LOS ANGELES, January 17, 2014 — Cocaine was the drug of choice in the 70s and 80s and baseball players were no strangers to the drug. While playing baseball in the majors, Willie Mays Aikens was introduced to cocaine, an introduction that would eventually end his days as a player and start his years as an incarcerated felon. Since being released, Aikens has written a book, Safe At Home, and re-joined the Kansas City Royals organization. Wells On Music spoke to Aikens in October 2013 regarding his rise and fall as a player and then his ascension from the depths of addiction and incarceration.
Kevin J. Wells: You grew up in extreme poverty, did you ever think that you would be playing in the majors?
Willie Mays Aikens: Well, I always thought about doing that. When they ask you in high school what you want to be, my answer was always that I wanted to be a professional baseball player.
KW: When did you know that you had a legitimate chance?
WA: My high school coach, Willie McNeil who passed away, he always told me I had a special for hitting the baseball that most players didn’t have. I never was scouted in high school. I never really had anyone tell me in high school that were connected to pro baseball that I had a chance to be a professional baseball player. In the summer of ’74, I think it was, I was playing for my college in Baltimore and this little fat guy walked up to me after the game. His name was Wally Youse and he was a scout for the Orioles. He invited me to play in an amateur league. He started naming off players that had played for that team before; Reggie Jackson, Ron Swoboda. He said, “If you come up, I’ll find you a job and I’ll find you a place to stay.” So I decided to go up there. And while I was up there playing, my college dropped their baseball team. I went to him for advice about what I should do. He said, “Why don’t you drop out of school and wait for the baseball draft? I’m pretty sure you’re going to be drafted by a major league team.” And that’s what I did. He told me this because he knew he was going to draft me. During the winter of 1975, in January, I was drafted by the California Angels by him, Walter Youse.
KW: Jumping forward, you hit two homeruns in a World Series game twice in the 1980 World Series. Can you describe the feeling of being the first player to ever do that?
WA: At the time, I didn’t know that was the first time that had been done before. I also found out a couple days ago that I was the first player to hit a postseason homerun on my birthday. Evan Longoria, he did it a couple nights ago for the Tampa [Bay] Rays. When he did it, they mentioned him as being the second player to do it on his birthday and they mentioned me as being the first player to do it.
I went into the 1980 World Series hot. I had just had a tremendous second half of 1980. I ended up hitting about .280, I had 20 homeruns and I drove in 98 runs. I went into the playoffs hot. We swept the Yankees and went on to the World Series. I played almost seven years in the major leagues, but my whole baseball career was basically established because of the 1980 World Series. That’s what people remember me for.
KW: You also have the unfortunate distinction of being the first major leaguer to spend time in jail during your career. How surprised were you when you were first caught and sentenced to jail in 1984?
WA: Well, I was really surprised. We didn’t know the guy we knew was being watched. Then, all of a sudden, it [came] out in the newspaper that some Kansas City Royals might be being investigated in a drug sting. Even when it came out then, you know, I had confidence that nothing was going to happen to us. After the season was over with, they ended up indicting all four of us because they had us on a wiretap talking to this guy who we knew, trying to buy drugs from him. We called the Player’s Association, my attorney did, and asked them what would happen to a ballplayer that got convicted as a felon. They said he would probably never play in the major leagues again. So, we were able to work out a plea agreement with the prosecutor, a misdemeanor, first time offenders, all of us. We had no idea we were going to go to jail. At our sentencing, the judge made an example of us. He told us right out then, you know, we’re professional baseball players and we shouldn’t be doing what we had done. So, he gave us three months in prison. We ended up doing 81 days. It came as a total shock to us, man. You know, I just spoke to a group of kids this morning and one thing I told them was, “Hey, when you make bad choices in life, a lot of times you face bad consequences.
KW: Did you feel that as a player you might have been somewhat untouchable?
WA: Well, I had had stuff that had happened to me before, like getting stopped for speeding, running into the law for things I had done and each time, they would just tap me on the wrist and say, “Hey, Willie, slow it down,” or whatever I had done. I never really got prosecuted before that. In a sense, I was kind of thinking that I could do basically anything and nothing would happen to me. And that kind of thinking eventually will get you into problems, man. That’s what happened to me. Because I was a ballplayer, I got off from a lot of things that I did.
KW: When did you start using cocaine?
WA: The first time I tried it was 1979 as a member of the California Angels and I only did it one time. After I got traded to the Kansas City Royals, you know, there were some guys on the team that used to party, liked to get high. So, I just became a part of that group. My years of using coke in the major leagues was like 1980 to 1983 when I was a member of the Kansas City Royals baseball club.
KW: Did you ever play while high on cocaine?
WA: I never used drugs during the game. It was always after the game. I never used drugs inside of the clubhouse. It was always after the game. You know, cocaine is a stimulant, so when you do it after the game, it lingers in your system up until the next game, but I never used it before at the clubhouse. No.
KW: Were you an everyday user?
WA: I wasn’t an everyday user as a Major League Baseball player, naw. Later on in my life when I went to Mexico, I used it as often as I could get it, but when I was a Major League Baseball player, no. It was just a social lifestyle that we did once in a while and it was nothing that we did every single day.
KW: Did you ever see other players using drugs before games or while playing during your career?
WA: No, I never [saw] players using drugs on the Kansas City Royals before the game, but I basically knew somebody on every major league team that was doing drugs because when they came into town, you know, we used to turn them on. When we went and played in these different cities, we would get in contact with them and they would turn us on. It wasn’t any kind of surprises back then because cocaine was the thing of the late 70s and the early 80s, man.
KW: So, you were never an outcast for using cocaine?
WA: Not at the time because, I mean, Steve Howe had a problem with cocaine. You had the guys on the Pittsburgh Pirate team that were being investigated. You had guys on the Mets that were being investigated. I mean, you just had a lot of guys that got caught or that had problems with the drugs. You never heard anything about it because the ball clubs, they kept it silent, but back in the early 80s, there were a lot of players that had problems with drugs, man.
KW: You had two more chances after you got out of jail with Toronto and the Mets, but failed to get back to the player you were. Did drugs play a part in the diminished results on the field?
WA: I don’t think drugs played a part as far as my abilities as a ballplayer. Where the drugs came in was that I was incarcerated for three months and I got suspended from baseball for 45 days. I was suspended for a year, at first, and then an arbitrator overturned it. I was able to come back and play May 15. So, when I got suspended from baseball, I missed all of Spring Training and missed the first 45 days of the baseball season. And not only that, when I went up to the Blue Jays, I became a platoon player. I was only playing against right handers. Whereas before in Kansas City, I was playing against right handers and left handers. Now, I have to get comfortable with a situation that I’ve never done before. When you miss all of Spring Training, you start off behind major league pitchers. I was never able to catch up. And being a part-time player, you never could. I was somewhat of a streak hitter. So, if I was going to bat for a period of time and I got into a streak, then my streak could run three or four weeks, a month at a time. But being a part-time player playing maybe once, twice or three times a week, it’s hard to get in a good hitting streak. I was never able to do that when I was a member of the Blue Jays. So, eventually, I had a bad year in ’84. Then the second month of ’85, I got released. I never was able to come back. All of this happened because of what happened with drugs. To show you that I could still play, I went down to Mexico and hit .454 with 46 homeruns and drove in 154 runs. My physical ability as a ballplayer was there. It’s just that I was never able to adjust to being a platoon player.
KW: Do you feel that spending time in jail made a lot of teams shy away from signing you?
WA: Any time you have a criminal record, it’s a negative thing against you. Not only that, when I was a member of the Kansas City Royals, I did different things over there that hurt me. I developed a bad attitude towards the manager, Dick Howser. He was the first one who started platooning me and I didn’t like what he was doing. So, I would come to the ballpark late. I wouldn’t take batting practice. I wouldn’t take infield. I just started doing stuff I shouldn’t be doing. After I had a bad year, I think it got out around the league that I was a trouble maker. Now you got teams looking at me saying that, Willie Aikens is a trouble maker. Willie Aikens has a criminal record. Is it worth it to even take a chance on this guy anymore? He might not be able to come back and be the player that he was before. I think that put a lot of teams a situation where they didn’t want to take a chance on me because of the drug thing and the criminal record and the bad attitude.
KW: After your career had ended you were caught for selling crack cocaine to an undercover police officer and sentenced to 20 years. What was your thought process when you heard the length of the sentence? Did you think that was ever possible?
WA: My thought process was, how do I get myself out of this situation? And then I got sentenced to 20 years and 8 months. I didn’t know what to do. So, after being incarcerated for a couple years, a year and a half, I rededicated my life to Jesus Christ. You know, it takes a tragedy a lot of times and a lot of us, when we have problems, we call on the name of the lord because with a spiritual foundation, you know that God is really the only person that can help you get out of a situation like that. I mean, I still had my lawyers. I still had my appeal process, but I was looking for a higher power that was greater than me. I found it while I was incarcerated. I never expected to be in a situation like that. It came as a total shock to me, but my lawyer had told me that if I went to trial and lost, that I was going to receive a stiff sentence. I had a chance to receive a sentence of five years if I had cooperated with them. Two weeks before I went to trial, they offered me nine years and I didn’t have to cooperate. I just had the mentality that, hey, I was going to be able to get out of this situation like I had everything else. I wasn’t able to.
KW: They offered you a deal?
WA: I could have taken the deal for less if I would have cooperated with the authorities. They wanted me to help get the drug dealer that I knew. They wanted me to put on a wiretap and go in and buy drugs from them. I told them I wasn’t going to do that and I ended up going to trial.
KW: What was your feeling when you found out that the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine had been retroactively changed?
WA: In 2008, the sentencing commission implemented those changes. They just recommended that people who were sentenced [for] crack could get a two level reduction off their guidelines. If Congress didn’t react to it by November 7, it became law. So Congress, they didn’t react to it so it became law, but it wasn’t retroactive at the time. The sentencing commission came back in and said, “We want to make this retroactive so it will help the people that are already incarcerated.” Another six months passed and Congress didn’t say no, so it became retroactive. Once it became law and became retroactive, 19,000 prisoners became eligible for sentence reduction. I was one of those 19,000 that became eligible, which meant that it wasn’t guaranteed that I was going to get my sentence reduced. But just knowing it was a possibility, it gave me chills, man. I had already done 14 years and still had four years to go. My [original] release date was 2012. So, you know, I prayed and my lawyer looked into it and there were some difficulties there, but her and the prosecutor were able to work out a deal and I got my sentenced reduced by 60 months, I think, and I was able to get out four years early.
KW: Once released, George Brett was instrumental in helping to bring you back into the game of baseball.
WA: He was the first person I contacted that had any relationship with the Kansas City Royals. I just told George what my situation was. He said, “Why don’t you come over to my son’s middle school and speak to the students?” I was at the halfway house at the time. He said, “I will come by and pick you up.” I said, “That’s a deal.” So, he came by and picked me up and I spoke to the school for 45 minutes and he was impressed with what I had to say. He said, “You need to be back in baseball. I’m going to take you over to meet Dayton Moore, the general manager of the Kanas City Royals.” And that’s what he did. I told Dayton my situation and that I was trying to get back in the game of baseball. Dayton told me he couldn’t make me any promises, but he would keep me in mind. One thing led to another and after being on the streets a couple years, the Kansas City Royals decided to hire me and George Brett is the one that got all that started. It was him.
KW: Most of your teammates, including George Brett, turned their back on you while in prison. Did that add insult to injury in a sense?
WA: I wouldn’t say it hurt. I wrote to them and I didn’t hear anything back from them. I understood there situation also. They didn’t owe me anything and I put myself in the situation I was in. It wasn’t like I got pissed off at them or upset at them or held anything against them because I had come to a point in my life then that, hey, I understood what was going on and that was their choice to either write back or not to write back. They decided not to do it. If I had held that against George, I would never have contacted him when I got out of prison. I would have thought, hey, he never wrote me back while I was incarcerated, so why would he talk to me now? I didn’t think that way.
KW: What is your current role with the Kansas City Royals?
WA: I’m a hitting instructor and I’m also mentor to young players. I talk to them each Spring Training. I share my story. I share my testimonials with them and I just try to help them make the right choices off the baseball field.
KW: What kind of reaction do you get from the younger players when you talk to them about your experiences?
WA: Most of it is positive because when you are a professional ballplayer and make it to the major leagues, young minor leaguers look up to that person. They are trying to get to the same position that I was in. When they see what I’ve gone through, I have a book out and everything, and I was able to come back after being incarcerated for 14 years, it just gives off that, “I could do it too.”
KW: Speaking of your book, Safe At Home, was it cathartic to get everything on paper?
WA: I just started taking notes when I was incarcerated, man. When I finally ran into a writer, I started writing more and sending it to him. I wouldn’t say it got everything off my back, you know? At times, it was tough because I wanted to be honest in the book and it brought back some bad memories from my childhood, man, how I grew up and what I had to go through with my stepfather. And it brought back some bad memories with my girls today and the relationship I had with them. I just wanted it to get out there and it got out there. So far, everything has been okay.
KW: What is your relationship like now with your children?
WA: Well, [with] my oldest daughter, it’s not that great because she is separated from me. She lives with her mom down in Mexico, so I don’t get a chance to see her as much as I would like to. Plus, I married the mother of my second oldest daughter and my baby. I think my oldest daughter is a little resentful because I didn’t marry her mama and, you know, that happens a lot of times with kids. But my relationship with my second oldest daughter and my baby is pretty good. That’s mainly because I get the chance to spend time with them and my oldest daughter I don’t. So, it is what it is.
KW: Are illicit drugs still prevalent in the game of baseball?
WA: I don’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going on. Sometimes you see a player get a positive test for marijuana or whatever, but I think the main focus today is on performance enhancing drugs, man. I don’t even think they can test major league ballplayers for cocaine or marijuana unless you have a history of using those drugs. They are more concerned right now with amphetamines and steroids, stuff that will enhance your performance out on the baseball field. The worst, as far as I am concerned, the worst drug of our society is legal, which is alcohol. They don’t test for that because it’s not illegal to drink alcohol. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the worst drugs we have in our society. I mean, you can look at some of the ballplayers that were killed from drunk driving and stuff and the families that have been destroyed by alcohol abuse.
KW: Would you like to see Major League Baseball do more in that regard?
WA: Well, you know, that’s not up to me. I think Major League Baseball has come a long way as far as testing us for performance enhancing drugs. You know, alcohol has been in our society for a long time and illegal drugs and stuff like that. I think baseball has done a pretty good job of getting the steroids and everything under control. I mean, it’s really tough to get all that other stuff under control when you are away from the baseball field and you’re not being tested for it. I’m not going to say baseball could do a better job with it. I think they have done an outstanding job so far.
Back when I played, we weren’t tested for anything. That’s when you had all those guys in the middle of the [90s] on those steroids. That’s when you had all those guys hitting 60, 70 homeruns because it was wide open. That’s when you had all those guys hitting 60, 70 homeruns because it was wide open. You could do whatever you wanted to do.
KW: If steroids were readily available while you were playing, do you think that you would have done them?
WA: 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. I mean, that was the purpose of doing performance enhancing drugs anyway and when you have good years in baseball, guess what? Your salary goes up and you try to make as much money as you can. If there would have been something available that would have helped my performance on the baseball field, I would have used it. Of course I would have, no doubt about it.
KW: Is there anything else that you would like people to know about you or anything you are working on?
WA: My book is out there. Email email@example.com if you want an autographed copy. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook. Hey, we’re living in a world where I think it’s a spiritual life, which is the most important thing I think we can get as individuals. When I share my testimony, I share how good God is and that he has given us the chance to be redeemed. If people out there have not been redeemed, I hope they take advantage of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Accept Christ as your personal savior, ask for forgiveness of your sins and have a chance to have a home with God for eternity. That’s my message.
Kevin J. Wells is the Sports Editor for Communities Digital News and also writes about Major League Baseball and punk rock music. Follow him on Twitter @WellsOnBaseball