Like eating Cracker Jack on a Sunday afternoon, Frank Deford's The Entitled is rife with cliché. And that's just how it should be, as modern baseball is a great big paean to nostalgia, replete with mock-classic stadiums, uniforms that haven't changed since the 1920s, and countless other anachronistic quirks. Still, writing sports fiction is one thing; writing baseball fiction is another game altogether. Not only are Bernard Malamud's The Natural and Don DeLillo's Underworld lauded as some of the greatest sports epics of all time, they're firmly embedded in the American literary canon. Six-time Sportswriter of the Year and a longtime Sports Illustrated writer he may be, but when Deford set about to craft his own take on America's pastime, it was no minor-league affair.
"Fiction writing is certainly more fun. At the same time, you're flying without a net. It's all got to come out of your head. And so it's a little riskier."
The Entitled chronicles a series of events as conveyed by Howie Traveler, the careworn manager of the Cleveland Indians. Howie's experience with the majors as a player was only a momentary, cruel flirtation, but his aptitude off the field has sustained him in various journeyman capacities throughout his entire adult life. In life, as in baseball, Howie has stayed afloat, but barely. His most recent tribulation arrives while the Indians are in BaltimoreDeford's hometownto play the Orioles. Returning late to his hotel room, he witnesses his star player, Jay Alcazar, possibly involved in a very serious transgression. Just how possible, Howie must figure out.
An array of personal experience informs the 69 year-old Deford's tale, from trips to Cuba to the dog days of ceaseless beat reporting to the death of his daughter at eight years old. All of these true events are incorporated into the story, and yet the just-good-enough protagonist couldn't possibly be a more inapt reflection of his author. Elected to the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, selected by the American Journalism Review as the United States' best sportswriter, a regular correspondent on NPR's Morning Edition and HBO's Real Sports, and twice voted Magazine Writer of The Year by the Washington Journalism Review, Deford is no Traveler.
That seems to be the point. For Deford, it's "no fun" creating thinly veiled replicas of real-life people. Considering Deford's exalted stature, his attempt at creating a character so alien to himselfa mediocre professional long toiling on the margins of obscurityis all the more fascinating. "At the end of the day," he says, "it's more gratifying writing fiction."
In the following interview with Gelf, conducted by phone and edited for clarity, Deford spoke about baseball's literary tradition, why you can't have a hero on steroids, and why the Indians will win the World Series. (You can hear Deford and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, September 5, in New York's Lower East Side.)
Gelf Magazine: Might baseball be the most cliché-ridden, aphorism-filled pursuit of all-time? Howie Traveler, for example, seems like he could speak entirely in proverbs. And how could we neglect the plethora of rags-to-riches stories?
Frank Deford: It's not only the most cliché-ridden, it's the sport most written about. And therefore, it has the greatest literary tradition, as well as oral tradition. Given that, there's simply going to be more clichésjust more of everything, including rags-to-riches stories.GM: Is it still the most written-about sport, even in this day and age, with all of the other major sports leagues in existence?
FD: I'm not talking about things like scouting reports and stuff like that. I'm talking about insofar as having given itself over to fiction. It's hard to think, for example, of a basketball novel. [Editor's note: Two of Deford's Sports Illustrated colleagues wrote one last year, and Gelf interviewed them about it.] And I've covered a lot of basketball, but it never occurred to me to make this a basketball story. And it easily could have been any sport. But baseball seems to lend itself best. I think one of the reasons is that, while baseball is a team game, it's easier to break down because it always has that individual subset of the pitcher versus the hitter. You can freeze baseball. People who don't like it say it's too slow and everything, but the fact that it is sothat it comes in rushes and then stopsmakes it easier to write about than the fluid, back-and-forth games.
GM: Have the Cleveland Indians voiced any opinions on the book?
FD: [Laughs]. Not the Indians themselves, but when I was in Cleveland I was a big hit, especially because I told them how I had arrived at the Indians. Originally it was going to be the Red Sox, and then they won the World Series. So I switched to the White Soxand they won the World Series. Then I switched to the Indians. And so, if history repeats itself, I have guaranteed the Indians their first world championship since 1948. So I'll be the biggest thing in the world in November, should they win.
GM: So there was no fallout from anyone in the organization?
FD: Oh, no. Obviously, it's fiction, so Howie Traveler is not supposed to be the Cleveland manager and Jay Alcazar isn't supposed to be Grady Sizemore or anything like that. So nobody's mad at me, no.
GM: What current player could Alcazar most resemble?
FD: Eh, I think he's a composite. There's no Cuban player of his magnitude. I wanted to pick a Latin-American ballplayer, and that was important to me. When I started to create the character I realized he had to be an American of Latin heritage because otherwise he would be speaking with an accent and it would be, "Baseball has been very very good to me," and he would come across as dumb. So it was really a question of constructing him that way; he wasn't based on anyone.
I remember one night watching a Yankees game, and Derek Jeter has a particular motion as he settles in. And I said, "Hmm, I'll give Alcazar something like that." And I have him reaching out instead of grabbing air, different from Jeter. The point was that Jeter put that suggestion in my head. I would say he's the color of Alex Rodriguez. So it's a little bit here and a little bit there, but there was no one player whom I wanted to patent him after. If you do that, it's no fun. It's no fun just to take Player Xactual player Xand make him into fictional Player X. What you want to do is build somebody, so he's strictly my creation, and Howie is, too.
GM: You paint a very thorough, vivid picture of Jay Alcazar's background, particularly in the scene where he arrives to Cuba. Have you been?
FD: I've been there twice. I don't think I could've written about the country if I hadn't been there and didn't feel comfortable. Obviously this is not a sociological study of Cuba, but I don't think I would've felt secure unless I had been there on a few occasions. Which is why I wrote about the town of Cienfuegosbecause I had been there in particular and I can remember it very vividly.
"So I'll be the biggest thing in the world in November, should the Indians win the World Series."GM: How did your own family difficulties shape your portrayal of the Traveler family?
FD: None. Well, in one sense, but it's not trouble. I lost a daughter, but that's not family trouble. But I could identify with Howie losing a child. And in fact, when I go to the cemetery I sometimes tidy up the way Howie didI borrowed that from myself. But insofar as "troubles" are concerned, I've been married to the same woman for 42 years. The one thing is that I did lose a child, but I lost a child to a disease, which is entirely different than getting a phone call in the middle of the night, completely out of the blue. It's really a different experience; of course the sadness is the same. And I can say thisnot in my own case, because we managed to skate throughbut so many families who lose a child, that family ends up broken and divorced [like the Travelers], because it's just so hard to deal with it. So I was very familiar with that, having dealt with a lot of other cystic fibrosis families. Sort of like I can say I was familiar with Cuba, and I'm familiar with what it's like to lose a child. [Editor's note: Deford wrote a book, Alex: The Life of a Child, about the death of his daughter.]
GM: To what do you attribute your "skating through it," as you say?
FD: You know, I couldn't tell you that. Because it's one of those things where you can't tell what would have happened unless something had happened. What I mean to say is, shortly after my daughter died (she was eight years old), we adopted a little girl. I think that probablymaybe we would've made it anyhow, that's why I say I can't tellbut the fact that we adopted this little girl put us in the mode of looking ahead. Obviously we didn't forget the child that we lost; nonetheless, I don't think that you dwell on it as much. I think it gave us a positive ring, and sort of took us away from thinking too much of the child we lost, and all of the sudden we were thinking of the child we were going to get and did get. That was very important.
GM: How does fiction writing compare to nonfiction? Do you feel more vulnerable writing creatively?
FD: [Fiction writing] is certainly more fun. At the same time, you're flying without a net. It's all got to come out of your head. And so it's a little riskier because you have to make it all up. Whereas with nonfiction, so much of it is based on your reporting, and you depend on that. I think at the end of the day it's more gratifying to write fiction because you've done it all yourself, and it's a greater sense of achievement. Of course if you wrote something really good in nonfiction and not so good in fiction, then that can turn that on its head. But generally speaking, I think there's a greater sense of having accomplished something.
GM: How much did the Glenn Bunting affair influence this book?
FD: God, not at all. I tried to put Glenn Bunting out of my mind as quickly as I could, or as much as possible.
GM: Given contemporary circumstances of baseball, it bears notice that in your behind-the-scenes narrative there's no mention of steroids. Why is that?
FD: I didn't want to get into it. I mention it every now and thenI say this player used steroids, this player didn'tbut it just would have been a distraction; I don't think it would have added anything to the book. And I think it would have taken away from what I was trying to write about, which is the relationship between the manager and the player and their two stories. If all of the sudden Jay Alcazar was on steroids, we would have cared a lot less for him. We wouldn't have liked him much at all. So you couldn't have your hero on steroids, and just to bring it up and make an issue of it seemed to me beside the point.
GM: Do you think the womanizing, cattiness, and puerility amongst baseball players has increased or decreased since the time of Ball Four?
FD: I really wouldn't be able to measure that. My hunch would be it's pretty much the same, and it was the same in 1890 and 1940 and 1970 and 2007, and it'll probably be the same in 2047 and 2087. I think some things just don't change, and young men, on the roadparticularly those with glamour and moneyhave always womanized, going back to ancient times. I think that's in every culture. Just like young men are the ones who get into the most trouble in every cultureit's universal.
"Young men, on the roadparticularly those with glamour and moneyhave always womanized, going back to ancient times."GM: About [Entitled] sportswriter Mickey Huey: Did you at all see yourself in his character? And did you try, deliberately or non-deliberately, to reflect yourself in him?
FD: The jaded, cynical part of me is Mickey Huey. The difference between Huey and me is that Huey is a newspaper man who's had to be on the front lines all his life, whereas I've been able to step back, and pick and choose. I haven't had to go to spring training every year and follow a particular team, so I'm not nearly as worn-out and jaded and cynical as the Mickey Huey types are. There's a part of me that's thereone-third of him is me, and two-thirds is what I've seen in other old guys through the years and what I never wanted to become. Had I been forced into that mode, I would have left sportswriting a long time ago. I couldn't have gone to games day after day, year after year.
When I was about 31 years old, I had been the basketball writer at SI for the previous seven or eight years, and I said to my managing editor, "After this season, I just can't do this anymore; I don't want to be Mr. Basketball." And I either had to leave the magazine or do what I wanted to do, which is write features. I knew I couldn't become that sort of person; I'd seen too many old guys who really hated what they were doing after a while. Hated the ballplayers.
GM: Who are some specific people who most resemble Huey?
FD: Name specific people? I wouldn't want to do that. Listen, they're plenty of 'em. Being that kind of daily beat writer, even when you've become the columnist, it's a grueling job. I think you've really got to absolutely adore the games to be able to do it all your life. And some guys doI just didn't like games that much. Everybody likes games, but I didn't want to cover them for a living.