KANSAS CITY (CHRISTIAN EXAMINER) — Willie Mays Aikens didn't attend the parade on Tuesday afternoon in Kansas City for the world champion Kansas City Royals. The former Kansas City first baseman and current hitting instructor spends as much time at home these days as possible, caring for his wife, Sara, and their young daughter.
Sara had a stroke nearly five years ago and is paralyzed on her right side. Aikens, 61, is happy to be there for her now, especially since that wasn't always the case.
"I made a commitment to stick with her through the good and the bad, and she stuck behind me those 14 years when I was incarcerated," Aikens told the Christian Examiner in a phone interview.
His rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace is a public one — the left-handed slugger went from mashing four home runs and hitting .400 in the 1980 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies to spending 14 years in prison on a drug charge.
He now says getting caught saved his life. It also brought him back to the faith of his youth. Aikens grew up in poverty in South Carolina, in the most difficult of circumstances, but God was at work even then.
"My stepfather was an alcoholic, and my mother was a street lady," Aikens said. "We lived in a little community called Bruce Hill and there was a family in that community — the Lewis family — and I used to watch them. They used to get up and go to church every Sunday.
"I saw something in their family that I didn't see in a lot of families in that community, so one day when I was twelve or thirteen I just went to their house and asked them if I could start going to church with them."
He began attending Richland Baptist Church with them and was drawn to the Gospel message.
"I accepted Jesus Christ, and I got baptized — the whole deal, and I became a member of that church," he said. "But somewhere along the line, after I left for college, church wasn't part of my lifestyle. I was into sports and other stuff, more than having a spiritual life."
By the time the California Angels drafted him in the first round of the 1975 amateur draft, Aikens was far from the Lord. But the chapel services that were available to the players on Sundays reminded him of what he had been missing, so he became a faithful attender — a practice that continued once he was traded to Kansas City in 1979.
Those chapel services prompted him to begin carrying a Bible with him everywhere he went, and he read it often. Meanwhile, his cocaine habit a strong hold on him — so much so that he admits to snorting cocaine after playing games in the 1980 World Series. Never in the clubhouse, though, he says.
After his playing days, his poor choices caught up with him and he was sentenced to more than twenty years in prison. It gave him plenty of time to reflect.
"A lot of times, when we have a tragedy that happens in our lives, the first thing we do is call on the name of the Lord," Aikens said. "And when I received a sentence of twenty years and eight months, that was a tragedy for me. I didn't know what other choice to make, so I rededicated my life to Jesus Christ."
Initially, he says he did so, hoping God would reduce his sentence. But as the years rolled by, and as he grew closer to the Lord, his mindset and life began to change.
As God would have it, Aikens was released four years early, in 2008, when sentencing guidelines were relaxed. Three years later, through the efforts of former teammate George Brett, Aikens landed his current job with the Royals as a hitting instructor in Surprise, Arizona where he works with players at various levels in the system and speaks to them about making good choices off the field.
These days he says he continues to do the things he did while he was incarcerated — reading his Bible, going to church, and speaking to others about Christ. And he speaks highly about Royals general manager Dayton Moore for giving him a chance.
"He's very humble," Aikens said. "He had an open mind with me. His mindset was, 'Here's a person who went through a lot of problems off the baseball field — he could be a mentor to our young players.'
"The Royals gave me a chance. And you know, after that it's up to me."
In 2012, Triumph Books released a book about Aikens' journey called "Safe at Home" by Gregory Jordan.