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The Sad Story of Willie Mays Aikens

Home for a week in Salt Lake City, my eye drifted to this SI.com article about former local minor league star Willie Mays Aikens, whose legend was made during my youth here. Born just following the 1954 World Series (not during, as the baseball cards claimed), Aikens was named by his delivering physician for the Giants superstar outfielder, who made a pretty fair catch that year. A first baseman, he was the California Angels’ #1 pick (#2 overall) in the January 1975 draft.

Despite being glacially slow and lousy on defense, the man could hit, and he rose quickly, reaching the Salt Lake Gulls, the Angels’ AAA affiliate, in 1977. He he hit .336 AVG/.435 OBP/.569 SLG with 14 homers in a half season and earned a promotion to the big club, where he hit only .198/.277/.242 in 101 plate appearances. He spent all of 1978 in SLC, hitting .326/.423/551 with 29 homers and 110 RBI, but stuck with the Angels in 1979, and was a regular on their AL West-winning squad. Sharing time at first base with Rod Carew and at DH with Don Baylor, he hit .280/.376/.493 with 21 homers. Inexplicably, he failed to receive a vote in the Rookie of the Year balloting, providing the general public with its only reason to remember John Castino. But as the first minor-leaguer I followed to make good in the bigs, he holds a special distinction in my eyes.

Aikens was traded to the Kansas City Royals in a five-player deal that December, and became the starting first baseman on a pennant-winning team. He hit .278/.356/.433 with 20 homers, his stats suffering due to overexposure to left-handed pitching (.694 OPS vs lefties, .899 vs righties). In the opening game of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, he entered the national spotlight by slugging two home runs in a losing cause. He singled in the winning run in the 10th inning of Game Three, then matched his two-homer feat in Game Four, helping the Royals to even the Series at two games apiece and becoming the first player with two multi-homer games in the same World Series.

He had three more good seasons in KC, the best of which came in 1983, when — limited to only 89 PA against lefties — he hit .302/.373/.539 with 23 homers. But the headlines he earned that year weren’t so good. Aikens was one of four Royals, along with Vida Blue, Jerry Martin, and Willie Wilson, who were arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine, pled guilty, and drew three-month jail sentences as well as year-long suspensions from baseball by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Those four thus earned the ignominious distinction of becoming the first active players to do time.

Days after being suspended, Aikens was traded to Toronto for Jorge Orta. His suspension was reduced, and he resumed his career with the Jays, but he was a disappointment, hitting only .205/.298/.376 in 1984. He got off to a similarly slow start in 1985 and was released in May, never playing in the bigs again. Ironically enough, he homered in his final big-league at-bat.

Aikens continued to play in the Mexican League, but his drug problems followed. By the early ’90s, according to the SI article (written by Mike Fish), he was doing coke day and night, and his weight had ballooned to 300 pounds. He was busted again in 1994 for selling crack to an undercover female cop, and with his prior record and the presence of a shotgun in his squalid house, drew a sentence of 20 long years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

Nine years into his sentence, Aikens has been trying to clear his name. He requested a presidential pardon and got former players and managers, including Hal McRae, Dusty Baker, and Jim Fregosi, to write on his behalf. But recently he learned that his request had been denied by President Bush. Still, Aikens’ case has made him something of a poster child for the flaws with mandatory sentencing. The crack distinction is crucial to his case. According to Fish:

Aikens ending up selling about 2.2 ounces to the undercover cop. But because of the tougher federal guidelines for crack, he was sentenced as if he had sold 15 pounds of powder cocaine. Plus, he got five years for using a firearm during commission of a crime.

Several sources, from SI writer Frank Deford to conservative columnist Debra Saunders, have noted that the crack was produced at the behest of the undercover cop, and had he not cooked up the rock, his sentence would have run out years ago.

Fish’s article tries to draw a comparison of Aikens to Darryl Strawberry and Lawrence Taylor, and while it’s true his is a sadder tale than theirs — seeing as how both of those men are free and still cashing in on their celebrity — the small matter of a gun involved in his crime doesn’t exactly help his cause. But there’s no getting around the sorrow of this story, especially for somebody who remembers marvelling at his long home runs.

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