From big time to big house
His appeals gone, ex-Royals slugger Willie Aikens bides his time in prison
Posted: Friday December 19, 2003 5:24PM; Updated: Friday December 19, 2003 5:24PM
If it seems to Willie Aikens that he's getting a raw deal, maybe he is. Nobody's pretending the former Kansas City Royals slugger is a saint, but it's also hard to view him as a hardened criminal -- even if he is nine years into a 20-year federal prison sentence.
Willie Aikens is simply another athlete, an old baseball guy, who ended up addicted to cocaine, bought into the drug culture and lived a seedy, pathetic life until the law nabbed him. Welcome to the fraternity, right?
Just look at all the rehabilitated, multi-chance characters who've shown up on TV recently: Darryl Strawberry cheering courtside for his son at a Maryland basketball game; Dwight "Doc" Gooden courting the newest Yankee, nephew Gary Sheffield; Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor detailing his drug-induced, train wreck of a life in prime time.
Aikens probably isn't guilty of much more than these old jocks or a whole lot of others. But when I caught up with the 49-year-old South Carolina native this week, he was attired in prison-issued khaki, courtesy of the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.
Before me stood the good-natured, powerful first baseman I'd gotten to know while covering the Royals in the early 1980s. His head was now shaved and a closely trimmed beard had gone snow white. His longtime stutter was barely noticeable. Aikens looked remarkably fit and trim, a description he never heard in his playing days.
Getting busted and sent to prison has been good for him, he reasons. Probably saved his life. And that's nice because the penitentiary is his home until at least 2012.
Aikens only learned a week ago that his request for a pardon, filed four years back in the waning days of the Clinton administration, had been denied by President Bush. He doubts his paperwork ever reached the desk of the president, an old baseball guy himself. And he wonders whether Commissioner Bud Selig, as promised, ever put in a word for him.
Others wrote on his behalf, though, like Dusty Baker, Hal McRae, Jim Fregosi and Bobby Richardson. His baseball agent, Ron Shapiro, led the campaign. His two teenage daughters who live in Mexico, Gretchen Nicole Aikens and Lucia Aikens, also pleaded for clemency.
"I don't really have a plan now," he says, resignation in his voice. "I've lost all my appeals and my [clemency] petition was denied by the president."
Aikens, however, blames no one but himself. He alone screwed up. He was the one addicted to cocaine -- a habit he picked up while playing for the California Angels, then continued after joining the Royals in 1980 -- blowing at least $300,000 on the habit and eventually being moved to sell crack cocaine to a female Kansas City undercover cop on four separate occasions in 1994.
From 1991 to 1994, by his own admission, Aikens was a mess, doing coke day and night. His baseball career long over, he was a recluse in his own house, his weight well over 300 pounds. "The only contact I had was with people that sat there in my house and got high with me," he says.
So when the undercover lady came looking for drugs, Aikens made sure to take her around and find some. When she wanted it cooked, he handled that, too. "I was basically trying to get into her pants," says Aikens, whom his ex-teammates describe as being "crazy about the ladies." "She wasn't all that good-looking, but at that time all the girls were looking good for me."
The investigation began, he says now, after a jilted lady friend he'd been doing drugs with called to tip off the cops. The loaded 12-gauge shotgun that police found in his house? He'd bought it from a drug dealer two days earlier after a death threat from the friend of another woman he'd been doing drugs with.
Aikens ending up selling about 2.2 ounces to the undercover cop. But because of the tougher federal guidelines for crack, he was sentenced as if he had sold 15 pounds of powder cocaine. Plus, he got five years for using a firearm during commission of a crime.
Of course, it was not his first offense. You may recall Aikens and Royals teammates Jerry Martin, Vida Blue and Willie Wilson pleading guilty to misdemeanor drug charges in 1983 and becoming the first active ballplayers to serve jail time (81 days at a minimum-security prison in Fort Worth).
Now he is clean and sober, but sadly far removed from the game. He's written to a handful of former Kansas City teammates, but only McRae has taken time to respond. He's still waiting for a response to the letter he sent to John Schuerholz, the former Royals GM and now the baseball boss in Atlanta. It's the same with Braves manager Bobby Cox, his former manager with the Toronto Blue Jays.
"It is like I have become an outcast," says Aikens, who made baseball history with a pair of two-homer games in the 1980 World Series. "It is like I never really existed. I don't know what those guys are thinking, other than that they basically don't want to get involved. I know when I was out there on the streets, I didn't see the prisoners or the prison population. I didn't care anything about people behind these walls.
"I do find it kind of hard to believe that I can't get any help, that I can't get anybody to back me. Or can't get nobody to help get some of this time off me."
So why not reach out to the ex-Royal in perhaps the best position to help, someone who may be feeling more compassionate these days after dealing with the trials and tribulations of addiction himself? That's talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, a familiar figure around Royals stadium in the 1980s when he was the team's director of group ticket sales.
"I read his case in the newspaper and the Enquirer," Aikens says of Limbaugh, who recently returned from five weeks in a drug rehabilitation program for treament of his addiction to prescription painkillers. Limbaugh has been linked to a criminal investigation into a prescription drug ring in Florida, but no charges have been filed.
"They seem to be more lenient towards a person involved with prescription drugs, even though they are legal but they go about getting it illegally," says Aikens. "He is a person who has lot of money, too."
Aikens had a nice chunk of cash at one time, too, but it's gone now. And unless the drug sentencing guidelines are changed or he finally catches a break from the White House, he'll be looking out from the inside a good while longer.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.