan Ryan’s rotation second. Led the league in ERA and shutouts at 23. Age 25: Arm and shoulder trouble turned his near-Express-like heat into a candle. Forged a journeyman career as a junkballer and finished a .500 pitcher, though his array of offspeed stuff earned him the nickname the Great Tantaliser—a long way from being known as the Top Tanana.

Wayne Garland—At 25, emerged as a 20-game winner with an ERA under 2.70, and landed himself one of the early yummy multi-year free agency contracts. The following spring training: Hellbent on living up to that then-monster deal, Garland blew his rotator cuff, tried pitching through it anyway, and led the league in losses with 19. Hung in for half of the ten-year deal, eventually earned a friendly reputation for pitching with guts, but he stands as the classic example of what pushing too hard can do to the unsuspecting.

Mike Flanagan—Cy Young winner at 27. Didn’t know his own limits; pitched an astouding 157 straight turns, never missing a start, while hurt. Never won as many as 17 the rest of his career; won 15 or 16 only twice more. Eventually joined the Oriole front office; committed suicide in 2011.

J.R. Richard—Took his time to become the National League’s mound terror, and he was still only 29 after he broke the National League record for strikeouts by a righthander. Age 30: Stroke, career dead. Hit rock bottom before going into the ministry.

Steve Stone—Took the steady ride to the top and bagged the 1980 Cy Young Award. The following season, he was gone after fifteen games, at 32. The verdict: His curve ball destroyed him—he threw it too often for his own good and took it to fever pitch in 1980. Became a broadcaster.

Mike Norris—What the curve ball was to Stone, the screwball—plus 24 complete games in his 22-game winning season at age 25, not to mention that he may have been a screwball—proved to Norris. They still debate which went south first and faster, Norris’s arm or his off-field life.

Steve McCatty—Wins and ERA champ done in by too many complete games. Don’t think for one moment that his experience on that ill-fated Oakland rotation of 1981-83 hasn’t had a factor in formulating the Strasburg Plan even if he didn’t have Tommy John surgery: McCatty these days is the Nats’ pitching coach.

Vukovich—guts, glory, gone: Pitching hurt does nobody any favours even if you’re helping to win a pennant.

Pete Vukovich—Another steady rider to the top. Landed a Cy Young award in 1982, at 29 . . . and, after winning nothing to open 1983, missed the rest of that season and all 1984. Pitched hurt helping the Brewers win the 1982 pennant; gone at 33.

LaMarr Hoyt—Back-to-back wins champion at ages 27-28, including a Cy Young Award. At 29: 18-game loser, future drug rehab patient, finished at 31.

Rick Sutcliffe—ERA champ at 26; 20-game winner (including a 16-1 mark in the National League after his trade to the Cubs, leading them to their first postseason since 1946) and Cy Young pitcher at 28. At 29-30: Injuries, 11-22 span thanks to premature comebacks. Occasional flashes of his old self the rest of the way . . . very occasional. He, too, moved to the broadcast booth in due course.

Dwight Gooden—From 19-21 they talked about when, not if he’d make the Hall of Fame having obliterated half the pitching records in the book. Warning sign: the 1986 Mets began throwing salves of doubt into the quietly confident kid, telling him, essentially, he couldn’t live on just that exploding fastball and voluptuous curve ball. Forget the drug issues, Gooden by 25 would be damaged once and for all by shoulder issues. The miracle is that he managed to make a sixteen-year career with a .634 winning percentage, but they’ll never stop calling him the greatest might-have-been of them all, unless the Nats are fool enough to ditch the Strasburg Plan, maybe. (Gooden’s first major league manager: Davey Johnson.) His post-baseball life hasn’t been simple, either.

Boddicker—wasn’t built for his workload or his money pitch . . .

Mike Boddicker—Age 26, after a few cups of coffee and a promising 1983: Led the American League in wins and ERA. The next and last nine seasons of his career: Won more than 15 only once; never again got his ERA under 3.00; never again enjoyed a WHIP under 1.20. Those in the know believed Boddicker was done in by too many innings and too many curve balls, neither of which his body could really withstand.

Generation K—The once-vaunted trio of Met young guns. Isringhausen, Wilson, Pulsipher. Arm and shoulder trouble practically out of the chute. Only Isringhausen would make anything like a long, never mind respectable career, and that when he converted to relief pitching. Which he still does, now for the Los Angeles Angels.

Steve Avery—Want one reason why Scott Boras isn’t in any big hurry to push his client Strasburg to infinity and beyond just yet? He’s been there, done that: Avery at 21 went 18-8 and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting helping the worst-to-first Atlanta pennant winners. By 23: 50-36 record, ERA around 3.20, excellent postseason jacket. At 24: Popped an armpit muscle, never again the same.

Kerry Wood—At 21: A 20-K game and a Rookie of the Year award. At 22: Sitting out a season following Tommy John surgery. By 26: Don’t go by the innings pitched, he was piling up crazy pitch counts as often as not and ended up developing triceps and rotator cuff trouble, among other maladies. He’d make fourteen trips to the disabled list and convert to relief pitching before he finally called it a career this year.

Mark Prior—At 21: mid-season phenom. At 22: 18-game winner, All-Star, third-place Cy Young finisher. At 23: Achilles tendon injury just the first of enough health troubles including two shoulder surgeries that Prior hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2005. Latest comeback attempt in the Red Sox organisation ended with his release last week. What got him? Possibly the same thing that helped get Wood—too many 120+ pitch count games too young—plus his pitching mechanics, which may have put excess strain on his shoulders before anyone caught on.

Going for the guts and glory is one thing. Going there at the expense of a solid long-term baseball life is something else. Maybe nobody expected the Nats to be roaring toward the postseason this soon after building a powerful enough young team, of whom Strasburg is merely the most significant (and most popular?) element, but maybe they’re teaching baseball a huge lesson about sustained future success over immediate gratification. Immediate gratification might get you a World Series ring at most, but ignoring sustained future success might mean that one ring and damaged goods otherwise is all you get with your current array.

The Nats have a deep enough and strong enough team if you remove Strasburg from the equation. Would you like to see what they could become, in postseasons to come, with him? Then let them stay with the plan. Unless you really want Strasburg on a roll featuring not a few pennant-winners over a long, distinguished career but, rather, a roll featuring the sad like of Barney, Blackwell, Black, Spooner, Score, Dalkowski, Bouton, Lonborg, McLain, Fidrych, Jones, Candelaria, Tanana, Garland, Flanagan, Richard, Stone, Norris, Vukovich, Hoyt, Sutcliffe, Gooden, Boddicker, Pulsipher, Wilson, Avery, Wood, Prior, and the walrus-looking gentleman who’s now Strasburg’s and the Nats’ pitching coach.

And if you do, ask what favours going for the guts and glory really did those once-formidable arms and their owners.

Somehow, Some Way, Super Joe Endures

The sweet swing of Super Joe . . .

The fellow Cleveland still calls Super Joe, a slightly larger than life and almost terminally flaky Rookie of the Year with the 1980 Indians, cut slightly across the grain two years ago, when it looked like he’d be facing charges stemming from a bar fight. His job as the head of baseball for North Ridgeville, Ohio’s parks and recreation department seemed in jeopardy. Then, the charges were dropped, when a woman Charboneau was accused of striking admitted she’d given him a push and he’d struck her entirely by accident.

From just about any account, you’d think something like that would be the blow that finally pushed the one-time toast of Cleveland—who’s dealt with miscarriage, his wife’s long decline from multiple sclerosis, the near-loss of their home, and, of course, his height-to-depth brief playing career—over the edge. Not so, apparently. About the only thing  that might do that job would be a push out of a flying airplane. Except that, one way or another, Charboneau would probably find a way to land on his feet, bloodied but unbowed. With a can of laughing gas at the ready.

Baseball has never lacked for flaky one-hit wonders. (Or, no-hit wonders, in the case of rookie pitchers Bobo Holloman in 1952 and Bo Belinsky in 1962.) Players who shoot big out of the chute or not long afterward, establish themselves as prime talents and prime-time personalities, and fall harder than an elephant from a skyscraper right when they’ve established their plate, field, or mound prowess. And, are remembered long after the uniform was doffed or torn off, whether or not they write Ball Four—as did Jim Bouton, one-time pitching phenom and full-time wit done in by arm trouble, slowly and painfully.

Andre Thornton—the class act whose knee injury gave Charboneau his big chance.

Just ask Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, if you could. He flew across the 1976 radar with a Rookie of the Year campaign as dazzling as it was entertaining. He was a pitching phenomenon and a prankish personality who talked to baseballs, manicured the mound, gave his teammates exuberant whacks on the can after plays that saved his games, and was crazy in the ways everyone adores. The following spring, he injured his knee in spring training, returned too soon, fouled his shoulder, and was doomed when it turned out to be a rotator cuff shredding nobody could discern until he was just about at the end of yet another comeback bid. (His third-to-last major league game, a 1980 start against the Indians, saw Fidrych removed after opening the game surrendering a base hit and plunking the next batter while second base was stolen; Charboneau contributed a sacrifice fly later in the game.) That was no phony outpouring of grief when Fidrych was killed three years ago, when a dump truck he was servicing collapsed atop him.

Charboneau almost made Fidrych resemble a stiff priss. While Fidrych was struggling with yet another comeback try in 1980, Charboneau—plucked from the Phillies’ system, where he was made available because the Phillies were said to be edgy about his temperament—was making the Indians when respected and steady outfielder Andre Thornton tore up a knee, taking him out for the season. Even before he made the Indians his cheerful candor, even about his harsh childhood (his parents divorced when he was nine, leaving his mother to work as a switchboard operator to support seven children; they moved frequently to keep their rents down), even about a few exploits that might churn weak stomachs otherwise, made him a celebrity.

His first game before the home fans (the Tribe opened on the road that season) made him a living legend: he pulled up a triple short of hitting for the cycle before a packed Municipal Stadium crowd. The slender kid with the corkscrewed hair and the eye socket for a corkscrew—the legend of Charboneau opening a bottle of beer with his eye socket is only one of Cleveland’s top ten baseball legends, so it might seem—could hit. “I was really surprised about how the fans cheered me,” he told a reporter. “I also know that some of the other guys on the team were wondering, ‘Why are they all excited about him? What did he do? He just got here.’ I was thinking those same things myself.”

Nobody crafted a local hit single about The Bird. “Go, Go, Joe Charboneau” reached number three on the Cleveland singles chart that summer. Not even Rocky Colavito, whose Cleveland popularity two decades earlier would be rivaled only by Charboneau’s in 1980—ever inspired that.

Thornton himself would hit it on the proverbial money when he analysed Charboneau’s unlikely, instant popularity, which lasted all year long as he swatted line drives and fence flyers alike, to the sportswriter who tagged him Super Joe Charboneau in the first place, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Terry Pluto.

“Joe fit the image in many fans’ minds of what an athlete should be,” said Thornton, an excellent player whose retiring personality probably did more than his race (Thornton is black) to keep him from becoming a Charboneau-like icon. “They don’t want him to be too smart, but they want him to be a little eccentric . . . they would like the guy to be someone they could laugh about, someone whose personality entertains them. That was Joe. He had all the wild stories. He came from the wrong side of the tracks . . . He could hit a baseball. He probably didn’t know why he could hit it, but he could hit it.”

Facing the press when named Rookie of the Year . . .

“He was a legitimate Rookie of the Year,” said Herb Score, once a streaking (and record-setting) young Indian star—until a liner to the face and, the following year, a faulty mechanical response to an elbow tear fractured his pitching career—then a longtime, beloved Indians broadcaster. “He had the tools to be an excellent hitter for a long time.”

The tools, but not the back. The following spring, after signing a $75,000 contract for 1981, Charboneau slid so hard into second base he ruptured a disc in his back. One doctor told him as much; the Indians demanded a second opinion, which contradicted the first diagnosis. Sensitive to his contract and to those who might accuse him of jaking it, Charboneau tried to play through it.

“But anyone who saw Charboneau knew one of two things,” Pluto would remember. “A. There was something seriously wrong with his back. B. He was walking around with an ironing board for a spine.” Which made Charboneau C. the answer to a trivia question: Name the only Rookie of the Year to end up in the minors the following year. Which outranks poor Bobo Holloman, whose rookie no-hitter—in his first major league start, yet—was followed by pitching inconsistent enough that he would be farmed out before the same season was over.

A solemn dugout moment . . .

Perhaps some of Charboneau’s cheerful insanity was learning to laugh in the face of tremendous sorrow. Aside from his childhood, Charboneau’s daughter would have to have a kidney removed in her infancy, and his wife—once a scholarship swimmer, who suffered a miscarriage during her husband’s early minor league seasons—would be stricken young with multiple sclerosis, sapping her gradually until she would be almost entirely wheelchair bound by 2009. Charboneau from the beginning has emphasised family ties keeping him and his in one piece regardless.

During the 1981 baseball strike, Charboneau made some personal appearances and played some softball trying to stay in playing shape. By August, the Indians sent him down to Charleston.  It was Charboneau’s idea in part; he wanted to play his way back to full strength, and he hadn’t been getting much playing time in Cleveland with the back issues. In the offseason, he underwent surgery to remove three ruptured back disks. He had a deceptively lively 1982 spring but ended up asking to return to the minors again, this time to AA Chattanooga, where he’d first felt as though he had a legitimate shot. A wrist injury left him to be the team’s first base coach. Starting 1983 at Buffalo (AA), another Indian farm, the Tribe released him.

He gave it one more try when the Pirates signed him for 1984. After spending the year in their farm system and being ticketed for another minor league season out of spring training 1985, Charboneau suffered an ankle fracture. It might not have mattered. As one of his minor league managers told a newspaper in 1983, players with three missing back disks have little body torque in their swings. No wonder Charboneau could barely hit the ball out of the infield after 1981.

Today he teaches young players how to adjust from aluminum to wood bats and runs his town’s baseball recreation . . .

When he left baseball, Charboneau moved between Buffalo (as a bar host and bouncer) and Arizona (as a liquor salesman), but he returned to the Cleveland area in 1990, set up a since-sold batting school, and began making his way as a privately-engaged batting instructor, for individuals or even minor league teams. (One of his specialties is helping young players adjust from aluminum to wood bat swinging.) He’s done some baseball card shows and appearances for the Major League Baseball Alumni Association. He acknowledges his bipolarity; he has given up drinking; his wife, Cindi, lives with their daughter, a registered nurse who can care for her more professionally than Charboneau can. (Their son is a tattoo and body piercing expert; the Charboneaus are also grandparents.)

His last known appearance in a major league uniform, other than Indians’ Old-Timers’ Days, was fictitious: he got to play one of Robert Redford’s New York Knights teammates in The Natural. Cruelly fitting, that. For one season, Charboneau was a line drive-hitting Roy Hobbs. Or close enough thereto. So it seemed, at times.

It’s still tempting to feel sorry for him even now over what might have been. Charboneau himself must be tempted to the thought once in the proverbial blue moon. (He once said he kept only one piece of video from his big year: the swing that made him only the third player in history to reach the third deck of the former Yankee Stadium with a home run. The first two: Jimmie Foxx and Frank Howard.) Until you hear him talk about Cleveland and its meaning to his life. “I love Cleveland,” he told Pluto in 2009. “The city and the fans have been great to me and my family. I’m always thankful for the one good, healthy year. And I’d tell those guys in camp with the Indians to make the most of it right now—you never know how long it will last.”

Only his baseball career didn’t last. Charboneau himself, somehow, does. It’s tempting here to insert the cliche about all those superbrat superstars who think the world ought to genuflect before them and who might learn a few lessons from someone such as Charboneau, who had it made until his back and ankle told him another story. (He once revealed he had about twenty surgical screws in his body thanks to his injuries.) And held onto the story that really mattered.

“People tell me that I was unlucky,” Herb Score once said. “Me? Unlucky? I started with a great team in the Indians and played under a great manager in Al Lopez. Then I went from the field to the broadcasting booth at the age of thirty, and thirty years later I’m still doing the games. If you ask me, that’s not unlucky. That’s a guy who has been in the right place at the right time.”

Charboneau has a similar absence of bitterness.

“How could I live up to Super Joe?” he asked, over a decade after the fall began. “But then I realised the fans liked it and thought it was fun, so I found I enjoyed it. I’m almost forty now, and 1980 was a long time ago. I really only had the one year, but so many people still remember, and I get to make a lot of personal appearances and do some radio and TV. That’s the nicest part, that people still remember.”

Which may be the real reason Cleveland still calls him Super Joe.