The Unnatural

“Mitchell! Mitchell Gordon!” a nine-year-old girl yells, frantically waving her arms at the superstar slugger as he trudges past her en route to rightfield. There’s no time for autographs during games, but it’s spring training. Most players usually acknowledge the more vocal youngsters with a wave or a smile. Not Mitchell Gordon. The Texas Rangers outfielder ignores the girl with such determination that it’s as if even a simple nod of the head would be too much effort for him. When it comes time for him to field his position, he exhibits a similar lackadaisical attitude, barely moving his neck to track a towering pop fly to right. It drops ten feet in front of him and he trudges towards the ball as the batter rounds the bases. The runner is standing on third base when the relayed throw from Gordon finally comes in. It may be “just” a spring training game, but I’ve seen post office employees move faster than the Rangers’ rightfielder.

Gordon’s been signed as a free agent to fill the designated hitter slot with the Rangers, and I doubt we’ll see him take the field during the regular season. Sitting in the stands, I thumb through the media guide that the club provides reporters. I’m supposed to be covering the whole team for the Houston Chronicle, but there’s not much of a team left to write about. The General Manager held a fire sale at the All-Star Break last year, and Gordon’s the only name I even recognize in the media guide. In twenty-two years of covering sports, however, I’ve never seen a more disheartening performance than the one that Gordon is putting on at Surprise Stadium. There’s only one thing Gordon plays for anymore: the all-time home run record. When the season starts in April, he will be just twelve homers shy of Barry Bonds’s career record. And, since they don’t count home runs during spring training (or when you’re playing defense), what’s the point in Gordon even pretending he cares?

The irony is that Gordon has already hit the last home run of his lifetime, because he is already dead.

***

After almost twenty years writing for Sports Illustrated, I decided to take some time off from crisscrossing the country and settle down with my wife in Houston. She was thirty-six, and we were eager to start a family. Within a year she was pregnant with twins, and three years later we had a third child. I picked up a job with the Houston Chronicle covering local sports teams. Although Texas is a football state, I was assigned to the baseball beat. No Texas team has ever brought home a World Series championship. To add insult to injury, the Rangers were, once upon a time, owned in part by George W. Bush. This is a team that dealt Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, and Alex Rodriguez away…and then eventually brought Sosa back in 2007, after he’d hit over 500 home runs for other teams. They went to the World Series two years in a row (2010 and 2011) and returned home empty-handed. And don’t even get me started on the Houston Astros.

When the Rangers picked up Gordon for a one-year, $10 million contract in the off-season, all appearances pointed towards business-as-usual for the Rangers. Covering Texas’ spring training camp in Arizona was the first assignment that had taken me out of Texas since I’d moved there; with three kids under the age of four I was happy to take the assignment. For the record, I love my wife, and I love my kids…but everything in moderation. Well, everything except baseball.

The first day in Arizona, the assembled sportswriters of America were subjected to the typical company line: It was a new year, a new lineup, a new manager, and, this being the Rangers, a new over-the-hill slugger. “We’re not looking to win in a year or two, we’re looking to win this year,” the Texas GM said. It was the same thing that he said every year. I wasn’t the only sportswriter rolling his eyes in the pressroom. Midway through a group Q&A with the new manager, I slipped out the back to look for a restroom. I found myself a urinal in the locker room, unzipped, and did my business. The players were on the field putting on a show for the fans. As I zipped up, I heard the metallic clang of a locker swinging open behind me. I peeked around the corner.

Mitchell Gordon stood there in full uniform, all six-foot four inches, 255 pounds of him rippling as he jabbed a needle into his arm. I slipped back into the area with the urinals, out of sight. He hadn’t seen me. After a minute, I snuck a look back into the locker room and Gordon was gone.

Now, seeing an athlete shoot up isn’t quite the damning evidence that it would seem. Anyone stupid enough to shoot up in the middle of a locker room in the post-steroid era probably isn’t doing anything illegal. It was probably insulin or vitamin B. Still… Since Gordon wasn’t around any longer, I peeked into the locker that he had padlocked. All I could see through the locker’s peephole was a zipped gym bag. Damn, I thought. Then, on a whim, I looked into the trashcan as I left. Jackpot: the needle, half-filled with a cloudy liquid, sat on top of a pile of wadded tissues. I picked it out of the trash and slipped it into my jacket pocket.

When I turned to leave the locker room, I was standing face-to-face with a six-and-a-half foot middle-aged man with muscles bursting out of a gaudy Hawaiian shirt. I recognized him from the media guide: Jackson Novelle, the Rangers’ strength-and-conditioning coach. For a second we both paused. Novelle shook his head and smiled like he’d just caught my hand in the cookie jar. He ushered me out of the locker room without a word.

***

A friend-of-a-friend put me in touch with someone who could analyze the needle’s contents on the down-low. The residue didn’t test positive for steroids, or HGH, or any other performance-enhancing substance. “Did you get this from a funeral home?” the lab geek said. “Because what I’m looking at here is a combination of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol. This is embalming fluid.”

I nearly dropped the phone. “Why would someone inject this?” I asked.

I heard him sigh on the phone. “The kids lace marijuana with it, call it ‘purple rain.’ This shit can make you trip balls, but I’ve never heard of someone injecting it. It would probably kill you within a minute.”

I thanked him, but I knew what I had seen: Gordon hadn’t dropped dead that day in the locker room. Instead, he had put on his own home run derby during batting practice.

After a couple of years of writing puff pieces on local high school sports teams, the whiff of a real story was enough to get my investigative reporting juices flowing again. The flight back to Houston left at eight o’clock Sunday morning, but I phoned my editor at the Chronicle for an extension. “I’ve got a story that can put us back on the map,” I said.

“Last time I checked, we were still on the map,” my editor, Don, said. “Whatever, just get back by next Friday. It’s the beginning of the college girl’s softball season. Real news.”

I thanked my editor and phoned my wife. She was even less enthusiastic than my editor. “We talked about this, James,” she said.

I know, I said. “I know what we talked about. But this story—this story is big.” I didn’t want to, but I had to: I had to play the kids card. “This could put our kids through college,” I said.

There was a thump at the sliding glass door that led to my hotel room’s patio. My room was eleven stories up. “I gotta go,” I said, and hung up before my wife could protest. When I answered the patio door in my bathrobe, the patio was empty...except for a baseball rolling about on the cement deck. I picked it up. There was a signature scrawled on it in blue ballpoint pen, followed by a crossed out “HOF”. And below that: “CHILIS 8 OCLOCK”. I looked at my watch. It was half-past five. I hadn’t eaten yet, but I had a feeling that this wasn’t a dinner date. The story’s smell was becoming stronger by the minute.

The signature on the ball was difficult to make heads or tails of, but it turns out I didn’t have to wait long for my curiosity to be satisfied. At 8:15, a tall, lanky man in a Cubs baseball cap limped to my table at Chili’s and sat down across from me without introducing himself. He didn’t have to. This was Carlo Madera. The man who threw a twenty-strikeout game for the Chicago Cubs in the nineties. The man whose chronic injuries derailed a promising career. The man who hadn’t been seen or heard from since a stuttering grand jury steroid probe testimony in 2005.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said without looking me in the eyes. “I had to make sure you weren’t trailed.”

“Why would I be trailed?” I said.

Our waitress approached the table. I ordered a full meal on my Chronicle per diem, along with a Guinness. Madera ordered a beer but said he wasn’t hungry. “Already ate,” he said. The waitress forced a smile as she collected our menus and left.

In high school, Carlo had been a flame-throwing pitcher with a high-nineties fastball and pinpoint control. When he graduated, he was adding a mile-per-hour every three months to his fastballs. Despite his parents’ protests, Madera signed with the Chicago Cubs and bypassed college for the minor leagues. Within two years, he had thrown two no-hitters against double-A competition. In a desperate moment, his big league team tapped him to pitch in the Show without ever having faced a single triple-A opponent.

He won his first major league start. In his second game, Carlo Madera fanned twenty batters, tying a National League record. He won that game too, en route to a season total of thirteen wins in twenty starts. The fans loved him, the critics loved him, and he was crowned the face of the franchise. Madera was considered by many to be the man that could finally bring a World Series title back to the North Side.

Alas, not every fairy tale has a happy ending. Especially when you’re talking about the Cubs. In a spring training game the next season, Madera tore his right rotator cuff. While not a season-ending injury by any means, it was the beginning of the end of Madera’s big league career. After twelve weeks of rehabilitation, he was shelled by opposing batters in back-to-back minor league appearances with the Iowa Cubs. His return for the season was scrapped. Madera retreated to the Mexican winter leagues to continue his rehabilitation out of the spotlight.

While pitching for the Tomateros in Culiacán, Madera was struck by a linedrive up the middle. The ball that hit him square in the chest. “I died on that pitching mound,” Madera told me. “They didn’t have anything like a defibrillator at the stadium, not like they do these days. When they couldn’t pound my chest back to working condition, the home plate ump helped my coach drag me off the playing field and they continued the game. My body sat on the bench, my cap pulled down over my eyes for the rest of the game. I’d pitched six-and-a-half innings and given up just one run, and ended up with the win.”

After the ninth inning, the team’s equipment manager loaded Madera’s body up on the back of the equipment truck and dropped his body off at the morgue. Madera’s body was mailed back to the States in a reinforced cardboard shipping container.

“You’re saying that you literally died on the mound. Is that correct?” I asked. I hadn’t made any moves to bring out my tape recorder or scribble any notes down, because what he was telling me was so absurd.

“After the ball hit me, my heart stopped beating. I’m no doctor, but that would certainly mean I wasn’t alive,” he said without a hint of sarcasm. “The next thing I remember was waking up on an operating table back in Chicago.” Madera’s agent, Winston Thomas, had somehow revived his star client with the help of Jackson Novelle, a former coach with the High Desert Mavericks minor league ball club (and currently with the Rangers). They hadn’t raised him from the dead, Madera explained. “Not entirely, at least. My heart still doesn’t beat.” He invited me to press my fingers against his wrist. It was cold to the touch, and I couldn’t detect a pulse.

Madera didn’t know how the “zombification process” worked. “It could be a virus, it could be voodoo,” he told me. “Hell, I was with the Cubs so it could be the Curse of the Billy Goat.” Unsurprisingly, Novelle and Thomas declined to comment for this story.

In order to keep Madera alive, Novelle and Winston had to feed him a steady stream of human brains. “I never asked where they came from,” Madera said. “All I could think about was playing ball.” Even with the brain food, they soon discovered that an undead body decays rapidly. “People complained about the smell at the gym, all the time. I had to work out after hours, because I smelled like a trucker bomb,” he said.

“A trucker bomb?”

“A bottle filled with urine,” he explained. “Anyway, my agent bought me embalming fluid wholesale. I bathed in that shit once a week. For maintenance, I injected it into my body every day. I didn’t smell like roses, but at least my skin wasn’t shedding.” (Madera wanted to meet at Chili’s, he said, because most of their food smelled worse than he did.)

When Madera showed up for spring training camp, he looked like hell and had to cover his face with so much makeup that he resembled a wax doll of Marilyn Manson. It didn’t matter, though, because the more brains that he ate, the stronger he became. His fastball regularly broke 100 miles per hour, and his control of the strikezone was still unparalleled. Sure, Madera moved slowly on the mound, but everyone just thought that he was being cautious. Or methodical. Pat Hughes, the Cubs’ play-by-play announcer on the radio, called him “the human rain delay” because the amount of time that lapsed between his pitches regularly stretched routine nine-inning games to over four hours in duration.

Then, injury struck: A hamstring pull. Normally, a big leaguer could bounce back after a few days rest or, worst case scenario, a trip to the fifteen-day DL. “That’s when we found out,” Madera said, “that the dead don’t heal, no matter how many brain shakes you drink.” His career was over.

“Why speak out now?” I asked.

“To protect the game,” he said. “I don’t know how Mitchell Gordon died. Heart failure? Overdose? Hit-by-a-pitch? I’ve been following Jackson from the shadows, since he left me to rot after my injury benched me forever. When I saw Gordon out there on the field, when I smelled him in the locker room, I knew. And now you know. He’s cheating the game. If Mitchell Gordon breaks the record, we will officially be in a new baseball era: the undead era.

“Look at me,” Madera continued. He held his arms out, all blue and glossy and stinking of formaldehyde. I turned my head away. He protested. “Look at what I’ve become.” And so I did. For the first time at the table I took a good, deep look at the thing he’d become. The spiderweb of collapsed veins in his forearms and his neck. The sunken black eyes. The rotted gums. “I can’t always think this clearly, or speak sometimes. Last month I was humping my fist and my johnson snapped clean off. Just like that,” he said, making a jacking-off motion with his wrist. “And then there’s the hunger­! It overpowers me. It reminds me that I’m no longer human. The day will come when I’m more monster than man. When the cravings hit so bad that I’ll dig my own mother up and eat what’s left of her decomposed brain.

“I need your help to put an end to Novelle, Winston, and their whole damn Frankenstein factory,” Madera said. “I need you to break the story before Mitchell Gordon can break the home run record. Write the story. Not for me, though; write it for the game.”

I’m left wondering if putting a zombie on the field is any better or worse than some young Giambi pumped full of steroids and human growth hormone. It’s the gray areas like this that have always given baseball fans, including myself, such a difficult time. “No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined,” novelist and short story writer Paul Gallico has said. The big, ethical questions (steroids, gambling, and now zombies) spoil the connoisseur’s perfect game. These questions can make the beauty of a home run’s arc feel dirty, like the natural order has been defiled. Is there anything more unnatural than breaking the line that separates life from death?

***

After an edited version of this story appeared in Sports Illustrated, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry announced a congressional inquiry that is still underway.

The Major League Baseball Commissioner’s office has repeatedly declined to comment on Hegel’s allegations. “There’s nothing in the rulebook that would prevent an undead player from taking the field,” a league official, speaking anonymously, told Sports Illustrated.

Mitchell Gordon broke the MLB career home run record in June. While making his historic trot around the bases, pulled a calf muscle and was replaced by a pinch runner.

Three days later, Gordon announced his retirement from baseball.

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"The Unnatural" was the first short story I had published in a book (Altair Australia's Zombies anthology, where an early draft appears under the title "Dead Ball").

"Fourteen pretty good stories." — The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008 on Zombies