Cleveland is used to being the butt of a lot of jokes. So maybe they figure this is another one: the Indians are in first place.

After improving to 16-8 Friday night when Len Barker pitched major-league baseball's first perfect game in 13 years to defeat Toronto, the Indians also insist there will be no sixth-place punch line this year.

"Now maybe people will realize that the Indians are for real," Barker said yesterday. "We can stay with the best."

"I think everyone is waiting for us to fall on our faces," added pitcher Bert Blyleven. "I know they are. But we've got guys here who say, 'Okay, fine, keep waiting.' I don't think we're going to fall on our faces.

"Everybody realizes that Baltimore has won 100 games a year for the last five or 10 years (only five years, actually, since 1969) and they're not going to sit on their laurels. If the Yankees get hot, they can beat anybody and so can Detroit. Some people picked Milwaukee to take it all. And Cleveland was supposed to finish sixth out of seven, as usual.

"But, all of a sudden, Cleveland is off to a good start and people are saying, 'Jeez, who do they have? Um, they're not bad. We might have overlooked them.'"

Good pitching cannot be overlooked, and pitching is the reason the Indians are leading the American League East. The pitchers, who had the worst ERA in the major leagues last year, lead that category now with a 2.53 mark, and have 13 complete games in 24 starts. Of the five starting pitchers, Barker is 3-1 with a 1.31 ERA and Blyleven is 4-1 with a 1.84 ERA.

Barker, 25, won 19 games last year, more than any Cleveland pitcher since 1974. Against Toronto Friday, he struck out 11 batters, all in the last six innings, and never threw more than two balls to any Blue Jay batter. "I'm still flying high," he said yesterday. "I didn't get much sleep last night."

The Indians also are winning because they are healthy again. Last year, Joe Charboneau, the American League's rookie of the year, missed 31 games; Duane Kuiper missed 120 games, and Andre Thornton missed every game. Now, they're all back in the lineup.

But, Charboneau said, "Pitching has been the key and Bert has sparked the staff. We're not hitting well (.242 team batting average). The pitching has been carrying us."

Blyleven was traded to the Indians last December, after a tumultuous season in Pittsburgh when he went AWOL for 10 days. Blyleven, who was unhappy with his manager's tendency to think of a complete game as five innings, told the Pirates that if he were not traded, he would quit baseball.

"It was a matter of feeling there was no competition left in pitching," said Blyleven, who was 8-13 with a 3.82 ERA, his worst year. "It's a feeling within myself that not too many people have. They say, 'You should be happy, get your check every 1st and 15th' . . . I think of myself as a fierce competitor. I have to feel, win or lose, that it's my game. When that control is taken away, you feel like half a ballplayer instead of a whole one.

"I grew up a lot when I went away for 10 days," he added. "I found out baseball is not the end of the world. I'm still a fierce competitor but as long as I know that Bert Blyleven did his best and had fun doing it, I want to be with ballplayers who are having a good time."

Right now, the Indians are having a ball. If fatalism still reigns on the banks of the Cuyahoga, it is only among the fans. Attendance is up, but only an average of about 6,000 per game (including 71,067 on opening day). Only 7,290 were in the stands to watch Barker's perfect game against Toronto.

If the fans have stayed home, the media has gone west to witness the emergence of Billy Ball. The Indians don't have a catchy name, unless you want to call it Paul Ball, after Gabe Paul, the club president. "We low-key it," Paul said. "We'd rather let the thing do it on the field. If you talk too much, you hurt yourself . . . Baseball is a great leveler. You talk about things, you build up the opposition, the competitiveness."

The Indians, patsies for so long, insist they will remain competitive, that their pitching will prevent long losing streaks, and that Manager Dave Garcia will prevent them from feeling like losers. Garcia is a man who says, "If a fan talks negatively, I won't talk to him." Period.

As for his team? "We've got pretty fair defense, and not much power, but on any given day, we can play with anyone. We will win more than we're going to lose. If I say we're going to do anything less than win the pennant, that's negative thinking. If I say, we're gonna win the pennant, they'll say, 'He's popping off; he's crazy; they were 24 out last year.'''

But, Garcia says, 24 games is not that much to make up. If the Yankees lose 12 more and the Indians win 12 more . . .

Charboneau says the Indians started to learn how to win last year, when they were 79-81. This year, "We lost the first two games of the year (to Milwaukee)," he said. Everything seemed normal. "Cleveland hadn't had a good start in a while. Then we went on a road trip and beat Milwaukee and Kansas City. That was the key."

Blyleven said, "We went back to Milwaukee and kicked their butts. We got shutouts from (Wayne) Garland and myself and we said, 'We can play with these guys.' Then we go to Kansas City and sweep 'em. Kansas City is Kansas City. They've gotten off to a slow start. Maybe, when they lost three in a row to us, it destroyed them . . .

"In the future, it's not going to be such a disgrace to lose three in a row to Cleveland."