It might be baseball’s greatest comeback story.
At least that’s what I came away thinking after finishing “Safe At Home,” Gregory Jordan’s riveting biography of former Kansas City Royal and Toronto Blue Jay Willie Mays Aikens.
This 264-page book offers a no-holds-barred account of Aikens’ spiral into drug addiction that reduced the one-time World Series hero into a seemingly hopeless junkie who would spend 14 years in prison.
It’s a credit to the author’s writing skills and the trust he developed with Aikens that this book is both inspiring and gut-wrenching, disturbing and heartbreaking. Jordan spares few details in sharing Aikens’ self-destruction and ultimate road to redemption that included finding religion and rejoining the Royals as a minor league coach.
It’s clear – and Aikens admits as much – that some of his problems were self-inflicted, but in the end, you can’t help but cheer for the former slugger who has experienced more torment, tragedy and injustice in his 59 years than anyone should have to endure.
The book recounts how Aikens grew up in poverty in Seneca, S.C. He never met his father and his mother is described as a “harlot,” so he was raised by his grandmother. On top of his family’s lack of wealth, Aikens was teased by kids about his size – he was pushing 200 pounds at age 11 – and about his stuttering problem.
Fortunately, he found an outlet for his frustrations on the ball field and by the time he was 13, he was hitting the ball farther than anyone else his age in his area. Though baseball was his passion, the big, burly left-handed hitter was also an excellent defensive lineman and colleges were more interested in his skills on the gridiron. He eventually accepted a football scholarship to South Carolina State, but he ended up suiting up for both the football and baseball teams.
In 1975, the California Angels would make him their first round pick in the amateur draft and Jordan describes how Aikens reported to the Angels camp at 252 pounds – about 30 pounds heavier than they wanted him.
Aikens saw his first action with the Angels in 1977, but he wasn’t a full-time big leaguer until 1979, when he clubbed 21 homers and drove in 81 runs in 116 games. Following that season, he was dealt to Kansas City, where his career – and the direction of life – would be defined.
In 1980, he starred on the Royals’ American League pennant-winning club alongside George Brett and Hal McRae – two men who became lifelong friends and supporters – and bashed 20 home runs. He also became the first major leaguer to homer twice in two different games in the World Series.
Sadly, that was also the year that Aikens began regularly using cocaine and Jordan reveals that the Royals slugger was high for every game of the World Series, which the Royals lost to the Phillies in six games.
Where the author truly excels in this book, however, is in the level of detail he’s able to divulge. For example, Jordan reveals that by 1981, cocaine had become such an important part of Aikens’ routine that he had developed a system for getting high and then coming back down.
“He got high with a new, methodical regularity,” writes Jordan. “He started to realize that he could calibrate his highness to carry over to the next day’s game. Three lines, sometimes only two. Then a vodka chaser. Then sleep – with the vodka bottle by his bed for a swig or two in case the alcohol didn’t take the edge off the coke.”
Despite his growing reliance on the drug, the 6-foot-3 first baseman remained productive. In 1983, Aikens set career-bests in batting average (.302) and home runs (23), before he – along with teammates Vida Blue, Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin – were charged with attempting to purchase cocaine late in the season. They were eventually sentenced to three months in jail and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn initially suspended them for one year, before reinstating them just over a month into the 1984 season.
On December 20, 1983, Aikens was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. In Toronto, Aikens would meet Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick, a man who became a father figure to him throughout his struggles. Unfortunately, Aikens was never able to find his batting stroke in Toronto. He hit just .205 in 93 games in 1984, before a tearful Gillick released him one month into the following season.
In 1986, Aikens hooked on with the Puebla Angeles of the Mexican League, where he enjoyed a monster season, hitting .454 and walloping 46 homers. Unfortunately, he also began using cocaine again. In all, he played parts of six seasons in Mexico, but it was after returning to Kansas City that his drug use would reach a crisis point.
In an another particularly memorable and detailed passage, Jordan is able to illustrate the depth of Aikens’ addiction. In the summer of 1993, when Aikens and a drug pal named Charles were being pulled over for speeding, Aikens hurled a crack rock out of the car window. The police searched the vehicle and found a crack pipe and Aikens was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine.
“His [Aikens’] mind was already planning how they would come back to get the rock in the weeds,” writes Jordan. “It was the first thing they did after Willie posted bond and got released. Charles drove there at more than 100 mph, Willie found the rock quickly . . . “
By this point, it seemed inevitable that Aikens’ drug problem would get him in further trouble with the law, and in 1994, he was set up by an undercover FBI agent, who purchased crack cocaine from him on multiple occasions. Aikens was sentenced to 20 years and eight months in prison on four counts of crack cocaine distribution and one count of use of a firearm during trafficking. The reason the sentence was so long was because at the time the law deemed crack users to be more violent than powdered cocaine users.
Jordan vividly recounts Aikens’ physical and mental battles in prison. Fortunately, Aikens found kinship with positive influences on the outside, while his former agent Ron Shapiro and a team of supporters were working to get his sentence reduced.
Finally on June 4, 2008, after being locked up for 14 years, Aikens was released when congress approved new guidelines for crack cocaine sentences that were put into effect retroactively.
After Aikens was freed, Jordan provides us with insight into how the one-time World Series hero has tried to become a better husband and father. Professionally, Aikens summoned the courage to call Brett and at the urging of Brett, McRae and Gillick, the Royals agreed to hire Aikens as a minor league coach in February 2011, a role he continues in today.
Jordan’s “Safe At Home” is a powerful page-turner that tells a story that’s more troubling, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring than anything a Hollywood script writer could concoct. And to his credit and the reader’s benefit, the author presents an uncensored look at Aikens. The former slugger is still a flawed man who’s trying to be better at life. At times, it’s a tough story to read, but Aikens seems solidly on a path to redemption. All of this makes me think that, perhaps, he has pulled off what might be baseball’s greatest comeback story ever.
You can purchase a copy of Willie Mays Aikens: Safe At Home here.