#36 on our countdown is a sad cautionary tale. It is the story of Willie Aikens.
511 Games .282/.362/.469
77 HR 297 RBI
Willie Aikens was a mighty slugger for the early 80s Royals, whose career and life were derailed by a terrible addiction to cocaine. He had terrific power, but was inept defensively. He played magnificently in the 1980 World Series, and had things bounced the Royals way, might have been Series MVP. Willie had a brief career in Major League baseball that was shortened prematurely by drug abuse. By age thirty he was washed up and out of baseball. And that would be the least of his problems.
August 9, 1983 - Kansas City Royals general manager John Schuerholz said Tuesday the FBI recently informed the team several players will be interviewed in regard to a federal investigation of a cocaine case in Kansas....
[t]he names of [Vida] Blue, 34, first baseman Willie Aikens, 28, and injured outfielder Jerry Martin, 34, surfaced on documents related to a three-month investigation of Overland Park, Kan., businessman Mark Liebel and Johnson County attorney David Roselli. The investigation apparently stemmed from drug arrests made in Dodge City, Kan., earlier this year.
Willie Mays Aikens was born in Seneca, South Carolina. He was given his famous name by the doctor who delivered him, thrusting great expectations on the newborn baby. Willie attended South Carolina State University, a historically black college and in 1975, he was taken by the California Angels in the January Amateur Draft. He opened eyes his second professional season, when he led the league in homers with 30 for AA El Paso while slugging .554. He hit .336 the next season for AAA Salt Lake City, slugging .569, while spending some time in the big leagues for the Angels.
The Angels had light hitting Ron Jackson manning first base in 1977, so its a bit puzzling why they left Aikens in Salt Lake City all season. Aikens was a liability in the field, and the Angels had slugger Don Baylor at designated hitter. Still, it appeared as if they could use his bat in the lineup. Willie would hit .326 with a league leading 29 home runs and 110 RBI in AAA while the Angels finished five games out of first.
October 14, 1983 - Willie Wilson and Willie Aikens of the Kansas City Royals were accused by the United States Attorney's office today of attempted cocaine possession, a misdemeanor, and both immediately pleaded guilty.
Amanda Meers, an assistant United States attorney, said Wilson and Aikens had been heard, in telephone calls ''intercepted by the F.B.I.,'' trying to make a cocaine purchase. Specifically, she said that on June 18, Wilson ''made a call to a residence in Johnson County for the purpose of obtaining one-fourth ounce of cocaine.''
Aikens forced his way into the Angels lineup in 1979, thanks in part to injuries to Rod Carew. Aikens hit .280 with 21 home runs, leading all rookies. Carew would return to first base the following season, and with Baylor at DH, Aikens was expendable. He was an attractive trading chip, and that winter, the Royals landed him and infielder Rance Mulliniks for outfielder Al Cowens and infielder Todd Cruz.
The Royals were all too happy to have the slugger the Angels couldn't find a place for, using him to replace the light-hitting Pete LaCock. Aikens struggled initially, hitting just .200 in April. But by June he was on fire, slamming seven home runs that month. He would finish with 20 home runs and 98 RBI, second on the team in both categories only to George Brett.
November 17, 1983 - On Thursday, U.S. Magistrate J. Milton Sullivant sentenced Royals outfielder Willie Wilson, Royals first baseman Willie Aikens and former Royals outfielder Jerry Martin to one year in prison, with nine months of that suspended. The players will will remain on probation for an additional two years. Wilson and Aikens were fined $5,000 and Martin, $2,500.
Aikens performed well in the American League Championship Series, hitting .364, but he would shine in the World Series against Philadelphia. In Game One, he would slam two two-run home runs in a losing cause. In Game Three with the game on the line in the bottom of the tenth and a tied game, the Phillies would intentionally walk Brett to pitch to Aikens. Willie made the Phillies pay with a walk-off game winning single.
In Game Four, Aikens would hit a monster two-run home run into the water spectacular at Royals Stadium, then add another solo home run in the win. But in Game Five, it would be Aikens' glove that would fail him, as a Del Unser drive would take a funny hop past Aikens into right field to tie the game. The Phillies would go on to win that game and Game Six to become champions. Aikens finished the series 8-20 with four home runs, eight RBI and six walks. He is the only player in MLB history with two multi-home run games in one World Series.
December 16, 1983 - Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball, imposed one-year suspensions without pay yesterday on four players involved with the use of illegal drugs: Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens and Jerry Martin, all of whom played last season for the Kansas City Royals, and Steve Howe of the Los Angeles Dodgers....
Aikens returned in 1981 to give the Royals the power they needed. He went on a tear in May, hitting .326 with 22 RBI in 26 games. He homered in three straight games in Boston and by the end of May he was hitting over .300 with more walks than strikeouts. He ended the year hitting .266/.377/.458 in the strike-shortened season. Aikens finished seventh in the league in home runs with seventeen, almost twice as many as any other Royals player. Pitchers wanted to avoid Aikens as much as possible, issuing 62 walks to the slugger, fifth in the league, including a league-leading twelve intentional walks.
January 3, 1983 - Willie Aikens, the former Kansas City Royal first baseman who pleaded guilty to a drug charge, began serving a 90-day sentence yesterday at a U.S. federal prison where three of his former teammates are incarcerated.
Aikens... joined pitcher Vida Blue and outfielders Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin at a minimum-security prison in Fort Worth, Tex.
Aikens would continue to hit consistently in 1982, hitting .281/.345/.457 with 17 home runs and 74 RBI, although he would suffer much of the season with a hand injury.
In 1983, Manager Dick Howser began to sit Aikens against lefties early in the year in favor of John Wathan, angering the slugger.
"He's taking a stronger bat out of the lineup for a weaker one. He's no threat like me to hit the ball out of the park. How can you substitute my bat for somebody that hits five home runs in a year? That's stupid."
Howser may have had a point though as Aikens was a lifetime .219/.298/.343 hitter against lefties. However Howser could not keep Willie out of the lineup for too long. Willie would have perhaps his finest season in 1983, hitting .302 with 23 home runs and 72 RBI.
Highest OPS+, Royals History (min. 1000 plate appearances)
1. Danny Tartabull 1987-1991 - 144
2. George Brett 1973-1993 - 135
3. John Mayberry 1972-1977 - 132
4. Willie Aikens 1980-1983 - 129
5. Hal McRae 1973-1987 - 124
Despite the power, the Royals were growing weary of Aikens poor fielding and "swing for the fences" hitting philosophy. He was a year away from free agency, so the Royals began to quietly shop him, with the anticipation that George Brett might move to first base.
March 26, 1994 - Former Royals baseball player Willie Mays Aikens was indicted Friday in federal court on five counts of selling crack and using a gun in a drug deal. The gun count carries a five-year mandatory sentence, which would be served on top of any term received for drug convictions.
Late in 1983, Aikens surfaced in a drug probe by federal investigators. Aikens and three other Royals - Willie Wilson, Jerry Martin and Vida Blue all pleaded guilty to federal drug charges. All four were suspended for one season without pay by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
''It is stern. But something had to be done. The commissioner, I'm certain, feels justified.''
-Royals Manager Dick Howser
Even though his playing status was up in the air, the Royals managed to deal the slugger to the power hungry Blue Jays in exchange for intfielder Jorge Orta. An arbitrator later reduced the sentence and allowed the four to play beginning May 15. Aikens floundered in Toronto in 1984, and in 1985 he played in just twelve games. He also testified in the Pittsburgh Drug Trials that rocked baseball. In 1986, after just four games in the minor leagues, Willie's career was over.
September 18, 1994 - Former Royals home-run hitter Willie Mays Aikens was convicted by a federal jury Wednesday on four counts of distributing crack cocaine and one count of using a gun in a drug transaction. Aikens , 39, could face at least 15 years in prison. He is in custody and will be sentenced later in U.S. District Court in Kansas City.
Willie continued to use cocaine after his playing days, running into trouble with the law again in 1994. He was sentenced to twenty years of prison for distributing 64 grams of crack cocaine. Had he been distributing powder cocaine, he would have had to distribute 16 pounds to receive a similar sentence. His case became an oft-used example of the absurd inequity in the federal drug mandatory sentencing laws that treated crack cocaine (used more heavily by poor, black users) much harsher than powder cocaine (used more heavily by rich, white users).
In 2008, the U.S. Sentencing Commission revised their guidelines and applied them retroactively to federal inmates. A federal judge released Aikens in June.
Aikens now resides in Kansas City, working in construction, trying to piece his life back together. He wrote this letter to fans.
I had a wonderful time playing baseball in Kansas City and I truly apologize to all my fans for the behavior I endured during my drinking and drugging days back in the 1990s.
My main objective now is to truly be a role model for the people of Kansas City and around the world by speaking out against drugs and alcohol and by giving my testimony around the country how God truly saved my life. Believe it or not, but by going to prison God allowed me the time to look at myself and to make changes that are necessary to live a Godly life....
I give all Praise and Honor to my Heavenly Father. Once again I thank all my fans and the people of Kansas City for their support. May God add a blessing to your lives.