The book: “Willie Mays Aikens: Safe at Home”
The author: Gregory Jordan
The vital stats: Triumph Books, 264 pages, $25.95
The pitch: Where’s your reference point of Willie Mays Aikens over the last 30 years?
For an Angels fan, he’s the rookie out of Seneca, South Carolina who came up for a month in 1977, making his debut against Ferguson Jenkins and the Boston Red Sox. He spent the entire next season in Triple A but then came up and hit 21 homers with 81 RBI during their 1979 AL West-winning squad — only to tear up his knee during a game in Kansas City in mid-September and miss the playoffs. A couple months later, he was traded to Kansas City to get outfielder Al Cowens.
For a Royals fan, he was supposed to be cleanup hitter to protect George Brett in the lineup. In 1980, the year Brett challenged the .400 mark, Aikens hit 20 homers and drove in 98 with 151 games. He actually hit .400, with a record of hitting two homers in a game twice during the ’80 World Series six-game loss to Philadelphia. But he was frequent the target of ridicule and booing for his lumbering efforts at first base. It depressed him.
For those who remember the drug culture of the 1980s Major League Baseball scandal, Aikens was in the middle of it, implicated by the FBI with several other Royals teammates. He admits that he first did coke in 1977. He figure out ways to do three lines of coke with a vodka chaser before going to bed to make him feeling high during games the next day.
In 1982, he paid a fine and served 90 days in a treatment facility that, according to the book, was hardly punishment. The Royals traded him to Toronto before the ’84 season because Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick, the Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks graduate and recent Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, thought he could revive his career. Gillick had to cut him 12 games into the ’85 season. He was 30 years old.
Not that Aikens even stopped using. He did it for six more years in the Mexican Leagues. He did it right up to when he was arrested in March, 1994, on federal drug charges — the photos of him led away in handcuffs, weighing more than 300 pounds — were about as sad as one could ever see him.
He was sentenced to 20 years at Leavenworth, had it reduced to 14 years because of a new law put on the books. He made sure the time he spent behind bars that he was reforming himself, find religion, and reconnecting with splintered family members that he created.
Today, he’s become a Royals’ minor-league batting coach and public speaker on prison rehab (despite a stuttering problem), two careers created for him by the support of Gillick and Brett. Writing this book with Jordan’s guidance and voice is part of his comeback process.
An excerpt: From page 61 after a game where fans booed him for making a couple mental errors at first base:
“His first groupie as a Royal sat on a stool at the end of the bar where women who sought Royals players went to sit at the Sheraton. As soon as he walked in a few men grumbled, and he wanted to take a bottle and smash it over each of their heads.
“‘Try to do what I do,’ he thought. ‘In Royals Stadium,‘ he thought. ‘Try to do what I am trying to do in this ballpark and then grumble at me. And put your ties back on while you’re at it.‘
“He went up to the bar, ordered a screwdriver and downed it with gusto that he intended as a show for the people watching him, and they understood and looked away …
“Then he saw her sitting there watching him. Watching but not watching. Not watching, but watching. She had long blonde hair, a tiny nose and a long back that was not covered by her dress.
“He waited for the right song, and then the always reliable Marvin Gaye came on … ‘Would you like to dance?’ he asked. She did not smile. ‘I would like to do some cocaine,’ she said. ‘We can dance first, though, if you would like to.’
“He did want to, though he was about as good at dancing as he was at fielding grounders. But he wanted to dance so someone would say something about him dancing on a bad knee or about his fielding being as good as his dancing or about him dancing for all to see with a white woman.
“Everyone watched as she danced far better than he did. He tried to twirl her once and that move got all screwed up, too.
“At the end of the second song she mouthed the word: Coke.
“He took her by the hand and she followed him with her head down as they walked past everyone and out of the bar, but as they got to the door he realized he hadn’t paid. He went back toward the bar but the bartender waved him off and smiled, and Willie smiled back. And he took her home and she laid out the lines of coke for them on his kitchen table and he realized this lady from Wichita had to work a few things out of her system, too, and that for a while this dark night they could work those things out of their systems together, and that this thing called cocaine might just help them do so.
“(And) at the end of the month, George Brett was hitting .390.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: A gritty, fascinating and disturbing pieced-together story about — again — how an athletic career was taken down by drugs, but built back up by the forces of forgiveness.
It’s far from a typical tell-all book: Jenkins writes it almost as a novel, except you know it’s all happened in real life. He does, however, leave out some critical names of those who were also involved in that drug culture, that Aikens decided to leave out and leave alone.
Jenkins devotes only a couple dozen pages to Aikens’ Angels days under the ttutelage of Bobby Knopp and Moose Stubing through their minor-league system, and Jimy Williams at Triple-A Salt Lake City.
What Jenkins creates in Aikens for these pages is almost a profile of Lennie Small from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” — ironically, with Brett filing in the role of the character named George, his protector. Just as Aikens protects him in the lineup from pitchers trying to get around him. Aikens is the country bumpkin, immature, strong, good natured and susceptible to the cruel world around him. He was a player who soon became so comfortable around his coke suppliers that he didn’t stutter as much as he did around everyone else.
Without that kind of narrative, the story might come off as flat and recycled. Jordan manages to do the right interviews, recreate the situations that Aikens put himself in, and present it in a far more moving delivery. It’s reminiscent in a way of what Tim Brown did for Jim Abbott’s autobiography — you need the right writer to pull the story together, not just transcribe. Without that, it’s just another sensationalized story that seems as if its seeking attention (i.e.: the upcoming Oil Can Boyd autobiography)
So, what’s in the name? Joe Garagiola once said that Aikens was named after Hall of Famer Willie Mays during an NBC Game of the Week, but it’s a myth that Aikens could never get anyone to believe wasn’t true. His first name actually came from his mother’s brother, and the middle name was somehow added by his obstetrician, Dr. Mays. That was only one element of frustration that drive Aikens into despair — failure to live to a name he didn’t even want, or was misunderstood to be given to him in the first place.
As for Willie Mays Hayes …
More: A beautifully written piece by Elizabeth Merrill for ESPN “Outside the Lines” on Aikens (linked here).
An Associated Press story written on Aikens when he returned to the Royals in February, 2011 (linked here).
A New York Daily News story on his attempt to ease prison sentences for cocaine convictions in 2009, based on his prison-reformed transformation (linked here).
A two-part interview with Aikens ;last weekend that aired on FoxSportsKansasCity:
Coming up: Jordan is working on a book with Mark Shriver called “A Good Man” about Mark’s father, Sargent Shriver, due out this summer.