Cleveland rookie looks as if he'll be around awhile

Most baseball rookies who bloom in the spring, tra la, are often doing push-ups in some minor league park by the end of May, their confidence in tatters.

But the Cleveland Indians may have an exception in 24-year-old outfielder Joe Charboneau, who looks as though he could hit Sandy Koufax in his prime and who knows his statistics the way most people know their phone numbers.

This is a big (6 ft. 2 in., 200-pound) right- handed batter who is beginning to learn that he can't pull every major league pitcher he sees, but that he needn't be awed by them, either. What makes the Indians so sure that Joe will last is his obvious ability to hit breaking pitches consistently.

In his last two minor league seasons (at Visalia and Chattanooga), Charboneau hit .350 and .352 -- after averaging more than .400 in the first half of both campaigns. He also clubbed a combined total of 39 home runs and drove in 194 runs.

He's off to a good start with the Indians, too, hitting .308 with two homers and four RBIs in the first eight games.

"Until our first baseman got hurt and I had to move outfielder Mike Hargrove into the infield, I wasn't sure where I was going to play Charboneau," Manager Dave Garcia explained. "But I knew with the kind of bat he had he was going to be somewhere in my lineup. I may be wrong, but I can't think of the last time I saw a kid I thought was so ready to hit well up here."

"For a while I even planned to have Joe handle the cleanup spot in my batting order," Garcia continued. "I even told him I was going to do it. But then I started thinking about all the extra pressure I'd be putting on him, so at the last minute I dropped him down to seventh."

Asked about Charboneau's defensive play, which is considered suspect, Garcia replied: "Well, right now you have to wonder about him. He's young, and from what I've seen so far, I couldn't call him any more than average in the field. But we're not going to put him out there and just leave him, you know. We're going to help him, and my guess is that he'll get a whole lot better. But there is nothing the matter with the way this kid swings the bat. He's got power and yet he doesn't strike out much, which is unusual."

Charboneau, who looks a little like Huckleberry Finn whenever his hair starts to creep out from under the sides of his baseball cap, also has a lot going for him in the personality department.

Until two years ago, Joe was on a firstname basis with a Brazilian alligator that he had bought in a pet shop, which his wife reluctantly agreed to take care of whenever he went on the road. When size became a problem, he gave Chopper to a friend who is still in the minors.

As for his hitting, Charboneau says that anyone who thinks he's a natural at the plate isn't aware of the hours he's spent perfecting his swing by hitting balls off the top of a stationary batting tee.

"Actually I'm probably not the hitter I should be because of this hang-up I have about always wanting to have a big batting average," Joe told me. "You take a guy my size -- he should be a lot more power- conscious than I am. Yet I'm always thinking .300, not home runs.

"Mostly I'm an aggressive person who likes to challenge pitchers and has the confidence that he can beat them. But whenever I see that average begin to slip , I'm apt to become very protective at the plate, and this is a habit I know I have to break."

Charboneau, and this is a surprise, doesn't think the American League pitching he has seen so far is any better than what he had to face last year in the minors.

"I don't want to come off like a wise guy, but I batted against seven pitchers in the Southern League last year who are now in the majors, and they were tough," Joe said. "You also have to deal with the relief specialist now in the minors, just like they have in the majors."

Basically Charboneau has two goals this year. He'd like to play every day and he'd also like to drive in 100 runs. And although he didn't say so, I have a feeling that he misses that alligator.

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