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Deford spins another baseball tale
08/29/2007 4:00 PM ET
Frank Deford has baseball in his blood. Or at least on his brain. His new novel, "The Entitled: A Tale of Modern Baseball," makes for a doubleheader of back-to-back baseball books from Deford, coming hard on the heels of his non-fiction study of John McGraw and Christy Mathewson, "The Old Ball Game," and making a leap of nearly a century in tracing the evolution of the modern sports hero.

"I think the modern hero is so different from somebody in the past," Deford said after a reading in Denver earlier this summer. "It's so much larger, so much bigger, so much greater, that things have changed. I'd just been intrigued, covering sports for so many years, at how these guys respond, these great celebrities."

While "The Old Ball Game" looks at baseball's original odd couple, "The Entitled" returns to the juxtaposition of personalities, matching superstar slugging outfielder Jay Alcazar with Cleveland's curmudgeonly second-year manager, Howie Traveler, a "bum" of a player who spent eight days and 11 at-bats in the Majors, managing one single up the middle off Dave McNally before accepting that he was "only almost good," returning to the bushes and a path toward managing.

"I've always been intrigued by these managers who weren't very good [players] themselves," Deford said, citing Branch Rickey, Joe McCarthy, Sparky Anderson, Jim Leyland, Tony La Russa and Earl Weaver among the inspirations for his protagonist. "I remember Weaver and [his relationship with pitcher] Jim Palmer, particularly. Howie Traveler is a composite, but often when I tried to visualize him, Weaver would rise up."

In the modern game, the manager must balance his mastery of strategy with his ability to handle his superstars, and Deford gives Howie a multi-faceted challenge when in the book's first chapter he partially witnesses an episode as he passes Alcazar's open hotel door -- an episode later reported as a rape.

Ironically, the firestorm of media attention the accusation and arrest ignite is enough to temporarily save Howie's job, coming on the eve of a meeting in which the Indians general manager planned on sacking his skipper. The bulk of the book, dancing through time to flesh out the characters before they arrive at this crisis, deals with the ethical obstacle course Howie must navigate as he weighs his obligations to his team, his family, his star, and the woman he saw briefly through that open door.

"Most managers, they don't do what's necessarily right," Alcazar tells a teammate by way of praising Howie's dugout acumen. "They just do what they can justify."

The observation takes on an entirely new meaning as Howie searches for the right path, balancing his instinct with the modern knowledge of the double-edged sword of celebrity and its twin blades of entitlement and exploitation.

"It's a tricky pas de deux between these two very different men," Deford said. "Jay's life and Howie's career both hang in the balance."

"The Entitled" is Deford's ninth novel and his 16th book all told, as he eloquently draws on nearly a half-century of sports writing to bring the game's inner world to life.

The Sports Illustrated senior contributing editor and National Public Radio commentator is a six-time National Sportswriter of the Year and a member of the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. Capturing the subtleties of the game like no novelist before him, Deford has already won the admiration of baseball lifers like Lou Piniella, who calls it "pure baseball," and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who says "Deford writes like he played in the Majors for 10 years."

There is a sense of nostalgia in Deford's baseball writing, evoking the cracker-barrel quality of a game steeped in oral tradition, capturing the nuances of the big-league atmosphere and the colorful characters populating the clubhouse in a way that harkens back to the baseball literature of 50 years ago, when scribes offered the ink that turned athletes playing a game into the paragon of the American hero.

But as the role of the hero has come full circle, the role of the writer has also evolved, with modern wordsmiths endeavoring to dismantle the pedestals their predecessors erected for these "heroes" to stand upon.

"Me and my journalistic brethren keep you heroes real," says the wizened old Plain Dealer columnist, Mick Huey, a character Deford readily admits has something of himself in him. "We see you every day, even when you're naked. We watch you and talk to you and then provide to the wider world some approximation of your humanity."

It's that level of humanity that distinguishes "The Entitled" from the heyday of sports novels, in which human failings took a backseat to prowess on the playing field.

"They didn't have any flaws in them, on or off the field," Deford said of the characters populating the sports fiction of his youth. "Whereas my characters are very, very human, they're not bad guys. They're very conflicted, broad guys. In that sense, they're very different from [those in] the 1950s novels."

Deford also captures the changes in the clubhouse that contribute to the character of the contemporary game. His star player left Cuba by boat as a baby, and he represents one dimension of the Latin influence on the game, opening a window for Deford to examine, if not focus on, the element of race in game.

"It's not an important element in the book," Deford explained. "But because Alcazar is a minority, he brings it up more than anybody else. And I think minorities are perhaps more sensitive -- I know they are -- than somebody who's not a minority. I was interested in the connections today between the various ethnic and racial subgroups, which have changed over the years. So whether or not it's important to the book, it's interesting to the book."

Having described Arthur Ashe's breaking of the color line in apartheid South Africa as "the only important story I ever covered," Deford nonetheless finds important aspects to touch on throughout his writing, and "The Entitled" is no exception, mixing the sociological developments in the game with the unabashed reveling in its timeless attraction.

"I'm never under any illusion that when you're covering a game, the game is not important," Deford stressed. "If you're going to write an adult novel, then you have almost an obligation to deal with larger issues than whether the guy should steal second base, or whether you should walk him intentionally. To make it a novel, you need to go beyond the lines. I wouldn't want to try to write a book that didn't do that."

Thus, baseball becomes the backdrop for a story steeped in the subject of modern celebrity and the supposition of "entitlement" that accompanies those in that social strata. His novel is ultimately about character and the watershed conflicts in individual lives that both shape and are shaped by character. There is very little on-the-field action in the novel, and one need not love the game to love the book, but as so many have discovered in examining the game and its parallels with the American identity, baseball provides a rich buffet of conflicts and character for either a literary or sociological feast.

"People are always talking about how, 'Well, there are not enough African-Americans playing baseball,'" Deford said, citing an example of one of the book's peripheral topics that lends it both authenticity and bite. "What they miss is there are not as many white Americans playing baseball, because the Latins have come in and taken the place. And the subsidiary point to that is that so many of the black guys who play baseball now have backgrounds just like the white guys. They tend to come from the suburbs. They tend to come from middle classes. They tended to have a year or two of college. That sort of dynamic is very interesting to me.

"We also have a tendency, those of us [who are] Anglos, to lump all Hispanics into one group," he continued. "'He's a Hispanic.' That's like saying, 'He's a European.' Well there's a huge difference between a Swede and a Greek. And there's a huge difference between a Dominican and a Mexican. I wanted to mention that, without making an issue of it."

Ultimately, Deford could find no better vehicle for the issues he wanted to tackle and the characters bubbling out of his imagination than the game of baseball, and baseball could be no better served by a modern novel than its literary elevation in "The Entitled."

"People talk baseball better than they talk other sports," Deford said, a touch of wonder in his voice as he admitted to the oral attraction baseball provides. "When they talk other sports, it tends to be much more Xs and Os. The language is better in baseball, the stories are better in baseball. It's more fun. The last sports novel I wrote was about football, "Everybody's All-American," so I'm not always going to choose baseball, but this time there was no question in my mind that baseball lent itself best to this."

Howie Traveler is a complex character, constantly wrestling to balance his family life with his career choices, his personal integrity with his professional ambition. He is an ordinary sort who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. That he is "pure baseball" is a bonus blessing for those readers who share his passion, whether big leaguers themselves or the vast majority who shared his sense of failure at that which is most important to him.

"I loved it all my life," he tells his girlfriend. "It still breaks my heart that I couldn't play it as good as I loved it."

In "The Entitled: A Tale of Modern Baseball," readers can take comfort in a novel written as good as the game it loves.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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