Here's wishing good on Willie Aikens' second try in baseball
Willie Aikens is a friend. That’s probably worth mentioning here. We met at a halfway house in downtown Kansas City three summers ago for a story where he told me he still had dreams about cocaine.
Real dreams, he said, vivid dreams where he could feel the pipe and see the smoke. A friend introduced him to coke. Willie played major league baseball from 1977 to 1985 and you might be surprised how many professional athletes from that time at least tried cocaine.
Willie is open about his mistakes now. He doesn’t use any tired excuses, doesn’t blame anyone else, even if he has reason to. He’ll tell you he chose to use cocaine because he liked how it made him feel back then. Now, he looks back and sees that drugs changed him. Made him more aggressive, angrier, and while he’s adamant he never used at the ballpark or played high, he says the drugs led to some problems he had with teammates or coaches.
More importantly, drugs drove him from his family. Eventually, drugs drove him to prison.
Willie deserved to go to jail. He’ll tell you this now. What he usually won’t mention — unless you bring it up — is that he served about 14 years for a crime that probably should’ve carried a five or six-year sentence. The details are complicated, but it involves unfair and superficial sentencing guidelines that the government has since apologized for.
Willie never blamed anyone. He even said he wasn’t ready for freedom after five or six years, that he needed longer to accept what he’d done and be honestly ready to move on. The two things he’s most proud of in his life are making it from a terribly poor background in South Carolina to the major leagues and deciding in prison to become a Christian.
We have a tendency to be skeptical about that, of course, about inmates finding religion as some sort of cover to be accepted by society and you’re obviously free to believe whatever you want.
But there’s a long line of friends and former teammates — including George Brett and Frank White — who believe in Willie.
Here’s something else: you remember those dreams? The ones about cocaine? Willie started having different kinds of dreams. Now, even in his dreams, Willie says no to the drugs.
He says he doesn’t want to believe that he’s kicked the drugs. He wants to always feel like he’s in recovery. But he thinks those other dreams are a sign that he can do this.
You probably heard by now that the Royals hired Willie as a minor league coach. GM Dayton Moore insists this is not a charity hire, that the Royals are only interested in Willie because they think he can help their players get better.
Maybe you’re like me and you think this is a terrific thing, a man who paid for his mistakes and is working hard to make good on another chance. Or maybe you’re the more skeptical sort, and think a recovering drug addict shouldn’t be around young ballplayers.
Willie has a new life now. He recently married, and the couple has a baby daughter. Nobody can be sure how this will turn out. Not the Royals, not even Willie himself. But you should know that he’s trying hard to make this work.