Howie Traveler, manager of the Cleveland Indians, has reached the metaphorical bottom of the ninth inning of both his career and his life. After years of never quite succeeding as a ballplayer and a coach - not to mention as a husband and father - Howie is on the verge of being fired for costing his team a shot at the World Series when he becomes embroiled in a scandal involving his star player, Cuban-born slugger Jay "El Jefe" Alcazar. Everyone knows that professional athletes make their own rules (especially players like El Jefe), but when a troubled Jay seemingly crosses the line will Howie do the right thing and speak up, or will he let his MVP outfielder get away with the unthinkable?
The Entitled is the latest novel by sportswriter and NPR commentator Frank Deford, whose previous works include Everybody's All-American and Alex: The Life of a Child. Deford deftly interweaves an insider's look at baseball with a plot that takes the reader from the Major League dugout bleacher to Fidel Castro's Cuba in a story that is equal parts thriller and encomium to America's national pastime. Drawing a cast of memorable characters who at the same time evoke real-world sports personalities is a formidable challenge, but Deford succeeds admirably in this regard.
While I couldn't help but think of Howie Traveler as Grady Little, the Red Sox manager whose fateful decision in 2003 to leave Pedro Martinez on the pitcher's mound in Game Six of the American League Championship Series against their mortal enemies the Yankees will forever live in infamy, Howie is nevertheless his own person, a man clearly haunted by his failures both on and off the baseball diamond. So too is Jay Alcazar not merely an imitation of a current marquee superstar but a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a modern Latin-American ballplayer - Frank Deford manages to capture the internal contradictions of the latter-day immigrant without resorting to platitudes or tired stereotypes.
If Deford stumbles anywhere, it is in the final act, as his resolution of the main plot feels somewhat rushed and the ending just a little too pat and Hollywood for its own good. Considering the seriousness of the subject matter being addressed - professional athletes and inappropriate sexual conduct - one can't help but wish that the accuser in the story comes off as something more than a convenient plot device, but unfortunately she is the least developed of the novel's characters. These minor considerations notwithstanding, The Entitled is a well-written and compelling tale, one that will satisfy both diehard sports fans and casual readers alike. As yet another baseball season begins, Frank Deford has given us the perfect reading material for that inevitable rain delay.
(Disclosure: Sourcebooks, Inc. provided me with a free advance copy of this book for review. My opinions, however, are entirely my own.)