Hitting One Out of the Park
Thursday, May 17, 2007
A Tale of Modern Baseball
By Frank Deford
Sourcebooks. 318 pp. $24.95
I wish it were longer, and that's something that I've rarely said about the baseball games I've covered in 30 years as a sportswriter. But it's how I felt while reading "The Entitled," the new baseball novel by Frank Deford.
The title covers the surface story. It's about a superstar named Jay Alcazar, a Cuban power hitter who makes a hard sport look ridiculously easy. Being entitled is part of the package: The money is huge, the women always available, the fans forever adoring -- or so it seems for Alcazar. So far, the book sounds like one big cliche.
But what makes this novel as much fun to read as watching Gold Glover Omar Vizquel play shortstop is that the story is primarily told from the viewpoint of the candid and colorful Howie Traveler, Alcazar's manager with the Cleveland Indians.
Deford won me over early in the book when he wrote that Traveler is amazed at "how ignorant modern players were about geography. Of course, it also amazed him how ignorant many modern players were about the game of baseball, and they played baseball for a living . . . ." Then there is this: "He never really understood pitchers. They were different from hitters in that pitchers didn't seem to Howie to be whole people. They were just one thing, an arm, attached to the corpus. Pitchers were sort of like ordinary girls who got by because they had big boobs." Now that's the kind of authentic stuff you might hear between spits of tobacco and the cracking of sunflower seeds when you sit around the dugout with aging baseball men.
Traveler had all the brains and savvy to be a star, but not the talent. As Deford writes, "Traveler was, basically, a displaced person. Baseball had cost him any sense of home. After his career was over . . . he'd have to go somewhere to live year-round, but for the life of him, he couldn't imagine where that might be."
Baseball is home to so many men like this. They played until they were told they couldn't play anymore -- usually in a place like Buffalo or El Paso. Then they started a coaching career in the minors, hoping to reach the majors as a first base coach and maybe, just maybe, get a chance one day to manage one of the 30 major league teams. Their lives consist of spring training in Arizona or Florida, summer in the city of whatever team employs them and fall in the Florida Instructional League. They have maybe two months away from the game, unless they want to go to Latin America and coach winter ball -- as many do. In the process, they marry, divorce and often become strangers to their children. They may have a few affairs, but no real relationships. As time passes, they get to the park earlier and earlier -- maybe 10 a.m. for night games -- because they have nowhere else to go. As Deford writes, "The better Howie got at managing a baseball team, the more he shied away from trying to manage his family, because that was harder and because that wasn't fun or satisfying the way baseball could be."
An acclaimed sportswriter and author ("Everybody's All-American," "Alex: The Life of a Child"), Deford is a masterly writer, and the book kept me up part of two nights.
The plot revolves around an allegation that Alcazar raped a woman after she willingly went up to his hotel room. Traveler saw something that may or may not have been incriminating, but it certainly would cause more problems for his star -- and, therefore, him. The police ask Traveler what he knows, but if he tells the truth, he could very well lose his player, his job and perhaps any chance of ever working in baseball again. Then what would he do with his life? And what if what he saw meant nothing, and everything Alcazar told the police is true?
The weakest part of the novel is Deford's attempt to resolve this moral dilemma, which takes away from a terrific buildup. This failure of the plot to live up to its vivid characters makes "The Entitled" sort of like a great 1-1 game called after 12 innings because of a curfew. The ending may be unsatisfactory, but you loved the experience anyway.