Monday, May 28, 2012

Willie Mays Aikens: Safe At Home by Gregory Jordan

I tore through the book Willie Mays Aikens: Safe At Home in just a few days, which made an already intense story that much more so for me. I felt like I'd lived through Aikens's first 56 years of life compressed into three days, and it left me exhausted and emotional at the end. Author Gregory Jordan does an expert job putting the reader inside Aikens's shoes and thoughts from an impoverished childhood, to his days in college and the minor leagues, to the majors and his introduction to cocaine, his incredible 1980 World Series performance, continued drug addiction during his years in the Mexico League, to his depraved life in Kansas City after his playing days, his controversial 20+ year prison sentence, and most powerful of all, Willie putting his life back together after his release in 2008.

The book raises a host of issues, such as the placement of non-violent criminals like Aikens in the same facilities as the most dangerous inmates, the complicated matter of how drug users can best be helped (punishment vs. rehab), the bizarrely harsh punishments given to crack offenses relative to cocaine, the reintroduction into society after a long prison term, and putting broken family relationships back together. Aikens's longing to establish relationships with his two daughters fathered before incarceration is touching, and his conduct after his release from prison is inspiring.

I doubt you need to be a baseball fan to enjoy this book, but as a Royals fan, I enjoyed the peek into the great Royals teams of the early '80s and gained a new appreciation for the human side of George Brett and Hal McRae, both of whom helped Aikens adjust to post-prison life. The same goes for present Royals GM Dayton Moore. I saw Aikens speak at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum recently and he said Moore would often send an aide down to invite Aikens up to his suite during home games and they got to know each other. Moore eventually offered Aikens his current job as a minor league hitting instructor. Aikens tells his cautionary tale to the minor leaguers. The book made this Royals fan glad that Aikens is working with future Royals.

The story is so gripping, and I became so attached to the people involved, that I hated for it to end. It's like the end of a great movie where you want to find out what happens to the characters next. Here's hoping it's nothing but good things for Willie and his family.

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