Back in the game

By Dick Kaegel
Updated: February 1, 2011

KANSAS CITY — Willie Aikens, who went from World Series hero to a penitentiary inmate, had the upside of his life get another lift on Tuesday.

Aikens, 56, was hired by the Royals to be a Minor League coach, it was announced by general manager Dayton Moore.

“I want to thank the Glass family for giving me the opportunity. I really appreciate what Dayton and [player development director] J.J.

Picollo are doing for me,” Aikens said.

It’s a return to the team of his glory days for Aikens, who in the 1980 World Series twice hit two home runs in a single game for the Royals against Philadelphia, a first-time feat that earned the big first baseman the cover of The Sporting News.

Aikens hit .400 with eight RBIs in the Series, won by the Phillies in six games.

“Most of my career basically is built on that World Series,” Aikens said. “Because, when people think about me or talk about me today, that’s what they talk about — as far as baseball is concerned.”

But there is a downside to the Aikens story.

Aikens’ career took a turn for the worse in 1983 when he and three Royals teammates pleaded guilty to attempting to purchase cocaine. He was suspended by baseball, sentenced to prison time and the Royals subsequently traded him to Toronto and his Major League career was over by 1985.

In 1994, Kansas City police arrested Aikens on charges of cocaine distribution. He was convicted and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison without parole. But, in 2008, he was released after serving 14 years because of changes in federal drug guidelines.

He’s been working to turn his life around ever since.

“Everybody knows Willie’s story and it’s one that is life-changing and we’ve admired the way he’s handled himself in the last 2 1/2 years around the team and around the organization,” Moore said. “He has a passion to help young players and we’re excited to have him a part of the organization.”

Aikens, who returned to Kansas City after his release from the penitentiary, has made numerous public appearances at Royals events and has been active in alumni activities.

It was at a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame ceremony at Springfield, Mo., last summer that Aikens had a conversation with club president Dan Glass.

“Dan was very impressed with him and felt like he’d be a contributor to the organization,” Moore said. “And, as we spent more time with Willie, it became very clear that he has a passion to help young people and use baseball as a platform to do that.”

Aikens, who will specialize in hitting, will start work when the Minor League camp opens in Surprise, Ariz., in early March.

“He’ll primarily work with our lower levels but he’s not going to be isolated to just one place,” Moore said. “We want his influence to be felt in a number of places and he’ll work under the direction of Jack Maloof, our Minor League hitting coordinator.”

Aikens spent a week at the Royals’ Arizona complex last year as a guest instructor and is studying the team’s philosophy on hitting.

He hasn’t had much experience in coaching but, as he put it: “If you know how to hit, you know how to hit.”

An anti-drug message will go along with Aikens’ work with hitters. Last week, he spoke to about 20 of the Royals’ top prospects who were at Kauffman Stadium for a series of instructional meetings.

Aikens gives testimony with a punch to the young players.

“I grew up with a stepfather and a mom that were alcoholics and were in and out of the county jails and stuff. And I saw that at a young age and that still didn’t stop me when I became an adult, as far as experimenting or trying cocaine or whatever,” Aikens said.

He tells them about how, in his Minor League days, he had been partying and was arrested drag-racing and put in jail, but the team owner intervened and got him off.

“My point is that a lot of times as professional baseball players, we think we’re capable of doing anything and we won’t ever have to pay the punishment for that. And we take a lot of things for granted.”

Aikens tries to correct that thinking and, to illustrate, he can tell them about the time he and other Royals were suspended and actually spent 81 days in prison while still active players.

“I tell them I might have been the first player in over 100 years of Major League Baseball to have multiple home runs in the World Series, but I also explain to the kids that I was one of the first active Major League players to be convicted of a drug crime and go to prison.”

Born Willie Mays Aikens in Seneca, S.C., he went to South Carolina State University and was picked by the California Angels in the first round of the January 1975 Draft.

After a big season — 21 homers, 81 RBIs, .280 — for the Angels in 1979, he was traded to the Royals in a deal that sent Al Cowens to California. His first KC season, 1980, was his best as he posted a .278 average with 20 homers and 98 RBIs.

In the 1980 World Series opener, Aikens hit two home runs off Phillies starter Bob Walk and drove in four runs, but the Royals lost, 7-6. In the fourth game, a 5-3 Royals win, Aikens again hit two homers, one off Larry Christenson and another off Dickie Noles.

That made Aikens the first player in history to have two multi-homer games in the same World Series. The Series also was memorable for Aikens because he hit the first triple of his career and had the game-winning single in the 10th inning of Game 3.

But, with the 1983 drug scandal and his trade to Toronto, Aikens’ baseball career was headed for an early end. Then came more trouble and the 20-year prison sentence.

After his release, Aikens returned to Kansas City and worked a couple of years in construction, a job arranged by former teammate Hal McRae.

He’s taken his anti-drug message to schools and organizations.

Recently, he got a book deal and a co-author to help tell his story.

Now he’s back in baseball.

“He’s very transparent about his personal life and some of the choices that he made,” Moore said. “But the exciting thing is the choices that he’s making today and the change that’s occurred in his life. His current life choices give us a lot of comfort that he’s going to be a tremendous asset to our young Minor League players.”