Book Review: The Last Out by Chris Earl

The Last Out - By Chris Earl. $14.95 (Purchase here)

Riding a surprising start, the Kansas City Royals stick around in the AL Central all season long, making a dramatic playoff push in September. That didn't quite happen here in the real world this year, but it's exactly what transpires in Chris Earl's 2009 novel The Last Out. That isn't the only reason, but it should be reason enough to buy this book. This is Earl's third sports novel, and it appears that the Cedar Rapids news anchor has hit his stride. Earl is a big Royals fan himself, so perhaps the novel is a kind of expression of many of our collective fantasies.

The Last Out tells the story of Royal Cutter, a 32 year-old rookie who gets traded to the Royals on Opening Day. It isn't a coincidence that he's named "Royal" either, as his father was a fictional member of the otherwise very real glory days teams in Kansas City. Royal's father Jimmy, however, saw his life collapse due to cocaine use in the early 1980s. Jimmy Cutter ends up in prison after murdering a man in Bethany, while Royal grew up without a father in Wisconsin. All this makes Royal's return to Kansas City noteworthy but awkward, to say the least.

Royal Cutter is a likeable character on the fringes of success. The Major League minimum is good money to him and he knows he's maybe got one last shot to make it in the Majors, one last shot to snag a $1-2 million dollar deal before he leaves the game. He now has enough money to spend whatever he wants for dinner, but not enough to have a Porsche collection. Along with his fringey status as a player, Cutter's family history means he needs to be extra careful while dealing with the temptations of a baseball player off the field. Cutter isn't perfect and he isn't a saint, but he's not a mindless hedonist either. On the road in Cleveland, he feels a touch of guilt as he walks back to his hotel room with an Ohio State coed, but only a touch.

The Last Out is a fast-paced novel and a fun and engaging read. There's a good amount of on the field action, and Earl does a nice job really bringing to life single at bats, especially the hitter's guesswork and adjustments to the situation. This reader, however, was more drawn to the off-the-field side of Cutter's life, his relationships with his teammates, the media, his family, people in Kansas City. There are some great characters in this book, including a number of this-sounds-familiar media types and the gamut of recognizable inhabitants of jockdom.

The general problem with sports-related material is that the plots are a little too predictable. You know the hero is going to come up big, get the girl, win the game, etc. I don't think I'm giving away too much to say that Royal Cutter establishes himself in K.C. Nevertheless, one of the really pleasing things about this novel is that there are at least three plot twists that I did not see coming. There's some crazy stuff in this novel (related: this book is probably too adult for anyone younger than high school age) but it rings true. And really, that's part of the fun.

It's a book about the Royals. It's good. You'll like it.

You can order the book here, (the first chapter is also online) and if you mention Royals Review in your order, Chris will give you free shipping and throw in a copy of his first novel, Gotcha Down, for free as well.

The author was kind enough to chat about The Last Out and I think some of his responses are pretty interesting.

You write in your "Author's Note" prefacing the novel that working as a sports journalist beat the sports fan out of you, save for one team, the Royals. What was it like as a young Royals fan in St. Louis in the 1980s? You do know they consider themselves the "best fans in baseball" right?

 

I was a TV sportscaster for nine years and, when you do that, you pretty much have any remaining 'fandom' beaten out of you. I covered some incredible teams at the start of my career, not just because of their winning but their personalities -- the 1996 Packers, 1997 Chiefs, 1997 K-State football, 1997-98 Kansas basketball (Pierce, La Frentz), 1998 Vikings. Yet one of the best moments, for me, was walking into Kauffman Stadium for Opening Day in 1998. I, finally, had the opportunity to walk through the tunnel, see the 'flags' of the playoff teams painted on the wall, stand on the grass, look out towards I-70, watch George Brett contemplate whether or not to take batting practice and then, of course, see Baltimore crush the Royals.

By 1985, I had been living in St. Louis for a few years. I was in sixth grade and the Cardinals dominated the National League, winning 100 games and running their way to the World Series. After experiencing the 1982 World Series title in St. Louis, as a newcomer to that city, I still stung about 1980. For me, the World Series was 'old hat'. :) Yet there was a magical night in October 1985. Jack Clark smoked that three-run homer in Game 6 of the NLCS to send St. Louis to the Series. Hours later, the Royals go into a frigid and windy Exhibition Stadium in Toronto and rough up Dave Stieb in Game 7 of the ALCS. Quite possibly the greatest day in the history of Missouri sports.

During the World Series, I was 'chirping' quite a bit at my school. At least until Terry Pendleton's RBI double pulled Game 2 out for St. Louis. At that point, I was just hoping the Royals wouldn't get swept. The disturbing part, for me, is that I can remember exactly where I watched ALL seven games, 24 years later. Remember what it was like outside, who I was watching it with, etc. I especially remember, the Monday after the Game 7 whitewashing (11-0), I was yapping on the bus in front of all the Cardinals fans and, not surprisingly, the eighth-graders beat the stuffing out of this sixth-grade punk from Kansas City. Only time I ever enjoyed getting beaten up.

Cardinals fans are really into their team and they should be. The organization tries to run everything in a first-class manner, from payroll to the new stadium to the fan experience. I went to Cubs-Cardinals in 2006 and came away very impressed with their atmosphere -- far different than life at the old Busch Stadium, a rather cold, cookie-cutter ballpark where the best days came during Whiteyball and that super-fast turf. If you take a close look at St. Louis, it's easy to see why players want to come to St. Louis: the Cardinals pay well, usually are in the playoff chase, fans rarely boo you and the media is not as intense as Boston, New York or Chicago.

 

It's interesting that you started The Last Out in 2003, the last quasi-glory Royals year. Was that just a coincidence?

No, actually it's not a co-incidence at all. I have a silly ritual each April. About ten years ago, I purchase one of those gaudy 'dugout jackets' that were the rage. It's Royal Blue on the shell except the left sleeve is white with a giant, tackle-twill Royals logo (the scoreboard logo with the four golden circles at the top). So 1996. On Opening Day, I wear the jacket and continue to wear it until the Royals' first loss of the season. In 2003, I had the jacket on for ten days because of the 9-0 start.

That year, I had just finished the early drafts of my first novel, Gotcha Down, a college football epic set in Wisconsin but with some scenes in Lawrence, Kansas. At the time, we were living in Duluth as I was a weekday sportscaster at a TV station there. My wife's folks lived 300 miles from Duluth, in a Wisconsin town near Green Bay. She and my son (then an infant) would sleep for most of the trip and radio stations were hard to come by in rural Wisconsin. So I would work out these complex plot lines, drawing back to my own youth. The Royals were coming off an exciting year, albeit one where you knew they would, eventually, lose out the A.L. Central.

On top of this, in 2003, the Chiefs also started out hot at 9-0. That kept a fire burning for me about Kansas City and the plot came together as I remembered my own life in that great city.

By the awful 2005 season for the Royals, I think that, by the next year, I had just gotten so sick and tired of watching the Kansas City Royals lose 94 games a year that I decided to keep moving forward with a novel about a Kansas City baseball team that actually wins 90 and makes a run for the division title. That is actually what kept me motivated. If the Royals were like the Twins and making a run at the Central every year, this novel just wouldn't be as much fun, right? So, I guess in a way, I should welcome the team's struggles. :)



What was your research process like in writing the novel? You mention Kansas City broadcaster Jack Harry in your preface, did you talk to local Kansas City guys? Drive around town?


I've now had three sports novels published (and am working on my fourth) so the writing process is now fairly standard. Draw up a plot, think of sharp and interesting characters and then just "lay it all out". I can usually write up a novel in about six months' time for a first draft -- writing at a decent pace, about 1,500-2,000 words per session, three sessions a week. A little more some days, a little less on others.

Yet The Last Out was the most challenging: I started writing it in early December 2003 while watching a Chiefs game, after months of thinking about a plot while I worked on Gotcha Down. By February of 2004, I put The Last Out down to prepare Gotcha Down for release and a book tour through the Midwest. By fall of 2004, I was writing another novel, The Interim (released in 2007, a college basketball story about a UMKC grad who becomes the head coach of a corrupt Big Ten program after a plane crash kills the coaching staff). Wrapped up The Interim in 2005, moved from Duluth to Eau Claire (another delay!) to get out of sports and become a news anchor.

By 2006, The Last Out was still nagging out at me. One night, during the Winter Olympics that year, I'm sitting at the station until midnight because we're going on late. With a little bit of time to kill, I started going through the latest 'hard copy' I kept in my desk drawer. That provided some much needed momentum for The Last Out. Writing a novel and, more importantly, seeing it through requires constant momentum and I'd finally found it. By August of 2006, The Last Out was finished.

Little did I know it would still be three years until release.

I formed my own publishing company, Gate 8 Publishing, in spring of 2007 and released The Interim soon after. While still working with professional editors and graphic designers, I still wanted to maintain control over the writing project and not get pulled in a specific direction. The Interim earned reviewer praise for its plotline and I kept working on getting The Last Out ready.

Only we moved again in April of 2008.

This time to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. What would have been a May 1, 2008 release for The Last Out then became an April 1, 2009 release. I just could not juggle the marketing of The Last Out while unpacking boxes and moving a family of four from one state to another. We went over The Last Out three more times in Cedar Rapids before putting it out on April 1. The Cedar Rapids Kernels were gracious enough to allow me to use their dugout for the cover shot. I had been hoping to get to Kauffman Stadium for the shot but we couldn't make it down there. One of our weather guys, Kaj O'Mara, is the model for the cover. He is actually wearing an old Orioles jersey of mine, with that gaudy starter jacket draped over a shoulder. Our graphic designer then shifted the orange of the jersey's numbers into blue, moved letters around and a cover came out of it.

As for the research for The Last Out, this is the beauty of eBay. In 2000, I won $10,000 on the game show, ESPN's 2-Minute Drill. (http://www.2minutedrill.net/ and click on 'Meet the Contestants' - that is my story). Because a major chunk of that came from my knowledge of the Kansas City Kings, I decided to spend a little of that money on Kansas City-related sports 'things'. Found a guy with some old Royals' game videos from 1978 to 1985. For a few Jacksons, I was able to secure all of the 1980 ALCS and most of the 1980 World Series and 1985 World Series games. These games put me right back at Royals Stadium, especially the 1980 games. I write in The Last Out about that Sunday, August 17, 1980 -- because I was there, on the third base line when George Brett hit that double to center to be at .401. Even at age five, I still remember the day -- against Toronto, about 110 degrees off that old Tartan Turf. When the memories come flooding back, it can make for excellent writing if you capture it.

The one element of research that helped most was a $13 eBay purchase. A DVD of the June 1979 Yankees-Royals on NBC, it was a Game of the Week. This one was taped right off WDAF-TV, then the NBC in Kansas City, complete with commercials. This recording captured the essence of going to a game back then. The fountains in the outfield were still a novelty, everyone in the park stopped when Willie Wilson or George Brett came up to hit. Whitey Herzog was still managing and the Royals still had Al Hrabosky doing his thing on the mound. The '79 game had the total package -- Larry Gura getting roughed up early and down 5-0, Todd Cruz making errors and going hitless, Brett and Amos Otis bailing the Royals out later and Willie Wilson hitting an inside-the-park HR in the bottom of the 13th to win it 9-8. Seeing that game helped me put the final touches on some of the flashbacks for The Last Out.

Starting with The Interim, I've used Google Earth extensively to research the cities I write about. I try to always maintain a focus on cities and places that I have visited, first hand. Yet, I must admit, you can 'fake it' pretty well with Google Earth maps. For example, in The Last Out, I have scenes in every American League city. I've been to Seattle, Texas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Tampa Bay, New York, Oakland and Boston. Some of the other cities (Anaheim/Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland), I had to 'fake' but with Google Earth, it's easy. Thanks to satellite maps, I was able to come up with a scene in Cleveland where Royal Cutter is walking a dog about the lakefront before taking it back to an actual, bricks-and-mortar humane shelter about 2 miles from downtown. Love Google Earth!

As for Kansas City's research, most of it was based off my own childhood. I was fascinated with maps, even as a 4-year-old. Grew up in 'Verona Hills', on Kansas City's south side, near Minor Drive (119th) and State Road, just across from Leawood. The house that Royal rents out is based on my own home as a child. My own historic knowledge of Kansas City led the way in the early plot of The Last Out. I was fascinated by reading about the mob wars and the firebombings of certain buildings in the old River Quay in the late 1970's in Kansas City. Still remember the Kemper Arena collapse of 1979 and, of course, the Hyatt Regency disaster in July of 1981. That night, in fact, was the evening I became a news junkie. Even at age 6, I felt a bond to Kansas City because of the tragedy and still consider Kansas City my hometown.

Jack Harry and I go back a few years. I remembered watching him when I was a boy and, during my year in Topeka, where I was a sports reporter, Jack and I chatted a few times at Arrowhead or Allen Fieldhouse. I found him remarkably gracious and was pleased to see his own career revival after walking away from KCTV in 2001. He is keeping local TV sports relevant now at KSHB and has for years -- even as the local TV sports industry is fading fast. Jack also provided encouraging words throughout the project and a fair amount of historical thoughts from his days -- he covered the Royals in a far different era than now. Relationships were important between reporters and players back then as both tended to stay in their cities for a longer tenure than they do now.



What drew you to write about a character like Cutter Royal, a 30-something rookie? Did you consciously model him after any real ballplayers?


No, not really. This is one of the aspects of The Last Out that I really struggled with. How to actually make a 32-year-old rookie believable. I wanted him scarred and flawed because of his upbringing but I also wanted to have an unshakable confidence. For physical skills, I wanted to give Royal Cutter above-average levels of most attributes. Decent fielder, good speed and decent-to-strong power. He doesn't excel at Hall of Fame levels at anything but doesn't have any major holes, either.

If The Last Out came out in, say, 1999, I'd say "sign up Vin Diesel and let's get a movie started!". When I imagine Royal Cutter, I imagine a guy like him. Tough but also sensitive and trying to stay above all of the menial dramas in life.

One of my favorite characters in the book is Bobby Camp, an overpaid veteran second-baseman who produces some of the novel's most outrageous moments. What percentage of the Camp storyline was based on things you'd heard before?

Very glad you enjoyed Bobby Camp.

In my writing, one of the most satisfying aspects is coming up with "those" characters. Bad guys who know they are flawed and aren't afraid to use any situation to their advantage. When I came up with Bobby Camp, I wanted a Pete Rose-like character who did everything to the edge. Flying to and from games (like Thurman Munson), wanted to have a real 'zest for living' with girlfriends in each town, all while constantly complaining about his home life.

I took some real liberties with the Camp character. I cannot say that I based him on any specific people or that his own background had any merit. Bobby Camp needed to be a character who teammates could respect but that "no one really liked". Part of that was how he came up during the 1994-95 strike and was a scab. He took advantage of, what we now call, the Steroid Era to hit dozens of home runs and land big contracts. I've gotten plenty of comments about Camp's assertion that all of the pretty groupies are in the National League and not the American League. That is actually based, not on baseball but when the NFL free agency signing period is, some players tend to gravitate to: Atlanta, Houston, San Diego, Miami. All cities with lively party scenes and all cities in the National League. Once I tied that connection together -- probably on a long drive in Wisconsin six years ago -- I put that into the book.




One of the subtexts of this novel is drug use in baseball, but instead of steroids, the crisis of this decade, we have the cocaine scandal of the 1980s. Were you trying to make any kind of comment there?

In 2003, I was reading "A Pitcher's Story" by Roger Angell -- it's about David Cone. The chapters alternate between Cone in 2000 and his past. Much of the middle section of the book is about Cone finding his way in the Royals' locker room of the early 1980s. Cone was a high draft pick but was injured and rehabbing in Kansas City. The Royals, by 1983, had major drug problems and cocaine was a real issue in baseball at that time. Four of the Royals were suspended by MLB for their involvement. Even some high-level players (Keith Hernandez, Dave Parker, Tim Raines) testified at the Pittsburgh Drug Trials of 1985 for their involvement in it.

The illegal drug use that plagued baseball in that era is a major element of The Last Out. It's easy to see, even in fiction, how Jimmy Cutter could get hooked on cocaine and watch it destroy his life within four years. Even the real circumstances of the day -- the inactivity of the 1981 players strike -- lends itself to an opportunity for him to start using. By the time Jimmy hits 'rock bottom', he has already lost his family and his means for making a living. He was, probably, the deepest and, definitely, the most tragic character that I had brought to life in my writing.

There really is no major comment that comes from me over this. I was part of the generation of boys that saw the effects of illegal drugs and were able to stay out of it. When I was 11, I woke up in the summer of 1986 to read that Len Bias has died. Soon I learned it was a drug overdose. At that moment, I equated cocaine = instant death. I know many others my age (I'm 34) had a similar thought process over Bias's death.



What aspect of the baseball player's life did you most want to bring to light with The Last Out?

I agree with those who say that hitting a baseball is the most difficult athletic feat to try and accomplish. My mission in The Last Out is to also show the reader the constant juggling that a struggling player must go through just to stay in the league.

Royal Cutter has the ultimate in distractions: He's 32 and not really trusted by managers as an everyday player. His father is in jail for murdering a gas station clerk in a drug rage, the Kansas City press is now watching his every move to see if he fails. Temptation is everywhere -- let's see how Royal handles it. That's pressure.

I wanted to bring an extreme level of tension and pressure into the life of what should be a .260 hitter just trying to hang on in right field. Strong writing should have tense moments throughout, both large and not so large, and I'd like to think I put this Royal Cutter guy through it for 392 pages.

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