It is late autumn for Willie Mays Aikens, and for this 57-year-old husband and father of three, it’s an Indian Summer. His tree of life, once malnourished and abused, thrives once more, festooned with leaves colored by the happiness and love that comes from second chances.
“When you walk in the world of the Lord, he blesses you,” Aikens said. “That’s the way I try to live my life. I’ve got a whole lot of blessings.”
The Seneca native is a minor league hitting instructor for the Kansas City Royals, the team with whom he made history during the 1980 World Series by becoming the first player to have two multi-homer games.
Monday, he will represent the Royals at baseball’s nationally televised first-year player draft in New Jersey, an honor reserved for each organization’s most inspirational or deserving employee.
In the aptly named town of Surprise, Ariz., his day begins with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, and he is in the batting cage by 6:30. There are meetings, workouts and more batting and, if everything goes to plan, he is home by 6 p.m.
It is a routine and that is something Aikens knows well.
“You have rules and people telling you what to do,” Aikens said. “When you’re incarcerated, you have rules and people telling you when to go to bed, when to get up, when to go eat or exercise. The only difference now is you’re able to make choices right then and there. You can do that. When you’re incarcerated, you can’t do that.
“I had no problem adjusting to the free world.”
Not exactly. In the free world, you also have to adjust to people who are adjusting to you.
THE WAR ON WILLIE
Behind the 30-foot concrete walls of Atlanta’s federal penitentiary, Aikens lived a life on pause.
Trouble was, time marched on. For more than 14 years, Aikens killed time while it slowly killed him.
Incarcerated on federal drug and firearms charges from a previous life spent in a downward spiral, Aikens had used the interregnum to get clean, find God and help others do the same so they might escape their shared purgatory.
Ultimately, he was running in place while the free world hurtled on.
And he went to bed each night knowing the life he had forsaken — a life of keeping up with his beautiful daughters and loving his soul mate — marched on in an alternate reality. In this life, he had laid waste to those hopes and, in the process, altered the lives of those he cared for most.
For Lucia and Gretchen, reality meant acknowledging their once-famous father’s precipitous fall from grace. Without Aikens, they lived a continent apart, Lucia with her mother in Mexico, Gretchen with her mother in the United States. Their worlds were vastly disparate.
In Mexico, memories of Aikens are fond among the locals. During one amazing season in the Mexican League, years after his World Series heroics, he hit .456 with 46 home runs, all the while flying high on crack. In a land of different sensibilities, Aikens’ eventual downfall was shrugged off and only the good remained. These were the people who spoke to Lucia of her father.
In the States, memories of Aikens were of a bloated man who tossed away his bat and glove for a glass pipe and a lighter. During his highly publicized sentencing in 1994, Aikens became the face of America’s new war on crack. As details of his horrifically misspent life came to light, an enraged judge wasted no time levying the country’s newest and most extreme mandatory sentence and telling Aikens how much he deserved it.
“The thing that’s so disappointing is that you were a young man who pulled yourself to prominence in professional sports, and you trashed it,” U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple told Aikens. “How sad. You had the skills to go down in history, and now your history will be overshadowed by this.”
Not exactly. History is written by the victor and, while Aikens might have lost this battle, his war raged on.
For Ron Shapiro, history is written in more than one chapter. Prison is the only chapter many people read about Aikens. For most, time is linear, progressing from Point A to Point B.
For Shapiro, time is a photo album where all snapshots exist at once.
For Shapiro, the shy and gentle giant from the South Carolina hinterlands remained just as alive and vital as the burned-out husk locked away from society’s view.
“He’s a loving, kind, sensitive person,” said Shapiro, who was Aikens’ agent during his playing days and has remained at his side.
“That being said, loving, kind, sensitive people get defeated in prison. Willie did not. What I saw happen was an evolution of the real Willie. He was always there.”
Freed from the yoke of addiction — necessarily so by his incarceration — the boyhood Aikens resurfaced. Freed from seeking his next fix, Aikens reverted to the caring and generous soul that had inspired his teammates at Seneca High and South Carolina State.
And as for that soul — it was enriched by the rediscovery of faith. Adding Christianity was the final piece of programming for Aikens 2.0.
His newfound faith led him to share his testimony with fellow inmates. It reignited a desire to reach out to his far-flung loved ones. The hope of returning to the game he loved crept into idle daydreams.
It also renewed his fight against the seemingly severe sentencing guidelines that led to his 20-year, 8-month sentence for an amount of cocaine that would have led to a sentence of mere months had it not been in the form of crack.
He wrote to former teammates and acquaintances, seeking their assistance. Few answered his entreaties.
“So he reached out to them again. And again,” Shapiro said. “Willie never lost faith in people who turned their backs on him. He continued to reach out to those people.”
One of those people was Royals Hall of Famer George Brett, who since has admitted he was ashamed of his silence once Aikens won his battle and the sentencing guidelines were struck down.
On that day in 2008, Aikens walked away from prison six years early and moved into a Kansas City halfway house. He landed a construction job, which allowed him to check out of the halfway house three months early. He returned to the same split-level ranch home that had once been his crack den.
Brett was there. He took Aikens to Royals games and functions and introduced him to the team’s general manager, Dayton Moore. Could his long-awaited return to the game be far behind?
In those final, dark days before prison, Aikens had inhabited only one room of his house while embarking on three-day crack binges. It had been the only furnished room. Upon his return, he furnished the rest of the house and would only revisit that space on his way to the laundry room.
Avoiding that room was easier with Sara and Sarah sharing his home. Gretchen’s mother stayed at Aikens’ side throughout his prison sentence. Upon his release, she married him. At age 42, she gave birth to Sarah.
“That was the thing I prayed about while incarcerated — experiencing a little child growing up,” Aikens said. “It was one part of my life I haven’t experienced. One of the greatest joys is having a kid and being there from baby, to kid, to teenager, so forth and so on.”
The life he prayed for was unfolding before him. Indeed, it appeared his adjustment to the free world was complete.
Not exactly. Life’s best pitch is a curve ball. Moore remained apprehensive. Aikens’ daughters would have their say. And soon, Sara’s life would be in jeopardy.
THE GREATEST ADJUSTMENT
When Aikens married Sara and chose to return to Kansas City, Lucia rebelled, upset he would not return to Mexico and marry her mother.
When Sara became pregnant, Gretchen rebelled. Her mother suffered from lupus and a pregnancy, combined with her age, was potentially life- threatening.
“She was really upset,” Aikens said. “She cried. She just went off.”
Gretchen was 5 when Aikens was sent to prison and during the ensuing 14 years, a blackness grew in her heart. While Aikens dreamed of reconnection, Gretchen dreamed of reinvention, a life in which she had no father.
While he was able to mend fences with Luicia, Gretchen’s anger caused Aikens a type of pain had never known — heartache.
“She had a lot of anger and animosity inside her and she didn’t want to forgive me for not being a part of her life,” Aikens said.
Outwardly, Aikens remained a positive force. He shared his testimony in church and counseled youth groups by sharing his cautionary tale. One day, Moore witnessed Aikens in action and offered him the opportunity to speak to the Royals’ minor leaguers.
Just like that, he was back in baseball.
Then came Sarah.
Then, as Aikens packed for his first spring training camp with the Royals, Sara suffered a devastating stroke and fell into a coma.
Aikens had overcome a fatherless childhood spent in poverty. He weathered a career cut short by drugs. After all of that and upon surviving incarceration, he once again found himself in a flat spin, Charybdis swirling beneath him.
Not exactly. After 57 years on this earth, Aikens had learned to hit a curve ball.
INDIAN SUMMER EVERLASTING
Aikens is trying to wring every minute possible out of his Indian Summer. After so much time lost, he figures to stave off winter’s embrace for as long as he can.
Baby Sarah is a vital key to that plan. The daily challenge of growing his relationships with Lucia and Gretchen factor in as well.
Sara’s remarkable recovery is incomplete, but progressing. She has trouble with one side of her body, but her fierce determination inspires an already inspired man.
“She’s still strong, man,” Aikens said with a laugh. “We had planned a life together and we’re living it. What happened to her? That’s the way life is sometimes. We run into bumps. I just take it one day at a time. I’m just trying to wake up every day.”
So, he teaches the next generation how to swing a bat. Perhaps they one day will experience the kind of success he did. By sharing his cautionary tale, he teaches them how to avoid his mistakes. Perhaps all of them will experience the kind of life he did not.
Shapiro put Aikens in touch with author Gregory Jordan, and the duo put his life’s journey to paper. His book, “Safe at Home”, (released in May) is an unsparing and candid recounting of his all-too-common downfall and uncommon redemption.
He has gone to Congress to speak out against the red tape and bureaucracy that has delayed the release of others who share a similar story to his own.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Aikens said. “I hung out with those guys in prison. There are many, many guys like me, guys I know can do good out here, just like me. Guys who are Christians and will remain Christians, like me. These guys won’t do anything stupid. They can’t be left behind.”
But most important, this past month, he attended Gretchen’s graduation from Iowa’s Grinnell College.
“It was the first time I had gone to any kind of event with Gretchen. It was just great, man,” Aikens said. “She was a totally different person. It was the first time we had ever been together alone.
“She called me Dad.”