X-Factor (2nd series) #2

Issue Date: 
July 2002
Story Title: 
The Natural

Jeff Jensen (writer), Arthur Ranson (artist), Paul Mounts (colors), Paul Tutrone (letters), Franco and Yoshii (assistant editors), Powers and Lis (editors), Joe Quesada (editor in chief), Bill Jemas (president)

Brief Description: 

Eighteen months after having his right arm desiccated by a mutant arms dealer, Agent Kearse finally has an operation that replaces his useless limb with a fully functional artificial one. After a period of recovery, he and his partner, Catherine Gray, are called into their new assignment; investigating death threats being directed at baseball homerun star Tony Robb. While secretly a mutant, Robb has been receiving threats from someone identifying him as such, and instructing him not to take the homerun record. With heightened security, Robb continues his playing, intending to reveal his mutant nature, and retire, after the game where he breaks the record. As he nears his goal of a 73rd homerun, Robb panics and instinctively uses his mutant power to alter his apparent location. This moment actually saves his life, as the would-be assassin misses Robb's vital organs. Agents Gray and Kearse corner the shooter, but find that he has already been subdued by the X-Man, Nightcrawler, who disappears in a puff of brimstone smelling smoke. Robb quickly learns that he is paralyzed from the waist down, and calls off revealing his secret. The secret still comes out, ruining his intended status as a "goodwill ambassador to mutantkind". As Catherine Gray deals with her mother, a rabid mutant-rights advocate with conspiracy theories, and her husband's questions about their status as possible future parents, Kearse deals with the fallout of his son, an avid Robb fan, learning Robb's mutant nature. As he throws out his son's Robb memorabilia collection, Kearse thinks of his own father teaching his to play baseball, and how after 18 months, it will be good to feel strong again.

Full Summary: 

As he stands in the batter's box, awaiting his pitch, Tony Robb wonders how they will come for him. A rifle short, high and hard like a fastball at his head? Or a snaking curve, sneaking out of the corner of his eye? Or will it be something impossible to anticipate, something sinking and wicked, split-fingered and dirty? With a fluid motion, the pitcher releases his pitch, sending the ball toward the strike zone. With skill honed by countless practicing, Robb swings his bat, hitting the ball squarely. As the ball soars into the night sky, he thinks that however they come at him, he knows this for certain: he will keep swinging. They greatest home run hitter of his generation will not be deterred from making history. Then, he will be through with the damn game.

As Robb's 32nd home run of the year arcs into the third deck of Baltimore's Levinson Field, a horde of fans tries to catch the ball. Out of the legion of arms reaching skyward, it is the arm of Aaron Kearse, his only good arm no less, that reaches high enough to make the catch. With pride and great pleasure, Kearse sits back down and hands his prized catch to his son, Matthew. Matthew continues holding fast to the ball, even as his father carries him back to their car. Rambling on, Matthew asks his father if he knew that Tony Robb reached 500 home runs faster than anyone else in history? Or that he's the only player to be A.L. MVP five years in a row?

Kearse smiles as he basks in his son's excitement of baseball; a passion Kearse himself inherited from his own father. For one blissful moment, he thinks to himself, there is no such thing as mutants. After a quick drive home, Kearse picks up his sleeping son, and takes him upstairs to his room. After being tucked in by him, Matthew asks his father if he is scared of the operation. Kearse replies that he is a little. Matthew promptly offers to pray, if his father wants, to which Kearse replies that he would like that. After thanking his son for the kind thought, Kearse tells him good night, and turn off the light, bringing darkness to the boy's bedroom. It is in the semi-darkness of an operation room sometime later that the surgeon asks Aaron Kearse to begin to count backwards from ten. Kearse begins the countdown, but before he can complete the number seven, the anesthetic takes effect, bringing darkness to his world as well.

(18 months ago)

In Las Vegas, parked along a darkened street, Agents Kearse and Green stand outside their car. Seeing an approaching van, Kearse tells Green that it is he. Leaning against their parked car, Green asks Duncan if they are rolling tape. The electronically transmitted voice of Agent Duncan replies 10-4, and recommends that they be careful. After parking a close distance away, the van's driver gets out and lights a cigarette. He greets the two undercover agents as gentlemen and tells them he hopes that he wasn't too difficult to find. Approaching the newcomer, Kearse replies that his directions were crystal clear. The van driver laughs and says he wishes that all his customers were as capable. Some of them couldn't find the Statue of Liberty even if they flew into it. Not getting a reaction from the two men, the newcomer tells them it was a joke and swiftly offers a cigarette. Green replies no thanks and asks if he is alone. The smoking man asks Green if he is trying to make him nervous. Addressing the smoking man as Mr. Wither, Green replies that he's just making sure that there'll be no surprises. Wither replies that he's sure and, opening the van, asks if they would like to inspect the merchandise.

The double doors of the van's back opens up. Inside, the agents see a pile of prosthetic arms. Dryly, Green tells Kearse that this is funny. He's an arms dealer. Get it? An arms dealer. Responding as equally dry, Kearse states that the problem is that they're there for rocket launchers, not prosthetic limbs. Standing behind the two agents, Wither drops his cigarette and then looks at the two agents with glowing eyes. "Perhaps, not yet," he says, responding to Kearse's statement.

The right arms of both Agents Kearse and Green explode in pain. Wither tells them that the pain they are now experiencing is the muscle tissue of their right arms shriveling and dying on the bone. Coldly, he says to them that they didn't know he could do that, did they? As the two men
collapse to their knees and then roll onto the ground, Wither calmly walks to his van and picks up two prosthetic arms and drops them on the ground. In calm contrast to the agents' agony, Wither tells them that intelligence is as invaluable to his line of work as it is to theirs. Remarking that they are with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he tells them that he did his homework. As he closes the van doors, Wither points out that if they had done their homework too, they might have learned that he possessed some genetic advantages most human do not. After getting in the van's driver seat and closing the door, Wither tells Green that this is why he can work alone and why the norms will never catch him. Finally, he bids the gentlemen a good evening and
tells them to enjoy the new arms. With this he drives away, leaving the two men still in agony. Through electronic transmissions, Kearse hears Agent Duncan ask what is happening? What is happening?


Sitting on his bed, Agent Kearse rubs lotion on his right arm. No longer the shriveled husk that it was 18 months ago, the arm is still not the healthy match of Kearse's left limb. From behind, Matthew asks his father if he can touch it. When his father responds with a course no, Matthew asks please, but is rebuked again. After a second please, Kearse tells his son he can't until it heals and begins to bandage the arm. A voice at the door tells the two that it will be a few days more. Kearse looks and, to his surprise, sees his old partner Kendall Green. Amy Kearse, Matthew's mother, who is also standing in the doorway, calls for Matthew to come with her; they have to get him to baseball practice. After reaching his mother, Matthew, decked out in his Eagles little league uniform, turns to his dad and suggests that he and Mr. Green can go to the batting cages next week. They can set their arms at super strength ... Matthew is interrupted by his mother, who says that it is enough and they should go.

Putting on his shirt, Kearse turns to Green and asks if super strength is even possible. Green responds that he wishes, although he can enhance his strength if knows how to "jimmy" the synthetics arm. However, Green continues, being a by-the-book Christian that he is, he will probably want to do it the old-fashioned way. Presenting his old partner a box, Green tells Kearse that he will need this. Opening the box, Kearse finds a "speed bag". As Kearse examines the gift, Green tells him that it is something that helped him get through his physical therapy. Recently, he
adds, he got one of the body-sized ones. For him, it's all about hand-eye at this point.

Placing the bag back inside the box, Kearse tells Green that he would like it if they could do it together. He notes that they haven't really hung out together much since ... Hearing Kearse trailing off, Green continues. He tells Kearse that he's surprised that he waited so long to have the procedure done. For him, it was a no-brainer. Feeling his recently acquired limb, Kearse replies that there was something about it that felt... unnatural. He just wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do, with his faith, with Amy, with Matthew. Green replies that he wouldn't worry about Matthew; it looks like his father just bumped Tony Robb off as his hero; not that he wasn't before, of course. After a slight chuckle from Kearse, Green says speaking of Robb, strangely
enough, he wants Kearse and Catherine to take a look at something when have a moment. As the two shake with their artificial hands, Green tells Kearse that he wants them on it as soon as they're ready. He then adds that he thinks they will find it most interesting.

That night, Kearse and his wife, Amy, sit in bed together reading. Amy reads The Divine Conspiracy, while Kearse leafs through the documents that Green gave earlier. One of the papers is a statement from Louis P. Handlesman, Manager/Lawyer for Tony Robb. It is regarding
Robb's mutant background and death threats. As he reads on, Kearse learns that Robb discovered he was a mutant at age five, when he awoke one night to find his skin shimmering with gray oil. Apparently inherited from his father, Robb found that he would alter how light
reflected off of his skin, allowing him to literally control how other people perceived him. A man of principle, Robb's father, Wesley, had never used his power other than to hide the oily secretion that made his ability possible. As this control required incessant concentration, Wesley taught his son mental toughness through athletics, beginning with baseball. Tony quickly took to the sport and became very good at it, turning it into a professional career.

Standing behind the batter's box on the baseball field, Louis Handlesman, Tony's agent, speaks with Agents Gray and Kearse. She explains to them that Tony's father kept Tony very sheltered and managed nearly every aspect of Tony's career and life in order to protect him from the mutant hating world. Driving home the point, Handlesman points out that he himself didn't know, and he's been the Robb family lawyer for 30 years. He, however, was told last summer by Tony after the death of his father. Probing the very reason why they are there, Agent Gray states that it is apparently not a secret anymore. Holding out a piece of paper, Handlesman tells Gray that the first one came in two months ago. He states that it could be some crank who's closer to the truth than he knows, but given the new strategy, they thought that they should get the FBI involved. Taking the paper, Gray unfolds it and reads the contents. In large letters cut from various magazines and newspapers, the message reads "break 70 and you die mutie scum". Seeing this, Kearse brings asks what Handlesman meant by new strategy. Handlesman tells the agents that Tony has grown tired of living in the closet and has decided to go public. Further, he has decided that it is his responsibility to live openly and champion mutant rights. Putting the plan into perspective, Handlesman states that Robb could be to mutants what Muhammed Ali was to blacks.

Continuing, Handlesman says that they've got a marketing plan as well as endorsements from the X-Men and the Minority Action Network. When Agent Gray recognizes the network, referring to them as TMAN, Handlesman acknowledges that they are a bunch of kooky 60's radicals, but they carry weight with the baby boomers and make them remember when they actually cared about civil rights. After Kearse asks when they announce, Handlesman replies after Robb breaks the record. Afterward, Robb will announce his immediate retirement from baseball so he can pursue his new calling as "the goodwill ambassador for mutantkind". Promptly, Gray tells the agent that they're going to need the names of everyone in the loop. Obviously, she says, the investigation begins there. After Handlesman replies done, he asks if there is anything else. Gray
replies, not at the moment. Looking over at Kearse who is looking out into the field, Gray asks if he has any questions. Not turning around, he tells Gray that he has nothing.

As they walk to their cars, Agent Gray asks why she gets the feeling the only cause getting championed is the growth of Robb's wallet. After Kearse replies with an absentminded, right, Gray asks what is bugging him. Kearse replies that he's just trying to figure out how he's going
to tell Matthew. He practically worships Robb. Now that he's a mutant ... As Kearse trails off, Gray asks why would that crush his kid? Is this, like a bad thing? Kearse responds that it is not; it's just ... surprising. With this he tells her that he will see her tomorrow and gets into his car. Unconvinced, Gray mutters sure, whatever, and gets into her own car.

As she sits behind the wheel, Gray picks up the Planned Parenthood brochure in the passenger's seat and begins to read it. Almost inaudibly, a voice from the back seat asks if he is gone. Is it safe? As an older black woman sits upright and into view of the rearview mirror, Agent Gray tells her that she was wondering if she would show up. Following this, Gray asks her mother what the hell she wants? Innocently, Gray's mother asks if a mother has to have a reason to see her daughter. In turn, Gray coldly repeats her question. Turning her demeanor to the serious, Gray's mother asks her daughter if Handlesman told her about their involvement? About how crucial this could be for the advancement of tolerance? Visibly uninterested, Agent Gray mutters, yeah, yeah, Muhammed Ali, blah, blah, blah.

Undeterred by her daughter's statement, Gray's mother asks if it wouldn't be a real tragedy if instead if becoming the next Muhammed Ali, he became the next Dr. King... if she knows what she means. Gray tells her mother that it is her job to make sure he doesn't. Incredulously, Gray's mother responds that her sources say that the FBI mutant task force is a sham, a front for something insidious. Angrily, Gray asks her mother when she will let this conspiracy crap go? Gray's mother retorts that it isn't crap; it's true. She tried to warn her in Los Angeles through her new associates. Gray responds that she figured it was from her, so she promptly ignored it... because it was from her. Looking out her side window, Gray points out to her mother that she didn't speak to her for five years and finally says hello through a vigilante telepath. Gray's mother tries to explain her actions; her work, it's a crucial time... Tearing up, Gray points out that yes, work is important... but so is she, so was dad. Wiping her tears away, Gray tells her mother to get out. Seconds later, she is gone.

In Matthew's room, filled with memorabilia of Tony Robb, Amy Kearse asks her husband when he is going to tell their son. After he flippantly replies, how about never, Amy points to the room's décor and says that they need to tell him. But how, Kearse asks? While Matthew knows there are mutants, he doesn't know the how and why of it. Speaking almost from his own thoughts, Kearse points out that the Bible doesn't really cover this; it goes against everything they've been taught. Looking to the ground, Kearse tells his wife that the world is changing so fast, faster than he can keep up with. Taking the basket of laundry she has just filled, Amy tells Kearse that she thinks that it's about time she showed her if it's true what they say about men with bionic arms. Walking away, she tells him she will be in the bedroom. With a little better demeanor, Kearse rises and asks rhetorically how he could resist an offer like that?

As time passes, Robb becomes more of the celebrity. After more home runs are added to his personal record, Sports Illustrated gives him a nickname that sticks: Tony Terrific. Meanwhile, Handlesman secretly negotiates long-term contracts with Nike, Coke and McDonald's, all eager to use him to target the burgeoning mutant market. Robb himself spends his free time in "media manners" classes who teach him to use more emotion, be less detatched, more outrageous and outspoken, and not introverted like Pete Samprasy. Through it all, though, Robb thinks if only they knew how little he really cared. All he wants is out. On a balmy summer night, after his 72nd home run, Robb returns home to find a final death threat is there to greet him. In the previous cut-and-pasted letters, the message reads, "it will happen when you round third". As he crumbles the paper in his hand, Robb thinks that he would like to see them try.

In the locker room before the game, Kearse finds Robb sitting alone and somber. Breaking the ice with a joke, Kearse asks Robb if he can trouble him for an autograph. Seeing that the newcomer is Agent Kearse, Robb asks how the Tony Robb deathwatch is going. To this, Kearse replies simply that nobody's dying tonight. Sitting down next to Robb, Kearse tells Robb that he has a question that he could help wondering... has he ever used his mutant power to cheat? Examining a baseball in his hand, Robb replies only once, when he was a kid. It was during a Little League championship, it was the bottom of the ninth, with two outs. The team was down 1 to nothing, and it was his turn at bat. The other team's pitcher, Killer Cody, was pitching the game of his life, and Robb says he knew that he wasn't going to hit off of him. So instead of being the "goat", Robb used his power to make Cody misjudge his location and hit him. His father, Robb says, sat there giving him a look that he will never forget. They lost the game, and he never cheated again. After pausing a moment, Kearse tells Robb that he doesn't have to come out. Kearse begins to snap, but decides against it. A moment later, Kearse is gone.

Later, in front of the 47,312 spectators waiting to see history, Tony Robb steps up to bat. The pitcher sends in a fastball, low and inside ... but not low enough. As he has done 72 times before, Robb sends the ball into left field. Though everyone else believes that Robb has hit #73, Robb knows better and begins to sprint. True to his instinct, the ball has ricocheted off the wall and as Robb rounds third, the left fielder, Tim Hernandez, picks up the ball. Suddenly, the death threat flashes through Robb's mind, and on instinct, Robb's power activates, changing his "strike zone". The first shot, aimed at his chest, passes through his right thigh. The second shot, aimed at his head, smashes into his lower back. It will be years before Tony Robb will walk again.

In the security control room, Agents Gray and Kearse move into action. As they move into the upper deck for the shooter, pointed out by a boy witness, the agents prepare themselves for anything. Closing into the area they believe the shooter to be, Agent Gray detects the smell of
sulfur, which is followed by the sound of a multiple bamfs, and the cries and pleas of someone in pain. Gray and Kearse turn the corner, bearing their guns, and, identifying themselves as FBI, tell whom they have surprised to freeze. Standing over the apparent gunman, is a man... of sorts. Clad in a dark leather uniform, is a creature with blue furry skin, yellow glowing eyes, and a prehensile tail that ends in a triangular point. Before the two agents can react to this apparent mutant's presence, he disappears in puff of smoke and an audible bamf.

The shooter turns out to be Earl Whitacker, a hardcore San Francisco Giants fan who also turns out to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Already believing there was a conspiracy to rob Barry Bonds of his homerun record, Whitacker was told that Robb was a mutant, and he believed it. While all of this is learned in the subsequent FBI investigation, it is never learned how Whitacker managed to sneak a high-powered rifle into Levinson Field. Whitacker himself would only smile and joke: "I am just a patsy. I am just a patsy".

After spending a week in the hospital, trying in vain to feel his legs, Robb realizes that being a "goodwill ambassador to mutantkind" is not what he wants, a normal life is. Greeted by the fans and reporters upon his release from the hospital, Robb makes a short statement to thank his fans. His statement, however, is interrupted by multiple questions from reporters asking him to comment on rumors, ranging from high levels of mutagenic steroids reportedly in his bloodstream to reports of "third species" literature being found in his apartment. As Robb's agent, Handlesman, tries to end the press conference, Agent Gray looks at Kearse and jokingly says, "Say it ain't so Joe. Say it ain't so."

Not immediately going home, Gray drives for hours, consumed by memories of her beautiful baby girl, engulfed in flames of power manifesting too early. Next she thinks of a young boy, crucified on the Hollywood sign and a man too scared to live openly as a mutant. No, she decides, it
would be cruel to bring another life into this world. Entering her apartment, Gray finds her mother sitting on the front porch, in the dark. She tells her daughter that they have learned since her day. The killing fails, they assassinate the character instead. As her mother continues to try to convince her that they will stop at nothing, Gray silently opens the door, enters, and closes the door behind her.

Now leaning against the closed door, Gray takes a moment to herself. Her personal moment ends when a voice tells her that her mother has been out there for hours. Ramon, her husband, stands up from his chair and walks toward her. He tells Catherine that he didn't let her mother in,
assuming that she wouldn't want him to, but did offer a blanket and a cookie. He says that he thought that they would at least be hospitable in their bitterness. As Catherine walks up the steps, Ramon tells her that they need to talk about the baby, and what they are going to do. Still walking, Catherine tells him that she knows they do, but not tonight.

Kearse and his wife never tell Matthew about Robb's secret, but Matthew still learns it in time from television. Not taking it well, he throws out all of his Robb memorabilia, but not before writing "cheater" over the posters. As he throws out his son's formerly prized collection, Kearse thinks about the first time he hit a baseball, when he was five. His father had tried so many times to teach him how to hit, but Kearse swung and missed every time. Although the Louisville Slugger was a bit cumbersome for his size, Kearse finally got he hang of the bat. After many times of closing his eyes, young Kearse had kept them open and watched the ball the whole way.

As the modern Kearse recreated his memory with his son's bat, he recalls the charge of power that traveled down through the wood into his slight frame, and how his father laughed in delight and cheered him. As the ball he hits today soars into the sky, it ruptures and unravels, trailing twine. Basking in the moment, and the memories of moments passed, Kearse thinks of how it will be good to feel strong again.

Characters Involved: 

Agent Catherine Gray, Agent Aaron Kearse (both FBI's Mutant Civil Rights Task Force)

Ramon Gray, Catherine's husband

Catherine Gray's mother

Amy Kearse, Aaron's wife

Matthew Kearse, Aaron's son
Tony Robb, baseball pro

Louis P. Handlesman, Robb's manager/lawyer

Nightcrawler (X-Men)

FBI MCRTF Field Director Kendall Green

Earl Whitacker
Levinson Park players and attendees

Hospital surgeons

In flashbacks:

Wesley Robb, Tony Robb's father

Wither, mutant arms dealer

Story Notes: 

The title of the story, the Natural, undoubtedly refers to the Robert Redford film where he played a baseball player with exceptional skill.
As of this issue's publication only 17 major leaguers have hit 500 home runs. The record for fastest player to reach this mark is currently Mark McGuire, who reached it in 1999 after 5,487 at-bats.
No major leaguer has ever been named MVP five years in a row, in either the American League or the National League. The closest player ever was Barry Bonds, who was named MVP in the National League in 1990, 1992, 1993 & 2001.
The arms dealer Wither's name is most likely an alias. Given that he is extremely careful in his dealings, it is unlikely he would use his real name. Also, the word wither is an apt description of Wither's mutant power.
Pete Sampras is a tennis player who has repeatedly won championships at Wimbledon and the US Open. He is known for his straightforward nature and his easy-going personality.
When Robb is trying to make his 73rd home run, he is trying to beak the record currently held by Barry Bonds, who hit 73 home runs in one season in 2001.
Catherine's mocking statement of "Say it ain't so, Joe" is a reference to baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson. Jackson was an out-fielder in Chicago's team, the White Sox, who made it to the World Series in 1919. This particular World Series was mired in scandal, however, when it was
learned that gamblers bribed eight of the team's players with deliberately losing the series. While Jackson did accept the money, it was never conclusively proven that he did anything to sabotage the team's chances of winning. Nevertheless, he was banned from professional baseball forever. According to legend, after the scandal broke, a disheartened boy approached Jackson upon hearing the news and asked him to "Say it ain't so, Joe."
The reference to 3rd species literature refers to John Sublime's attempt at transplanting organs from mutants into humans and creating, what he refered to, as U-Men. (New X-Men #118 – 120)
Louisville Slugger is a company that has made baseball bats since 1884.

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