August 23, 2017

Willie Mays Aikens is Finally “Safe at Home”

December 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

safe at homeIt was October 18, 1980 and Kansas City’s slugging first baseman, Willie Mays Aikens, had just made history when he blasted his second homer of Game 4 of the World Series, becoming the first player to enjoy multiple two-homer games in the same Fall Classic.  Although the Royals lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in six games, Aikens had cemented himself in World Series lore, and at only 26 years old, had a bright future ahead of him.

But only hours after his second blast, Aikens was getting high on cocaine, something he’d been doing throughout the season.  “Cocaine, from that night forward, would be inseparable from a sense of happiness,” writes Gregory Jordan, author of Safe at Home.

Safe at Home is a sobering tale of a man who worked his way from poverty to the major leagues after the California Angels drafted him with the second pick of the 1975 amateur draft.  After a brilliant minor league career and a very good rookie year with the Angels in 1979, Aikens was traded to the Royals and became their starting first baseman.  In his first season in royal blue, only George Brett hit more homers and drove in more runs than Aikens.  He wanted to be the next Reggie Jackson.  His manager, Jim Frey, told him he could be as good as Willie McCovey.

By 1981 Aikens had developed a system for getting high and coming back down—two or three lines of coke followed by vodka.  As time went on his addiction grew.  But he continued to produce at the plate and enjoyed a career year in 1983, hitting a career-high 23 home runs and slugging .539.  It was all downhill from there.  Aikens was arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine and spent three months in prison after pleading guilty.  While he was in prison, he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays with whom he finished his major league career only two years later, a shell of his former self.

Despite his prison sentence, Aikens’ drug addiction and life spiraled out of control and he was arrested again in 1994 for crack cocaine distribution and use of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense after he sold crack to an undercover officer on a handful of occasions.  He was indicted and sentenced to 20 years and eight months in prison and served 14 years behind bars before being released in 2008.  The sentence was particularly harsh because at the time crack users were considered more violent than powdered coke users.

Congress eventually deemed the guidelines cruel and unusual and made them retroactive, allowing Aikens to be released early.

Jordan does an excellent job taking the reader into Aikens’ life and mind, and there was rarely a moment when I wasn’t aware of what Aikens was thinking or how he felt at every step along the way.  Jordan never spends too much time in any one place or time, instead effortlessly bouncing between moments with short passages that never allow the story to grow stale or boring.  Aikens goes from the shack to the ball field to the classroom as a youngster, then from the diamond to coke parties to his condo where he continued to get high as an adult.  It sounds frenetic, but the text is organized and the story never gets confusing or disjointed.

Aikens comes across as affable and likeable, especially early on when he struggles to overcome a stutter and work his way into the hearts of teammates who good-naturedly tease him, including George Brett, who instantly befriends the slugger.  In fact it’s that sociability that contributed to his downfall, as most of his early exposure to cocaine came from Mark Liebl, a Royals fan who supplied coke, alcohol and a comfortable home to Aikens and other Royals, including Willie Wilson, Vida Blue and Jerry Martin.

Aikens was looking for a place to chill and have fun; Liebl loved that his house was party central for the Royals and he could count them among his friends.  Except to complain about the length of his sentence, and rightly so (he insists the gun charge was bogus and prosecutors were looking to make an example of him), Aikens never portrays himself or comes across as a victim.  He owns up to his addiction and actions, and will probably spend the rest of his life making reparations to those he hurt.

Aikens didn’t have the baseball career he hoped he would, but he came out the other side alive and a better man, and his story, though sad and grimy during his addiction, is inspirational and worth reading about.

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