Willie Aikens, 1984 O-Pee-Chee, #137
The Willie Mays Aikens trade could never happen today. In fact, thirty years later it still seems kind of crazy it happened at all.
The Toronto Blue Jays, a young team on the rise after the 1983 season, traded a declining veteran DH/utility outfielder in Jorge Orta, for a power hitting outfielder in his prime years coming off a career best season – who was about to begin a three-month prison sentence for intent to purchase cocaine and had been suspended for the entire 1984 season.
I can’t even imagine what the current 24 hour sports media and social media world would do with a trade like this. A trade based on an assumption (hope?) of Bowie Kuhn’s mercy in the face of one of the biggest scandals in his career and just as he was preparing to step down as commissioner. The moral outrage over a team giving up assets for a player who would be in prison when spring training opens would likely put most of the PED scandals to shame.
Cocaine abuse was running rampant in the sport and the Royals were under surveillance by the FBI. Aikens and three other Royals players pleaded guilty to cocaine related charges stemming from a federal drug probe and became the first active players to serve jail time in MLB history. The cocaine scandal in Kansas City was one of several incidents that led to the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985.
While Kuhn initially suspended Aikens for the entire 1984 season, he left the door open for reinstatement saying he would review the suspensions in May of that year. Be it insider information or a trusty hunch, Pat Gillick and the Blue Jays front office felt confident enough that the suspension would be reduced that they made the deal.
Sadly, that was about all that would go in Aikens favour for a very long time. After a disappointing 93 games with the Blue Jays in 1984, the team cut him one month into the 1985 season and re-signed him to a minor league deal. He would never make the major leagues again.
After testifying in the Pittsburgh drug trials, Aikens tried to land a major league deal but his only option for playing ball was in Mexico, pretty much the worst place a cocaine addict could end up.
“Mexico was the lone landing spot, the only circuit that would have him. So he played there for five years, during which he smoked crack nearly every day, slept with prostitutes, contracted hepatitis and fathered two girls.” – Amy K. Nelson, SB Nation.
After his playing career ended in the early 1990’s, Aikens returned to Kansas City and fell deeper into drugs. The Kansas City Police Department began an extensive investigation into Aikens, including using an undercover officer to set up drug buys from him. The police set up several buys until the total amount triggered stiff mandatory minimum sentences.
The stigma and public outcry over crack had reached a boiling point in America at the time, partially driven by the death of Len Bias, and drug laws would be drafted that treated those convicted of crimes related to crack far harsher than other drugs, even powdered cocaine. While these laws would eventually be overturned, Willie Mays Aikens paid the price. For selling 2.2 ounces of crack cocaine (and the fact he had a loaded shotgun in his home during some of these deals) he was given more than 20 years in prison, equivalent to the punishment for dealing around 15 pounds of powdered cocaine. This was after rejecting a plea bargain that would have been only between five and ten years.
When the laws were overturned and applied retroactively, Aikens was released after serving 14 years in prison. Since then he has put his life back together and is a part of the Kansas City Royals organization.
I can’t begin to do the story of Willie Mays Aikens justice. It is a movie waiting to happen. But I recommend two excellent pieces which do a remarkable job at capturing the man’s career, struggles and redemption.
Amy K. Nelson’s “’Every Game, I Used Drugs’: The Story Of Willie Mays Aikens” at SB Nation
Elizabeth Merrill’s “Gaps in the Road” at ESPN’s Outside the Lines