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Minor Things

As somebody who grew up in a city with a minor-league team instead of a major-league one, and who frequented another city even further down the minor-league ladder, I always maintained a mental bookmark list of players I’d seen who made it to The Show, and some who came close with no cigar. This week produced a pair of blasts from the past related to a couple of those players.

Skimming Kevin Goldstein’s rundown of the Top 50 Talents in today’s amateur draft, I came across a name I recognized — or rather, half recognized. Wichita State third baseman Conor Gillaspie has a last name that sent me straight to Google, where I confirmed that he’s the son of one Mark Gillaspie whom I saw play for the Walla Walla Padres back in 1981.

Gillaspie the elder was the right fielder in a pretty fair Walla Walla outfield that featured John Kruk in left and Tony Gwynn in center, both of whom obviously went on to greater fame. An 11th-round pick out of Mississippi State, where he made the College World Series All-Tournament team, Gillaspie was switch-hitter who showed good power and an excellent batting eye, but if memory serves me a quarter century later, he had an odd style, a high leg kick to start his swing that caused him to wind up with his foot in the bucket. To the extent that I remember this, it’s because it was the subject of a brief pointer from my grandfather, who took my brother and me to see the Padres a few times every year when we’d visit.

Despite his funky style, Gillaspie batted .262/.415/.502 in 69 games, tying with Gwynn for the Walla Walla lead in homers with 12. He continued to hit as he climbed the ladder, most notably via a .333/.455/.581 showing for Double-A Beaumont of the Texas League in 1983, but instead of being promoted to Triple-A the next year, he repeated the level to diminishing returns (.274/.426/.465). Thereafter he bounced around through the systems of the Cubs, Brewers and Royals, as well as a repeat engagement with the Padres, but he never made it higher than Triple-A, finally hanging it up after the 1988 season with a lifetime minor-league line of .287/.421/.503. It’s unclear exactly what stopped him from taking that last step, but his defensive numbers, which include a whopping 29 errors between 1982 and 1983, not to mention several years with more errors than assists, suggest he may have been lacking with the leather, and I can only imagine some scout deciding that leg kick was kinda horseshit and would never fly in the majors. Still, given how well the guy could hit, you’d figure he’d have gotten a break somewhere.

Anyway, his son Conor Gillespie ranks 32nd on Goldstien’s list. Here’s what Kevin has to say:

What He Is: One of the best college bats who isn’t limited to first base.
What He’s Not: A pure power hitter, because while strong, his level swing and contact-oriented approach limits his pop.
In A Perfect World He Becomes: A guy who gives you a solid average, good OBP, decent-at-best power; Ryan Zimmerman with nowhere near the defensive chops?
Backup Plan: Lefty backup bat at both infield corners.
Open Issues: Not the most fluid defender; may want more money than he’s worth.

The talent rankings are separate from Goldstein’s views of the order that those players will be picked, where money and team needs factor into the equation, but a ranking like Gillaspie’s suggests he could be picked by the end of the supplemental phase of the first round. Other prospect experts like John Sickels and Keith Law have him going in the first round as well; the latter, who calls him “a classic plays-like-his-hair’s-on-fire gamer type,” suggests he may go as high as #22 (Mets). I generally don’t get too wrapped up in the fates of individual draftees, but I’ll certainly be interested to see where the younger Gillaspie is headed.

Meanwhile, this week’s newswires carried the story of former major leaguer Willie Mays Aikens, who was just released from federal prison after serving 14 years for selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop. It’s a sad story I’ve covered before, but now it appears to be taking a turn for the better.

Aikens had the distinction of being the first minor-league ballplayer I followed who made it big in the majors. Named for Willie Mays when he was born shortly after the 1954 World Series, Aikens was a lumbering slugger who played at Salt Lake City in 1977 and 1978. He enjoyed an excellent rookie season with the Angels in 1979, when he hit .280/.376/.493 with 21 homers, but the Angels under GM Buzzie Bavasi were in the midst of an anti-youth movement that saw them trade away their top young talent in an effort to win a championship for owner Gene Autry. Aikens was sent to Kansas City in a five-player deal, with outfielder Al Cowens the centerpiece of the return.

Aikens enjoyed a solid first year with the Royals, hitting 20 homers and driving in 98 runs and then finding stardom in that year’s World Series against the Phillies. He slugged two home runs in a losing cause in Game One, 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 came into the series known as Willie Aikens, but with his success, the announcers made much of his middle name, helping to carve him a place in the national consciousness. “Willie Mays Aikens” just rolls off the tongue, so you can see why the writers of the movie Major League might come up with a character named Willie Mays Hayes. If, like I am, you’re old enough to remember Aikens and you want to feel older, consider that the gap between Mays’ 1954 catch and that 1980 World Series is shorter than the one between the 1980 World Series and today.

Unfortunately for Aikens, he got into big-time trouble with drugs a few years later. Along with Vida Blue, Jerry Martin, and Willie Wilson, he was one of four Royals 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 became the first active major leaguers to serve time in prison.Aikens’ suspension was eventually reduced, and while he returned to the majors, he didn’t find much more success.

Aikens’ downward spiral continued until he was arrested for selling crack to an undercover cop in 1994. He was sentenced to 20 years in the big house; under the federal mandatory sentencing guidelines, his sentence was longer because the guidelines distinguished between crack and powdered cocaine. According to a 2003 SI.com article by Mike Fish, the 2.2 ounces of crack Aikens sold the undercover cop drew as heavy a sentence as if he’d sold 15 pounds in powdered form.

Last year, those federal sentencing guidelines were reconsidered on the grounds that the distinction between crack and powdered cocaine created inequitable punishments — crack convictions were on average three or four years longer than powdered cocaine convictions — which carried an element of racial disparity in the sentencing and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The less severe guidelines were applied retroactively, with Aikens one of the beneficiaries.

Now that he’s been released, Aikens hopes to get a job somewhere in baseball, perhaps in scouting, after he spends three or four months in a halfway house. For his sake, I hope he’s able to take advantage of this reprieve and turn his life around. We could use a few good reasons to say “Willie Mays Aikens” again.

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