Redemption in Kansas City

When I was a young kid, my dad’s favorite baseball player was George Brett. Anyone who saw Brett play knows why. Dad’s second-favorite player was debatable, but it was probably Willie Aikens.

Well, until the scandal.

Baseball had a real drug problem in the 1980s, and in those days, it wasn’t steroids. It was cocaine. And in 1983, someone in Royals’ management finally had enough and cleaned house. Popular outfielder Willie Wilson was spared but suspended and sent to rehab. Pitcher Vida Blue, outfielder Jerry Martin, and first baseman Willie Aikens were traded or released abruptly.

Aikens was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for basically nothing, where he played parts of two seasons, hit like a pitcher, and was released.

He didn’t ever really get cleaned up, and in 1994, he ended up in prison. He became a poster child for unfair sentencing. Had he been busted for selling cocaine, he would have been jailed a much shorter time than had he been busted for selling crack. The way Aikens tells the story, he offered an undercover officer cocaine, and she asked for crack. Hoping he could get her to sleep with him, he made it into crack, and ended up in prison.

He cleaned up in prison, got off drugs, and found religion. He was released in 2008, and he reached out to former Royals teammates and asked for help getting a job. A friend of Hal McRae helped him get a job in construction. That may not have been what Aikens had in mind, but from everything I read, he stayed clean and showed up for work every day. And I guess the Royals were paying attention and maybe had a plan all along, because they hired him today as a minor-league instructor.

I’m glad. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate Aikens’ 1980 postseason heroics. I saw him hit some monster shots in 1982 and 1983. But mostly I remembered a guy who, while not a superstar, was a very good player whose career was destroyed by cocaine and whose life very nearly was destroyed by the same thing.

I’m very glad to see he turned his life around.

I see some comments in other stories online asking why this team or that team didn’t give Aikens another shot in 1985. I was paying attention in 1985, so I may be able to answer that.

Aikens had his last good year in 1983. After the season, Kansas City banished him to Toronto, where his batting average dropped a staggering 97 points. He never was a spectacular fielder, but that got a lot worse, making him a one-dimensional player who was fading fast. In 1984-85, there were a lot of aging, bad-fielding 1B/DH types looking for jobs. Guys like Rusty Staub, Dave Kingman, Pat Putnam, Cliff Johnson, Al Oliver, Don Baylor, Mike Easler, Ken Singleton, Bill Buckner, and Andre Thornton, to name just a few. All were still capable of out-hitting Willie Aikens, and all had a cleaner personal history. There were so many players like that available that Toronto replaced Aikens with two of them, deciding who to play based on who was pitching at the moment.

In a different era, Aikens might have gotten another chance or two. But not in 1985. He picked the wrong year to flame out. Not that it was a conscious decision, but rather more of a consequence.

Let’s go back to the present for a minute.The Royals’ best hitter, Billy Butler, wasn’t even born when Willie Aikens’ career came to an end. So of course the prospects he’ll be working with weren’t born yet either. In another year or two, he’ll be working with some players who were born around the time he went to prison. The only people who will remember him as a player are the coaches and advisors.

I’m sure Aikens can teach those young players a lot about hitting a baseball and perhaps he can teach them a few other baseball skills. But I’m sure he can teach them even more about substance abuse, and how it can destroy you. And it’s an important message.

Many of these kids become millionaires at very young ages, sometimes before they’re even able to vote. Often their only skill is hitting a baseball. They don’t know how to manage that money, or how to handle the temptations that go with being able to afford anything and everything, and buy their way out of nearly any sort of trouble.

Willie Aikens has been there. And from there, he’s been to prison, struggled to find a job, lived in a stranger’s basement, lived day to day sometimes relying on the kindness of strangers, and now he’s finally once again able to do what he always loved again, this time for a much more modest salary.

I hope they listen.

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