The only thing that ever came easy for Willie Mays Aikens was hitting a baseball. Even his name sake, Mays, was not what others assumed it was, coming from his mother’s obstretrician Dr. Mays, rather than the “Say Hey Kid”. His family life was dysfunctional and disconnected, his stutter made him uneasy and distrustful of not only the people who teased him about it, but even those who did not, his sexual relationships began as a young teen when the mother of a teammate took him into the woods, he finally felt accepted with the Royals, only to fall into the trap many major league players did in the early ’80s — cocaine, an addiction that would eventually find Aikens imprisoned.
An¬†impossible-to-put-down story of such dense complexity called for a writer with skills equal to those Aikens possessed when he became the first hitter in World Series history to hit two home runs in a game twice in the same series (1980). Gregory Jordan (New¬†York Times, Crisis Magazine)¬†not only answered that call, he blasted it beyond the confines of the literary park that is Willie Mays Aikens: Safe at Home.
Through Aikens’ vivid honesty, Jordan skillfully¬†interweaves past to present and back again, spinning a yarn so immense it seems destined for the big screen. Beyond the lack of emotional connection with his mother, Jordan breathes life and palpability¬†to the pride Aikens felt in his ability to drive a baseball further than anyone else, his early connection to Paulette, a woman who had her feet on the ground and helped to keep Aikens focused, but who later left him to join the army because of the changes she already detected in Aikens early in his baseball career.
Jordan and Aikens went to great lengths to bring lucidity to the acceptance the slugging first baseman felt upon his arrival to Kansas City. From Amos Otis and Frank White, to likes of George Brett, whom¬†Aikens¬†proclaimed he wanted to “impress even more than the manager” Jim Frey, a man who once said Aikens could be “the next Willie McCovey,” and who Aikens described as “part father. Part grump. Part pastor.” Jordan is masterful in recounting Aikens’ memories of Frey’s slow-but-steady loss of the team, as well as Aikens’ early frustrations and immaturity¬†with the Kansas City fans and Frey’s replacement, the “marine”-like Dick Howser.
Aikens’ arrival in¬†Kansas City¬†after knee surgery (a tall task¬†all¬†its own¬†in those antiquated days of surgical repair) was met with the misfortune of comparisons to the departed John Mayberry, KC’s beloved, run-producing first baseman from the Royals’ first two playoff teams in 1976 and ’77.
Falling in with his drug-loving Royals teammates such as Willie Wilson, as well as drug dealer and baseball fan extraordinaire Mark Liebl, Aikens quickly fell in love with what he believed began as a way to enjoy good company and get his mind of of baseball, but just as quickly and sinisterly grew into something that “would be inseperable from a sense of happiness” — cocaine.
Aikens’ would learn, however, that the adage he had lived by was not always true “You keep on hittin’, you keep gettin’ away with it.”
Jordan conveyed the lonleliness and Aikens’ lack of direction Aikens has his career took him to Mexico, where moved from woman to woman and used more and more, until finally he had impregnated two different women in a short period of time. It was not long before Aikens, always sensitive and suspicious, felt that he was being used for money, and no longer playing, moved back to Kansas City. A move which at first seemed to portend his ultimate undoing, but ended¬†in his ultimate salvation.
Having never had a healthy relationship with a woman, Aikens continued to fall prey to them, including one who was an undercover police officer working to take Aikens down. After several drug transactions,¬†Aikens was sent to prison for 20 years and eight months. A sentence much more stringent due to rock cocaine, rather than powder cocaine, an unwarranted discrepancy which Aikens would later fight to change.
It was in prison, though,¬†that Aikens¬†came into contact with Gracie Luces, a woman who worked¬†with the prison fellowship, and whose communications¬†with Aikens that Jordan deftly unfolds before the reader that allowed for the understanding that though¬†Aikens felt that he had only hurt himself, he had actually hurt many — his friends, his teammates, his own baseball skills and his daughters. From that point on, Aikens was a Luces disciple.
Throughout the book, Jordan¬†shares Aikens’ tale in the manner of a novel, and the prison years could perhaps be the highlight of that decision, stories of Aikens’ early refusal to play prison softball ably relayed with the revelation that Aikens would eventually¬†coach the team, discovered the Bible and grew “hot for Jesus.” Jordan handled that portion of the story with incredible ease, his contributions to Crisis Magazine showing through, as a man who was not overwhelmed at the prosepect of another finding God,¬†Jordan’s words cascaded gracefully¬†rather than shot out in spurts.
Aikens’ early lack of awareness had finally become clear, from his early days when future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson took the time to offer tips on his swing to the guidance of Frey and Pat Gillick, the hard-nosed advice of Hal McRae, Luces, his attorneys and even his cell mates over the years — they were all trying to help him, not hurt him — but for all of Aikens’ ability to recognize¬†pitches¬†with a bat in his hands, he could not always¬†distinguish that which was right before his eyes.
Shortly before his long-awaited¬†release from prison,¬†Aikens was transported to a hearing in Atlanta when one of the guards asked if he would like to take an alternate route so that he could see the Braves’ new Turner Field. That simple and random¬†act of kindness set off a flood of images¬†which contained all of the things that¬†Aikens had allowed to slip away in baseball and in life, and Aikens was grateful for their¬†thoughtfulness to the point of tears.
Later, Jordan shared Aikens’¬†long-standing relationships coming full-circle.¬†First with McRae, who helped¬†to get him a job with a road construction team,¬†then to how¬†Brett¬†aided Aikens in securing¬†speaking engagements to get youngsters away from drugs, an effort that which had Brett shocked to¬†discover that when¬†a man finally understands himself, he can speak with confidence and authority and without stutter. Finally, and of utmost importance, Jordan described how Aikens called upon the one who always cared for him — Sara — a decison that would lead to marriage, reconciliation with his daughter Nicole and a baby girl named Sarah.
Sad and humbling, yet reassuring, uplifting and exhilarating, Aikens’ story is one of self-discovery decades in the making. A tale not only worth telling, but one that is impossible to put down, and¬†will find readers¬†pulling for a man who was once destined to be the next Reggie or McCovey, but turned out to mean much more to the Royals, the game of baseball and those who play it, not as the 20-something, strapping slugger of the early ’80s, but as a roving batting instructor and speaker in the Kansas City organization.
Jordan writes that “His most enduring creation, (Aikens) realized, was his own self-destruction. He wanted to change that.” Change it, he did. Willie Mays Aikens finally found himself, and it was not about how far he could hit a baseball, but rather that he¬†was “hot” for Jesus, his wife and daughters, the friends who were always there for him, “hot” for a life that takes nothing for granted, but rather cherishes every moment as¬†Aikens did those towering home runs we all remember.
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† (Amy K. Nelson’s incredibly well-done piece on Aikens for Full Nelson)
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Willie M. Aikens
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