The Natural: Charboneau's career played like fictional Hobbs

PAT GRAHAM
Associated Press

Joe Charboneau sees a little bit of himself in the iconic baseball film “ The Natural.”

Outside of the obvious, which is that the former Cleveland Indians outfielder actually appeared in a few scenes of the 1984 film that finished tied for No. 8 in The Associated Press Top 25 favorite sports movies poll.

Movie line: “They would've said, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game,’” Robert Redford's character, Roy Hobbs, lamented of his shortened career.

Cue Charboneau, the 1980 AL Rookie of the Year.

In many ways, Charboneau’s career played out much like the script for the film: Slugger gets stabbed before his major league debut (Hobbs was shot). One memorable season. Injuries curtail career. Fade to the credits — he’s enjoying the game (not in a wheat field playing catch, but as the hitting coach at Notre Dame College in Ohio ).

“Isn't it funny how life parallels itself?” the 64-year-old Charboneau said in a phone interview. "Maybe I was meant to almost be in that movie.”

Movie line: “All right, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball,” manager Pop Fisher hollered.

The charismatic Charboneau arrived on the scene as that promising prospect who was the life of the party. His off-the-field tales were epic — opened beer bottles with his forearm or his eye socket (only once or twice, he clarified). Fixed a broken nose with pliers. Stitched up a cut with fishing line.

His exploits on the field were storied, too, for a player nicknamed “Super Joe.” In 1979, Charboneau batted .352 with 21 homers for Cleveland's Double-A affiliate Chattanooga.

On deck, the big leagues.

During spring training in 1980, he accompanied the Indians to Mexico City for an exhibition game.

He never even saw the stabbing coming.

Sound familiar?

Movie line: "I didn't see it coming,” Hobbs talking about being shot in the stomach in a hotel early in his career.

In Charboneau’s case, he was outside the team hotel — in uniform — and waiting with his teammates before heading to the field. A stranger approached.

“He asked me where I was from,” Charboneau said. “And then he stabbed me.”

A puncture wound to the stomach with what police told him was a pen knife. His fast reflexes, though, prevented more damage, because he grabbed the attacker’s wrist before the weapon plunged too deep.

“I actually felt worse for him,” Charboneau said. “My teammates jumped him and beat the hell out of him."

The wound was severe enough that doctors told him to go home for a few weeks to recover.

He resisted. He had a roster to make.

“So I just kind of gutted through it and played,” he said.

A month later, he was in the opening day lineup on April 11 for the banged-up Indians, who shuffled things around with Andre Thornton sidelined.

Movie line: “Pick me out a winner, Bobby,” Hobbs to the bat boy after his bat breaks.

Playing left field and batting seventh, Charboneau sent a low slider from Angels starter Dave Frost over the fence in right-center in his second career at bat. No wood bat cut from a lightning-struck tree named “Wonderboy” necessary, either.

It was the launch of a fabulous rookie season that saw him hit .289 with 23 homers and 87 RBIs.

He even inspired a catchy tune (“ Go Joe Charboneau ”) with lyrics such as: “Who’s the one to keep our hopes alive? Go, Joe Charboneau.”

In the rookie of the year voting, he edged Boston infielder Dave Stapleton. Hall of Famer Harold Baines also was a rookie that season.

Big things for sure awaited, he thought.

Then, a head-first slide into second base during spring training in '81 left him with an injured back. He was never the same.

Charboneau would have back surgery at the end of a sophomore season in which he hit .210 in just 48 games. In ‘82, another back surgery after batting .214 over 22 games.

The Indians released him in 1983 after he struggled at Double-A Buffalo.

He was picked up by the “New York Knights” -- Hobbs’ team in the “The Natural."

Movie line: “You know my mother told me I ought to be a farmer,” Fisher said. “My dad wanted me to be a baseball player,” Hobbs responded.

Charboneau was originally scheduled to be an outfielder in a movie directed by Barry Levinson and filmed at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium. But at 6-foot-2, Charboneau was taller than Redford's power-hitting character ("looked kind of weird," he said).

Instead, Charboneau had a new assignment — line up local baseball talent as extras and put the actors through a “spring training” workout to make them look more authentic. Not Redford, though, because Charboneau said he was already a natural.

Charboneau does make an appearance in two scenes — in the locker room and at the singing of the National Anthem.

“If you blink, you miss me,” he said.

A side benefit to training the actors was it kept him in shape as the Pittsburgh Pirates invited him to camp in ’84. He made two stops in their minors that season, hitting a combined .281 with eight homers, before calling it a career.

Well, not technically. He coached in the Frontier League and was sent in to pinch-hit for the Canton Crocodiles in 2000 as a promotional stunt.

He singled.

These days, Charboneau is the hitting coach for a Notre Dame College baseball team that's managed by his onetime teammate Len Barker. Their spring season was halted after a 3-8 start due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Charboneau and Barker also serve as ambassadors for the Indians.

Movie line: “I could’ve broke every record in the book,” Hobbs said.

Cue Charboneau.

“Wish I could’ve played longer,” Charboneau said. “Just to see what I could do.”

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More on the AP Top 25 poll of sports movies: https://apnews.com/Sportsmovies

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