Willie Mays Aikens has his story told in ‘The Royal’

COOPERSTOWN, NY — The greatest player in Kansas City Royals history slammed his palm on a conference table at the Baseball Hall of Fame last Friday. George Brett pretended to be an FBI agent showing off his badge.

Just like that, you weren’t in Cooperstown. New York, more. You were somewhere with the Royals in the early 1980s and you could be in serious trouble.

“He’s bringing my name, he’s bringing Jamie Quirk’s name – and he’s bringing your name,” Brett said, pointing to his former teammate, Willie Mays Aikens, across the table.

“And he brings up the name Vida Blue, and the name Jerry Martin, and the name Willie Wilson. And he said, ‘You know, we had a meeting earlier to call bookmakers and betting games. Let’s just say George and Jamie call a guy we’ve been bugged on…’”

Brett was shaken and quickly understood: he stopped betting on football games. But the FBI didn’t care much about him and Quirk. Investigators were trying to signal to others that they were using cocaine.

“If we had stopped on the spot, we never would have had a drug case,” Aikens said. “They tried to warn us, man.”

“And you kept doing it,” Brett said.

“And we kept doing it,” Aikens replied.

Aikens continued to do so for a decade. Like Blue, Martin and Wilson, he served a short prison sentence after the 1983 season, but that wasn’t the worst. That’s not why Samuel Goldwyn Films turned Aikens’ life story into a movie, “The Royal,” slated for release on July 15. It will be available for streaming and in limited theaters, and it had a premiere last Friday at the Hall of Notoriety.

For Aikens, 67, it was his first trip to Cooperstown, where Brett is enshrined for a career that ended with 3,154 visits in 1993. Aikens was by then deep in his cocaine addiction, which came on consume during a six-year career in Mexico after eight seasons in the majors as a first baseman with the California Angels, Royals and Toronto Blue Jays until 1985.

In 1994, he was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for selling 2.2 ounces of crack cocaine four times to an undercover policewoman. Aikens said he was interested in the woman and complied when she asked him to cook the cocaine into crack.

The decision made Aikens – the first player with two multihomed games in the same World Series, in 1980, when the Royals lost to Philadelphia – a public face of the stark disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine offenders. in powder. A 1986 federal law punished people much more severely for crack cocaine; it took until 2010 for Congress to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1.

Aikens was incarcerated for 14 years and is now out of prison for as long as he was there. “The Royal” is mostly about his transition into society – reconciling with his wife and family, becoming a father again, working on a road crew digging manholes and, with Brett’s help, getting a job as a minor league coach for the Royals.

“How many people in this world go through life on earth and get a movie?” said Aikens, who now serves as a special assistant to the Royals as part of their leadership development team. “Not many people. I hope the film helps save lives.

Actor Amin Joseph, who plays a crack dealer in the FX series “Snowfall”, portrays Aikens. Joseph, 42, grew up in Harlem and said he remembers crack bottles strewn across playgrounds. He was drawn to playing a different type of character impacted by drugs.

“There are real people in our communities dealing with this and still healing, and as Willie often says, not all of them were major league baseball players with the luxury of having friends in powerful places to give them a second chance,” Joseph said. “A lot of these people are lost, forgotten, the underbelly of what we think of as society, the people we judge.”

Aikens’ background gave him a path back to baseball, but it wasn’t always easy. He first had to confront his past and show that he could share his experiences.

Aikens was something of an unlikely public speaker, having dealt with a stutter for much of his life. Brett had initially encouraged him to tell his story to Brett’s son’s high school athletes, a scene vaguely depicted in the film. It became a revelation.

“When I picked him up from the halfway house and heard him speak, I had tears in my eyes. I really did,” Brett said. “I was so proud of him. “

Aikens – who testified before Congress in 2009, calling for sentencing reform for drug offenders – has told his story many times since, to Royals prospects and the team’s Urban Youth Academy students. The message remained too relevant in baseball; While cocaine was a scourge of the 1980s, the death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs in 2019 exposed the toll the opioid epidemic was taking on sports.

Four Angels teammates revealed in court this year that they, like Skaggs, received oxycodone pills from Eric Kay, a former Angels communications director who was convicted on two counts for his role in the death of Skaggs. Prosecutors argued that Skaggs died from a pill or pills he received from Kay that were disguised to look like oxycodone but were actually fentanyl, a much stronger opioid.

“This drug they have right now, it’s mixed with oxycodone and drugs like that, and it’s an indiscriminate killer,” Aikens said, referring to fentanyl. “When I was using drugs, you could sit there for hours or days and just snort or smoke cocaine. But with this drug now, fentanyl, you can take this one pill and it can just take it. knock out. It doesn’t even give you a chance.

Almost despite himself, Aikens survived to get another chance. Now he’s taken his story to a theater in Cooperstown – and, soon, far beyond.

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