by Frank Deford. Naperville, Ill., Sourcebooks, 2007, 352 pp, $24.95.
The aptly named Howie Traveler is a baseball manager who, after bouncing around the farmtowns and milltowns that populate baseball’s minor leagues, has finally gotten his call-up to “The Show” as manager of the Cleveland Indians. Unfortunately for Howie, the book begins at the point that his life as a big league manager seems about to end.
As he prepares his underachieving team, including underperforming superstar Jay Alcazar, to play a series against the Orioles, Howie is certain he is about to be fired. More precisely, that he “won’t get outta Baltimore alive.”
To lose this job would mean certain death in terms of his big league dreams. The baseball barons who control the fates of their minions in the major league will not be proffering another opportunity to a former career minor leaguer who couldn’t take top-rate talent to the title. Those kinds of opportunities only come once. Howie may have gotten close the previous year to collecting a championship for long-suffering Cleveland fans, but the flip side of baseball’s eternal optimism (“Wait ‘til next year!”) is the all too grim reality that one is only as good as one’s current record. And Cleveland’s current record was bad.
What went wrong? His cast from the preceding year, who came ever so close to winning it all, was back essentially unchanged, and in Jay Alcazar the Indians had what all teams covet: a bona fide, top-shelf talent with transcendent athletic ability.
However, this year Howie feels somewhat betrayed by his superstar. In fact, he initially thinks Alcazar is secretly sandbagging to get him fired and a fellow Latino installed as the new manager. The truth behind the drop in Alcazar’s performance is something so much more elemental to his core identity than a shared heritage.
I’m not revealing anything critical to the book by saying Howie doesn’t lose his job in Baltimore that weekend. The reader learns that in the first few chapters. Howie earns a reprieve because of a crisis off the field involving, alas, Jay Alcazar.
While the narrative hook of The Entitled is what may or may not have occurred one weekend in Baltimore, it is Alcazar’s backstory that drives the novel and makes it so much more than a simple baseball book. In what could have easily been a second novel we learn of the outfielder’s childhood torn asunder in Castro’s Cuba, with his semi-triumphant, albeit mostly incognito, return to the island to reconnect with his past.
The book is a work of fiction, but with all the real team names (and some real player names) peppered throughout, the fiction feels thinly veiled. One wonders whether Deford is attempting to pull back the curtain on 21st-century baseball as Jim Bouton did with Ball Four a generation ago. But at one point nearly midway in the book, the veil becomes thin to the point of distraction.
In a flashback recounting Alcazar’s meeting with Cleveland Plain Dealer scribe Mickey Huey, the latter laments the waning influence that writers have on the shaping of athletes’ images. The reporter points derisively to the television at the end of the bar, presumably showing ESPN’s Sportscenter or one its many imitators, as the cause of the demise of the sportswriter’s importance in creating and chronicling the characters of the game. Deford is widely lauded as a great sportswriter, one who has appeared as a regular commentator on NPR, ESPN, and HBO, so it seems somewhat misplaced for him to assume the mantle of technology’s victim on behalf of his colleagues.
However, that is but one minor quibble, since the passage itself is so engrossing you forgive the possible transparency. The book’s other pitfall is the often brutal coarseness with which many characters regard and act toward women. Deford might be attempting to hold a mirror to the sport to urge improvement via self-actualization, but more often than not the scenes depicting sexual situations seem salacious rather than sermonic.
The tale ends with the reader left having to fill in some gaps in the intervening timeline, but the devil is not in the details here. One might wish that the ending did not come so quickly, craving juicy tidbits of what transpired from point A to point B. But with Deford having provided two such richly drawn characters as Traveler and Alcazar, one can easily imagine how each would have acted in the interim.
Book review accepted for publication August 2007 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07071202).