“Never a Bad Game,” which chronicled the first 50 years of the Southern League, has been updated and re-released. (Ordering information below). Over the coming weeks, I’ll present excerpts from 10 of my favorites of the 50 stories told in the book.
The Spanish Trail Inn sat on the fringe of Tucson, a motel whose name might ring with some bit of romance but whose conditions would not bring to the mind the words “Ritz” or “Four Seasons.” The rooms were large, the group rates generous and the freeway nearby. Thus, a perfect locale for a baseball organization to encamp its minor leaguers.
On a March night in 1979, Joe Charboneau sat on a bed at the Spanish Trail Inn, conducting his first interview as a member of the Chattanooga Lookouts. “I’m going to lead the Southern League in batting,” he said. He made good on the boast, batting .352 to go along with 21 homers and 78 RBIs in 109 games.
HIs outsized personality as much as his talent that made him stand out, both in the minors and in his meteoric major league career. He was a charming story subject for his flaky antics while becoming the American League Rookie of the Year in 1980 (.289, 23 homers 87 RBIs).
He could open a beer bottle with his eye socket. He could drink beer through his nose. He once sewed a gash in his own arm with fishing line. He was the subject of a biography and a 45 rpm record, “Go Joe Charboneau.” But back injuries stymied his career. He was out of the majors by the 1982 season, after only 201 games.
For all the hype, and an occasional temper, he was down-to-earth with fans and friends. When a visiting journalist was headed to Cleveland, Charboneau demanded, “You’re staying at my place.” When the offer was refused, he countered, with obvious awareness of the world of expense-account travel, “OK, there’s a hotel near my house and I know the owner. You can stay for free and he’ll give you a blank receipt.”
To commemorate his batting championship, Charboneau agreed to a photo shoot for the afternoon newspaper. He was fitted for a powder-blue tuxedo with a frilly shirt – we did say it was 1979, after all – and posed in outfield behind a table with a red-and-white checkered cloth. A champagne bucket rested on the table and Charboneau held a glass in the air.
When he shed the tuxedo and climbed back into T-shirt and jeans inside the clubhouse, he grabbed his wallet. “Before you take the tux back, stop and buy some flowers for that lady at the tux place for being so nice to us,” he ordered.
When his career seemed to have ended, he was tending bar in Buffalo and awarded a small role in the movie “The Natural,” starring Robert Redford. It was almost painfully ironic, with Charboneau himself having more than a passing similarity to Roy Hobbs.
The spring of 1984 found him in a motel-like dormitory room in Bradenton, Fla., talking with the same reporter he hosted at the Spanish Trail Inn just a few years earlier.
After three back surgeries, Charboneau was given the opportunity to make a comeback with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He laughed that “the craziest thing I’ve done lately is sign another pro contract.”
Some lines to an old Kris Krisotofferson song, “The Pilgrim,” were recited to Charboneau, about if “the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.”
“It is. It is. I’ve got to remember that line,” he said. “Geez, you know, I really wouldn’t change anything about that either.”
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