If you follow sports at all or listen regularly to NPR's Morning Edition, then you know Frank Deford. It seems that he has always written for Sports Illustrated
, where he is Senior Contributing Editor and has written on just about every sport and the athletes who populate them. Author of more than a dozen books, he has been elected to the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters and has won an Emmy and a Peabody. There is little doubt why GQ calls him "the world's greatest sportswriter."
It was those credentials and my having read him throughout his entire career that made my decision to read The Entitled
. I admit that I had low expectations as my experience with sports novels, even as an undiscriminating youth, was not good. Witness Janet Evanovich's Motor Mouth
as a prime example of what is not good. On the other hand, Sharyn McCrumb's St. Dale
rises to the dual test of a good sports story and excellent literature. In addition, so much of sports-related writing is ephemeral because it is so topical. Today's story is tomorrow's history, and beat writers are on a never-ending quest for a new angle and new story. That is not the case here. This story as fiction is all too true and all too likely to continue to be reflective of the real world of overpaid, over-adored, self-centered star athletes.
Some of the blurbs characterize the plot as "athletes behaving badly." They do, but that is not what is being examined in this thought-provoking novel. A star baseball invites a willing woman to his hotel room. His manager, whose room is on the same floor, sees the star grab the woman by the wrist and pull her back into the room. Waiting near the door for a few minutes, he hears no sounds of disturbance, then goes on to his room. Later, the woman claims she was raped, which the star denies. The manager lies to the police and says that he saw nothing when he came up to his room.
In a series of flashbacks and character vignettes, the novel explores how the star, Jay Alcazar, and the manager, Howie Traveler, got to this point and beyond. It is a voyage of self discovery that goes far beyond the typical sports novel. Howie is a "traveler" who beat around the minors for years before getting his chance to manage a major league team, an opportunity he does not want to lose. Baseball is his reason for being even though he got only one chance in the majors where he hit .091 (1 - 11), but excelled at the nuances of the game. Howie is old school, what is my youth was called an "old leaguer," one who played by the rules, played hard, and knew the game as if he possessed a gene for it. By this time he is divorced, his son is dead, and he is about to be fired. Alcazar's event saves him for the time being, it seems.
Jay Alcazar, who is described as "a white guy with brown skin," is the son of Cuban immigrants. He fits the bill of the All America guy - tall, dark, and drop dead handsome, he is baseball player with the mystic skills of the Natural. His Spanish is poor but he speaks a cultured English unlike too many of his teammates. Alcazar's parents, who escaped from Cuba, bear a consuming hatred for Castro. Both parents are educated, well dressed, and completely acculturated to the United States. They believe in doing the right thing and have raised Jay with the same values. His mother told him, "Don't be common, Jay."
The Entitled is a far superior to The Natural or Field of Dreams because it is so realistic and so much better written. The motivating situation is eminently conceivable. Howie's reaction is realistic as he struggles with self preservation or taking the moral high ground. It is a literate exploration of what causes people to react as they do. The characters are memorable. Howie and Jay, especially, are drawn better than nearly every other character in a sports novel. Victor, Jay's dad, comes alive. Huey, the ancient sports writer, the only one to whom Jay really talks, understands the falsity of the world. Quoting Daniel Boorstein, Huey notes that "everything was becoming so false in this world, that eventually the only two real things that would be left would be crime and sports." Deford masterfully brings these two concepts together in this captivating story. It is a story which should be read by current baseball players who just might learn something about behavior.