Some people celebrate Opening Day by going out to the ballpark. On those rare occasions when the bug bites me, I reach for something written about the national pastime. This year that was Frank Deford‘s near-roman-à-clef about the travails of an A-Rod-like superstar, his improbable manager and their team, the Cleveland Indians.
But before I get to the book allow me a little latitude. Not-as-widely-read-as-I-think-I-ought-to-be, I risk a big misstatement here which I pose as a question: why, among all the sports played in this world, is baseball the only one to inspire literary efforts? Name me a great poem or book about football. Or basketball. Or ice hockey. And if there is something about soccer (and there is; someday we’ll get to it after I overcome the tedium long enough to finish) it’s by a writer who barely escaped his home country. Only boxing has similarly inspired the writerly set.
Baseball, on the other hand, gave us ‘Casey at the Bat,’ Bernard Malamud‘s The Natural and Phillip Roth‘s ‘The Great American Novel.’ I’m sure there are more but that’s a pretty strong way to lead off the order, what with a Nobel laureate as the power hitter. I’m not certain any other sport has generated a volume in the national vanity publishing project. And f I decided to name movies the list would be even longer but it would also spur endless discussion about the proper ordering so we’ll let that go for the moment.
Now about this book. Frank Deford is among the nation’s best-known sportswriters. I first encountered him as the Guest Editor of a volume in the Best American Sportswriting series. (I told you we cut corners around here; better to read one book a year than the sports pages everyday.) He was the founding editor of The National, that 1990s experiment in creating a national sports daily to rival those of Europe.
The National was a short-lived venture but Deford survived and even thrived. Nowadays he does weekly commentary on the world of sport for NPR. I suppose that’s almost like emeritus status.
Which is probably why this tale was published. It’s one thing for a great novelist to use a game as a backdrop for ‘serious matters’ and quite another to tell a story about the game itself. It’s no disparagement of Deford to say he knows how to tell a story. You’ll get one here. You just won’t come away from it with something meaty to chew on. And as stories go, it’s as tawdry as anything you’ll find in a supermarket tabloid.Our hero is Howie Traveler, manager of the above named Tribe and a career-long minor leaguer who got lucky in the age of moneyball. For those not in the know, Moneyball, with a capital ‘M,” was the title of a book by Michael Lewis about the use of statistics by, I believe, the Oakland A’s to build and manage a team. Howie is no statistician. He’s an old-schooler who makes gut calls and can tell you how every player in the majors wears his socks. In short, he’s a noticer which is why he’s skipper in the first place.
The A-Rod doppelgänger is Juan Francisco Alcazar who answers to Jay. A red-blooded Cuban-American kid from Miami, Jay is a slugger, a looker, a talented young man with a lot of money and some confused ideas about the difference between a gift, a bribe and a fee.
The central part of the story takes place in Baltimore where Howie is waiting to get fired at the end of the stand. But Howie sees something–it involves a woman and his star–and the team winds up stranded in Baltimore by a hurricane and a police investigation of Jay.
A hurricane, though, only buys you a couple of days so much of the book is back story. We learn about Howie’s life, and the tragedy at the center of it. We learn about Jay and why you can call him a lot of things but never ‘Chief.’ We learn about key members of the team. And we follow Jay as he pursues his personal quest.
Oh, and we resolve the tale in a way not unfamiliar to my 6-year old daughter.
Look, I’m not saying that resolution is bad but tying up nearly every loose end is not necessary. It’s also not terribly satisfying when it’s done the way it is here although it’s sure to help sales.
(Not all agree. Here’s the all time winner in the unbelievable-jacket-copy sweepstakes, attributed to an anonymous tout on About.com: “The Entitled is far superior to The Natural or Field of Dreams because it is so realistic and so much better written.” Someone should alert the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees that they can disband since they clearly lack similarly astute judgment.)
What does work in the book are the little things. The portraits of the teammates are nicely done, embodying near-archetypes without devolving into stereotypes. The nuances you’d pick up from spending decades in ballparks and locker rooms are there in abundance, including the things you never see about athletes when they migrate from the sports to the business pages. And the game descriptions are, as I’d expect, superb.
In the end, this is a sportswriters idea of a novel. Approach it with no more expectation than that and it’ll be as good as any day at the park.
Kurt Vonnegut demonstrated better than anyone ever did the appeal of straightforward story lines. I don’t think he was commenting on literary merit.