Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Card #35: Willie Aikens

Who Can It Be Now?
Willie Mays Aikens was born on October 14, 1954, in Seneca, South Carolina.  He attended Seneca High School, but he was not drafted out of high school.  He went on to attend South Carolina State University, a historically black land-grant university located in Orangeburg, South Carolina, which is notable in its past for churning out multiple NFL players in its history including NFL Hall of Famer Deacon Jones and is notable today for teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.  He went to SC State for only a year, as the school dropped baseball after his freshman year in college.  

Aikens grew up in poverty in the Bruce Hill neighborhood in Seneca.  He believes that his name -- making him seemingly predestined to be a baseball player -- was not in homage to the great Giants centerfielder, but rather was a combination of putting his Uncle Willie's name with Dr. Mays's last name from the down the street in his neighborhood.  

Whichever is true, multiple people interviewed for a story for a 2004 article about Aikens said that he grew up in a "shack" that had either a dirt floor or a floor so worn that you could see the dirt through it.  Aikens's mother often worked the streets, and he never met his natural father. Worse still, he lived in a house with an alcoholic stepfather who abused him physically.  

A major influence in his early life was his high school baseball coach, Willie McNeil.  McNeil helped place Aikens at South Carolina State and bought Aikens clothes when Aikens's family could not afford to. More importantly, McNeil encouraged Aikens and told him that Aikens had a special talent for hitting the ball that most players did not have

While Aikens was at SCSU, they played a series in Baltimore.  A scout for the Orioles, Wally Youse, walked up and invited Aikens to play in a semi-pro baseball league in Baltimore where, supposedly, Reggie Jackson had played before.  In Baltimore, Aikens played well and showed off his prodigious power.  In the meantime, SCSU dropped baseball, so Aikens waited out the fall semester and was the 2nd pick overall in the 1975 January Regular Draft.  He was selected by the California Angels on the advice of one of their new scouts -- Wally Youse. As an aside, Aikens's former SCSU teammate Gene Richards went first in that draft to the Padres.  

Aikens signed nearly immediately and began his minor league career in Quad Cities in the Midwest League.  There, he showed the the power scouts had seen, but his fielding was indifferent at best and horrible at worst -- he hit 17 home runs, but made 26 errors.  Aikens moved up to the Texas League and Double-A El Paso -- one of the most hitter friendly parks in the minor leagues at the time -- where he swatted 30 homers.  

In 1977, Aikens started his season at the age of 22 in Triple-A.  The Angels called him up in May of 1977 in the wake of trading Bruce Bochte to the Cleveland Indians.  The call to the majors came too early for Aikens, who started off well when he received regular playing time, but then struggled when he was called upon mainly in pinch hitting duties.  As a result, Aikens split 1977 between the majors and Triple-A Salt Lake City and, then spent the entirety of 1978 in Utah.  

After showing in 1978 that he really had nothing more to prove in Triple-A -- a year of 29 home runs and a .326/.419/.551 slash line will do that -- the Angels kept him on their roster for all of 1979.  He hit very well - an OPS of .869 was highlighted by 21 home runs in 447 plate appearances.  Things were going well, except for the fact that 1979 was also the year that teammates introduced Aikens to cocaine.  

Aikens was blocked at first base by future Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Aikens was not an outfielder, and the Angels needed the designated hitter role for Don Baylor because Baylor was a major defensive liability in left field.  Since Baylor was the reining American League MVP, the Angels chose Baylor over Aikens and traded Aikens to the Kansas City Royals with Rance Mulliniks for Al Cowens, Todd Cruz, and Craig Eaton.

The trade worked out well for the Royals, who went to the World Series in 1980.  It also worked for Aikens.  Despite the Royals loss in the Series, Aikens had two different games in the series where he hit two home runs -- Game One and Game Four.  By this time, Aikens told Amy Nelson of SBNation, he was high on cocaine every day:  "Every day, every game of the World Series ... I snorted cocaine.  It had become a part of my life."  

Aikens played well in 1981 as well, hitting 17 home runs in just 101 games in a season that ended unhappily again for the Royals, who lost to the Oakland A's in the ALDS series after the strike-shortened season.  The 1982 season was not as happy for the Royals, as they finished three games behind Aikens's former club, the California Angels.

It is impossible to tell the story of Aikens's career, however, without mentioning the off-field problems.  In 1983, an FBI agent warned the entire Royals team that a prominent cocaine dealer had a wiretap on his phone line such that calling the dealer would be a bad idea. Even team leader Hal McRae pulled Aikens aside on two different occasions to warn Aikens that there was trouble ahead. Despite this warning, Jerry Martin, Vida Blue, Willie Wilson, and Willie Aikens all called the dealer and all were charged with federal drug crimes.  

Aikens told the Washington Times last October that his attorney called the Player's Association to find out what would happened if a ballplayer got convicted with a felony.  The response was that the player probably would never play in the major leagues again.  So, the players worked out a plea deal to a misdemeanor and first-time offender status.  The judge made examples of the players and sent them to prison, meaning that Aikens and his cohorts were the first ever active major leaguers to spend time in federal prison.  Aikens missed the first six weeks of the 1984 season as a result.  Also while Aikens was in prison, the Royals shipped him to the Blue Jays for Jorge Orta.

1984 would be the last full season that Aikens spent in the majors.  Teams do not have much patience with convicted cocaine users who hit .205/.298/.376 -- or for that matter, for any player with that slash line who can't field a position.  In 1995, he spent 105 games in Triple-A and hit well again, but Toronto gave him just 12 games in the majors and did not resign him. He did finish on a high-note, though -- he homered in his last at-bat.

That was not the end of his playing career -- just the end of his major league career.  Aikens spent the years 1986 to 1991 in the Mexican League and hit like crazy once again.  There was interest from Japan in having Aikens play there, but his criminal record meant that he could not qualify for a visa there.  He just didn't get the chance back in the US to play again.  

Pass the Dutchie
Steve Howe got chance after chance -- 7 in total -- to rehabilitate himself and play again in the majors.  Left-handed pitchers get tons of chances.  Overweight, stone-hand first basemen are apparently a dime-a-dozen and get tossed aside.  Or, perhaps, that is how baseball justified giving Howe all the chances he had.  For his part, Aikens recognized that he got a rap in baseball when he rebelled against being platooned by Dick Howser -- in addition to the jail sentence of course -- and so those two issues together led to a much shorter leash for Aikens.

Just as with Steve Howe, you cannot talk about Aikens without talking about his drug use, abuse, and eventual prison sentence. His sentence -- and the crimes he committed -- in some respects reflect a female police officer who knew Aikens used crack and used Aikens to get her enough crack to hit the federal guideline minimums for a very, very long sentence.

Some background: in the mid-to-late 1980s, the Reagan years of "Just Say No" were in their height.  The US staggered back away from the sexual and chemical permissiveness of the 1960s and (especially) 1970s and into the more repressive 1980s.  Helped down this path in part by the discovery of the AIDS epidemic -- especially in gay communities and among intravenous drug users -- the hysteria toward drug use reached new levels.  

America began a "War on Drugs."  This caused the supply of illicit drugs such as cocaine to dwindle and, as any Econ 100 student could tell you, when supply dwindles without a corresponding change in demand, prices soar. When the prices for powder cocaine soared, street dealers found that they could cook down small amounts of cocaine to create little rocks -- crack rock.  Because other chemicals were added to the cocaine, the actual amount of cocaine in each rock got smaller.  In other words, the cocaine supply lasted longer as a result. The side effect to this was the fact that crack was affordable to nearly anyone -- with prices as low as $2.50 a dose according to Wikipedia.

Politicians saw this "crack epidemic" -- which was mainly a problem in neighborhoods that were predominantly poor and predominantly black -- and believed that harsher penalties for selling crack were needed.  Those penalties were enacted right after the death of Len Bias, the former University of Maryland star and first round pick of the Boston Celtics who died two days after the draft from a cocaine overdose.

This brings us back to Willie Aikens.  Aikens saw a woman he liked on the streets of Kansas City in December 1993 and struck up a friendship with her.  She was an undercover narcotics officer.  She asked him on several occasions to get crack for her.  In fact, knowing that the sentences for crack were much harsher, she asked him specifically to cook powder cocaine into crack.  

He was convicted of multiple counts of trafficking crack cocaine -- a total of 2.2 grams of the stuff.  The sentence he received was a mandatory sentence under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines -- 248 months...20 years, 8 months, no parole.  To be sentenced to the same amount of time in jail for selling powder cocaine, Aikens would have had to deal 15 pounds of cocaine.

I tend not to have too much sympathy for those people who break the law, but that sentence rightfully became a cause celebre for advocates against the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In a strange way, Aikens was lucky -- had he not be imprisoned, he would not have changed his life and, quite frankly, he probably would not be alive today.  

Aikens got out of prison in June of 2008. George Brett helped him get his life back on track by starting with a small step -- inviting Aikens to tell his story to a group of middle schoolers that included Brett's own son.  After hearing Aikens speak -- and in Amy Nelson's video Brett talks about this -- Brett knew that Aikens needed to get back into baseball to help the young players today to avoid his pitfalls. Another helping hand was extended again by Hal McRae, who got Aikens a job in construction when Aikens first got out of prison. 

Thanks to his Hall of Fame former teammate and friend getting him started and, after that, Aikens's own responsible actions after that, the Royals named Aikens as a minor league coach in 2011.

The World According to Garp
Much of the information for this post resulted from the fact that Aikens was doing publicity for his memoir about his past failings, his prison life, his reaching for his Bible while there, and his redemption on leaving prison.  The book is called Willie Mays Aikens: Safe at Home.  After doing the research I've done for this entry, I may just buy the book.

In the wake of the book coming out, my fellow Vanderbilt graduate Tyler Kepner wrote a moving story about why all of us should read that book.  It's an uplifting story of redemption, and based on that alone, it would not be surprising to see a movie made.  Perhaps Mark Ciardi -- the former Brewers pitcher and producer of The Rookie -- can take that on as his next baseball movie.

A Few Minutes With Tony L.
I distinctly recall when Aikens, Vida Blue, Willie Wilson, and Jerry Martin went to prison. By that point, I was nearly 12 years old so I knew what it meant to be going to jail when someone talked about it.  From that point on, a Pavlovian response of "druggie" came into my head whenever I saw a story about one of those players or saw a baseball card of one of them or even just heard someone mention them in conversation.

Aikens deserves better than that now.  He is brutally honest -- calling alcohol the worst drunk available.  He says very honestly that if he had had access to steroids in the early 1980s, he absolutely would have used them: "If I did illegal drugs while I was a player, why wouldn't I do something that would enhance my performance on the baseball field? Of course I would have done them."

The SB Nation Royals Review website in 2009 called Aikens the #36 Greatest Royal in their history for his four seasons in Kansas City.  Certainly based on his on-field exploits, Aikens deserves that honor.  

The great thing about Aikens to me is that he has turned himself around from all indications. He has had a lot of bad things happen to him in his life -- from a 42-year-old wife having a stroke to being brought up in an abusive household.  He has also brought a lot of bad things on himself too because of his drug use -- from being denied the ability to get a lucrative contract in Japan to spending the years in prison that he did.  Avoiding recidivism -- avoiding the issues that puts a person in jail -- is tough.  It appears that Aikens is succeeding.

If you are interested, you can follow Aikens on Twitter.  His e-mail address is there on his account, and he has a website as well.  Indeed, from that second link, you can get a signed version of the card featured above for $10 in either blue or black sharpie.  

For whatever reason, I feel like Aikens deserves our support as baseball fans -- not sympathy, mind you, but support.  He deserves it a lot more than, say, Pete Rose does -- that is for sure.  

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