Dear 24-year-old Willie,
Get out of there. As fast as you can.
Turn back around and walk out of the hotel room.
I know it’s more cocaine than you’ve ever seen in your entire life. And I get that it is 1979 after all, and pretty much everyone seems to be snortin’ coke … and you’re a little curious about how it might make you feel if you try some. But trust me on this one.
You don’t even have to say anything, really. You could just pretend not to know what’s going on — like you walked into the wrong room or something. I mean, you’ve never so much as experimented with drugs before today. Heck, you’re a 24-year-old man and you’ve made it all the way to the bigs with the Angels, but up until you finished that long walk down the hallway to your teammate’s hotel room in Minneapolis after tonight’s game, you’d never even really been around cocaine before. When you first laid your eyes on the stuff, and saw the guys all gathered together, you weren’t even sure what was going on. You actually had to ask. So you really could just make it seem like you were confused and slip on out of the room.
Doing that would be the best choice you could ever make, Willie. Not just today, but in your entire adult life. And it’s within your power to make it happen.
So … I’m begging you right now, man, with all I got. Get out of there. Please listen to me. You have to do what I’m asking here.
You just … have to, Willie. And….
This is so sad.
I don’t even know what to say here.
This is harder than I ever thought it would be … sitting down and writing you this letter today. Because as much as I try to convince you, and pour my heart out, I know full well that….
You’re not going to do what I’m asking. You are going to walk in and sit down and hang out in that hotel room for a while. You’re gonna do some lines and have some fun and … set yourself on a certain path. And it kills me because I know what that means — what’s going to happen next. So I’m starting to get an idea of what it’s going to be like for me to write the rest of this letter.
I’m basically sitting here, heartbroken, wishing I could go back in time.
I wish I could be there in that room with you right now and yank you by the arm. That there was something I could do to make you see it like I do now. But I know that you’re not gonna turn back around and leave.
Because if you were to do that, I wouldn’t be sitting here at my kitchen table in the middle of Arizona writing you this letter. There wouldn’t even be a reason for me to put pen to paper.
And, who knows? Had it gone down like that, had you just turned around and left that hotel room, by now there might actually be a plaque in Cooperstown with the name WILLIE MAYS AIKENS engraved in all-capital letters across the front.
Before we go any further here, I’d like to give you a piece of advice that I want you to remember for as long as you live. Simple stuff. Straight to the point. It goes like this:
Don’t ever get too attached to anything, because nothing — and I mean nothing — lasts forever.
Everything you love, everything that is good, will eventually go away, or be taken from you, Willie. Sometimes it will be someone else’s fault. Sometimes it will be your fault. Sometimes it will be nobody’s fault at all. But nothing good lasts forever.
You’ll really begin to see what I mean about that in a few years, when you start runnin’ with the boys up in Kansas City. But before we get to that, I want to take you back a bit. Down South. Back home. To Seneca, South Carolina. Just so you can see that what I’m saying about good things not lasting … well, that’s always been the case for you, going all the way back to when you were a little kid.
So let’s talk about Blackie.
Your life growing up in the Bruce Hill section of Seneca couldn’t have been much tougher — seven people living in a beat-up wooden shack, holes in the floor, no running water, a rickety outhouse, no money for food — but somehow when Blackie was around he made everything alright.
It probably sounds a little weird to most people that a dog was your best friend growing up. But Blackie was the kindest, most loving animal in the world. He was one of the few things that could help you escape your surroundings and make it through the weekends when Guy, your step-dad, the only father you ever knew, would stumble home from the bootlegger’s place, drunk to high heaven, ready to yell, and argue … and hit.
That dog was your everything.
Baseball and Blackie. That’s basically all you had back then.
And you remember what Guy used to say when he saw you holding Blackie, or playing with him out in front of the house, don’t you?
“I’m gonna kill that damn dog one day, Willie.”
The first time he said it, when you were 12 or so, you wrote it off as just another crazy thing he’d shout when he was hammered. And you forgot about it.
Until he said it again a few weeks later.
And again, and again, and again.
“I’m going to kill him, Willie. Just watch. And then you won’t have your best buddy anymore to pal around with. You won’t have anything to be so happy about then.”
After a while, hearing that kind of stuff over and over, you started to wonder.
No one could be that cruel. Could they?
The world couldn’t be that awful….
Courtesy of Willie Mays Aikens
During that time you saw firsthand that when addiction takes hold of someone’s life, the world can be a pretty cold place. You saw how a substance could turn a man’s world upside down, leaving everyone around him hurting.
Guy wasn’t so bad during the workweek. But when Friday hit, and he came home from work, it’d be straight to the bootlegger to get the strongest alcohol he could. Then it was a whole weekend of him being drunk and abusive before Monday finally rolled around … and the cycle would start all over again. Monday through Friday, he was a totally different person. But when that alcohol hit, it was like a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Maybe the evil was always inside him somewhere, and the alcohol just brought it out of him, I don’t know. But you saw it all happen with your own two eyes.
You saw him get so drunk that he could no longer walk or speak. You saw him urinate on himself, again and again, because he had no control of his body. And you should know that I still have that big scar on my head from when you were a little kid and he clobbered you with that heavy wooden chair. When he came at you with a knife soon after that, and Mom stepped in to protect you, he sliced her throat and nearly killed her.
That kind of stuff was a big part of your life as a kid.
It was just an endless loop of fear and violence. Because of what that man would turn into.
And I can tell you that still, to this day, one of the saddest things you’ll ever experience in your entire life was coming home from school that one afternoon as a little kid and seeing Blackie lying motionless in the backyard.
Dead at the hands of a man who could not control his urges.When you realized that, yes, people could be that cruel, and, yes, the world can be that awful, you also made one of the most important decisions of your life.
There are no words that can express how bad you felt after losing Blackie. But, in the midst of that sadness, a silver lining emerged. When you realized that, yes, people could be that cruel, and, yes, the world can be that awful, you also made one of the most important decisions of your life.
You needed something —anything! — positive. Something that would help you to continue pushing forward. So you walked down the street and knocked on the door of your neighbors the Lewis family, who you always saw heading off to church every Sunday morning.
Hey, um, I was just wondering, um … do you think I might be able to go to mass with you guys sometime?
And just like that, you began a journey that had the potential to shape the rest of your life. The first time you set foot in that church, you were overcome with a feeling of joy and happiness. Before long, you decided to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. And it was the best feeling imaginable.
It gave your life purpose, and meaning. It helped you to focus on something other than the hardship. And not too long after, when Guy finally passed out and froze to death on the railroad tracks between the house and the bootlegger’s place, a gallon of liquor by his side, it actually seemed like a blessing in some ways. Because at least it meant that the beatings and abuse would stop. There was more relief than sadness.
And by that time you were already convinced that God had a plan for you. So you were ready to place complete trust in Him to take the wheel. You were prepared to follow His lead and to let Him guide you every step of the way.
You were all in — hopeful, inspired, ready to serve the Lord and do the right thing each and every day. Man, writing it down here, all these years later … it all sounds so perfect.
If only you could’ve stayed that way forever.
When you snort up that first line of coke, you’re not even really gonna feel anything. That’s the crazy part about it.
You’ll assume that it’s going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread — that feeling when the cocaine hits your system. But there won’t be any euphoria. No tremendous high or anything like that. You’ll feel a little energized for a moment, but it won’t even really feel … good. It’ll just be a line or two, and pretty much nothin’ to show for it. Then you’re going to leave that hotel room and go on with your business.
No big thing.
You won’t touch the stuff again for the rest of the year. That will be that.
Until you get traded over to the Royals before the season in 1980.
That’s when everything’s gonna turn, man. Things are going to get real crazy here for you in a few years. Because, I mean, the Royals … man. Whew. Great team. Great guys. But boy are those fellas gonna like to party. And you’re gonna wade in pretty deep, young buck.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: O.K., old dude, whatever you say. I’m good. I can handle myself. I’m a grown-ass man. How bad could it be?
And you know what? At first you’ll be right. It’s just gonna be some late-night poker games. A few trips to Vegas. Nothing too serious.
But it’s gonna ramp up quick.
You’ll be out chasing the females and snorting cocaine before summer even hits. It’ll be nonstop partying. At home. On the road. It won’t matter. You’ll have forgotten all about your faith by then, too. It’ll just be booze and coke and women. All … the … time.
But here’s the weird thing about it: It won’t impact how you play. Not one bit. You’ll hit, man. Just like you always have. And later in the year, you’re going to actually be playing in the World Series.
Kansas City Royals
From that run-down shack back in Seneca, all the way to the top, Willie. From the outhouse — literally — to the penthouse.
So, at that point, you should definitely feel pretty good about how far you will have come. It really and truly will be quite an accomplishment. And I’d tell you to enjoy the moment — live it up, have fun, all that jazz. But you won’t need anyone to remind you. You’re gonna do so much coke during the World Series that it will seem impossible for you to be having any more fun.
Game 1 in Philly is gonna fall on your 26th birthday. Your team’s gonna lose, but you’ll hit two homers and then, after the game, you’re gonna meet up with a homeboy of yours from Detroit who made the trip in for the game with his girl … and a big bag of cocaine.
And it’ll be … back to the hotel.
On that night — high as all get out and fresh off those moon shots you hit — you’ll think you’re the king of the world. The ruler of the planet. No, of the entire universe.
Who’s badder than me? No one … that’s who.
And it’ll be the same thing after the loss in Game 2. (Maybe even more coke that night, actually.) Then, when the team comes back to K.C. for that third game, the party’s somehow gonna get even bigger. It’ll almost be like a high school reunion or something. Eight dudes up from Seneca….
And their big bag of cocaine.
After the game it’ll be … back to your apartment.
You’ll be snorting coke until the wee hours of the morning … and then go out in Game 4 and hit two more bombs. Like it was nothing.
You’re not going to question a single thing about it, either. Not for a second. You’re not going to have a care in the world. You’ll just play ball and snort and play ball and snort.
And that scenario is gonna play on repeat for you going forward, my man. It’ll become pretty much all you know.
Your team will lose the World Series.
It’ll sting, too. I mean, even when you’re high as a kite most of the time and your heart’s racing a mile a minute, something like that is still gonna be a real downer.
And, to make matters worse, with the Royals losing you’ll miss out on what a lot of people will say would’ve been a Series MVP award, based on your four home runs and eight RBIs in six games. Who knows, maybe it’ll be God trying to give you a sign. Like: Slow down, Willie. You’re losing control.
He’ll give you the opportunity to show the entire world your talents, and then make it so that the ultimate rewards remain just out of reach. Maybe it’ll be His attempt to help you see the light, and to pull you back into your faith, before things get too out of hand. He’s even gonna send some messengers your way.
After the World Series is over, you’re going to go back home to visit Mom in Seneca. And the partying isn’t going to die down just because you’re in a small town.
“What you’re going to see in your mom at that point in time is someone moving in the exact opposite direction as you. While she was busy getting clean, you were getting deeper and deeper into drugs.”
Willie Mays Aikens discusses his mother’s life and talks about their relationship as his addiction took hold. (2.49)
She’ll hear you roll in with the sun each morning.
You’ll think you’re being slick. That you can hide stuff from her. But Mom will see it all, Willie. At one point she’s even going come to you and talk to you straight up.
“Willie, I know what you’re doing. And you better stop right away. Or else you’re going to get into some serious trouble.”
You’re just gonna kind of look at her when she says that. You won’t say a word.
“You need to stop, Willie. I mean it.”
You’ll nod. And smile. And give her a hug.
She’ll take that as a good sign — an indication that you understand what she’s saying and will make some changes. But within an hour or two you’ll be at your homeboy’s place doing lines off his kitchen table.
Heinz Kluetmeier /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Mom will be the first of many people who are going to see what you’re up to, and then pull you aside to warn you about where you’re headed.
Your teammate Hal McRae is gonna be the next one.
And that guy is someone you’re going to have complete respect and admiration for. Hal’s a family man. He’s wise. You’ll look up to him from the moment you arrive in Kansas City.
He’s going to see you racing out to the parking lot after games to meet your dealer. He’ll see the bloodshot eyes when you arrive at the ballpark.
By that point, you’ll have developed a whole routine. When you stay up all night snorting coke, you’re going roll to the park the next afternoon and get out there on the hot turf right away so you can do your sprints and try to sweat some of the stuff out of your system. Most nights, by the time the game starts, you’re gonna feel pretty refreshed.
It’s a long season, though, Willie. So there are going to be times when you’ll still be feeling the effects of the drug. That’s just gonna be how it is. I don’t really know what to tell you. Eat a good meal, drink lots of water, jog on that turf until you’re not feeling the coke anymore. The body is an incredible mechanism. It’ll work. You can get by that way.
But, yeah, Hal will know.
He’ll hear the whispers around the clubhouse, and he’ll notice that a lot of the guys you run with on the team are doing the same things as you. He’s going to be one of the smartest teammates you’ll ever play with, but it’s not going to take a genius to realize what’s going on.
He’s gonna pull you aside. He’ll try to warn you. He’s going to look you dead in the eye and pretty much beg you to change your ways. As a friend.
He won’t come right out and mention the drugs, but you’ll both know what he’s talking about.
And I can tell you straight up that it’s a conversation you’ll never forget. Even to this day. It will cut you to the core the way he’s going to look at you. The tenor of his voice. You’ll be completely shook in that moment. And….
You’re not going to listen to him.
Not for a second.
Because you’re going to think — actually, you’re going to believe— that you’re….
It’ll be a simple knock at the door.
Not a loud crash or a bang — just a light knock like the ones you’ve heard a million times before.
But it’s going to change your life forever.
This will be the summer of ’83, coming up on the end of the season, and it’ll be just after dawn. You’ll still be up. Of course.
There will be a whole mess of cocaine on the coffee table when you hear the knock, but you’ll walk over to the door anyway, and when you look through the peephole you’re gonna see two gentlemen in navy blue suits.
They’ll be federal agents.
The kind who don’t usually make random house calls, if you know what I mean.
It’s not gonna be good, man. Not at all.There will be a whole mess of cocaine on the coffee table when you hear the knock, but you’ll walk over to the door anyway.
The suits are going to come in and sit you down and tell you all about how your main source — the local guy who had been supplying you cocaine during your time in Kansas City — was arrested the day before.
When they ask you about that guy, you’re going to tell them the truth.
Up to a point.
You’ll say that you know him, and that you partied at his place and drank together. But when they ask you if you were buying drugs from him, you’re going to lie. And then they’re going to walk out the door, and you’re going to … completely freak out.
I want you to remember that exact feeling — that sense within your mind and body that the jig is up. Because it won’t be the last time you’ll have it. And it’s not gonna feel good. But you better start getting used to it.
When you get to the ballpark that afternoon, you’ll find out that those same two guys had talked to five or six of your teammates, too. Those players will tell you it’s nothing — that some local dude got busted and who cares and that everything is gonna blow over. Don’t believe them.
Shit’s gonna hit the fan.
After the ’83 baseball season ends you’re gonna be reading the Kansas City Star and find out that you’ve been indicted on drug charges. At first you’ll think it’s a mistake. But they’re gonna have you on tape, Willie — negotiating some deals, talking about how much you needed, and by when. There’s not going to be any way to wiggle out of this. And over the next 24 hours you’re gonna get a crash course on criminal law.
Eventually you and a few other guys on the team will plead guilty to a misdemeanor, and at that point an idea will pop into your head.
I’ll enroll in a drug and alcohol rehab center. Voluntarily. I’ll go get some treatment!
Here’s the thing, though. It won’t be so you can get better, or to work on you drug problem, but instead because … you’ll think maybe the sentencing judge will go lighter on you if you do it. That’s where you’re head’s gonna be at. It’s gonna be a total sham. It’ll be just like why you’ll still sometimes pray to God at night before bed while all this is going down. You’ll do it for purely selfish reasons. To help save your baseball career, and to stay out of jail.
But pay attention at that rehab place when you’re there.
Because maybe something can stick. Maybe you’ll learn something.
Toronto Star/Getty Images
If nothing else, one thing you will learn while you’re there is that you’ve been traded out of Kansas City. To the Blue Jays, who will sign you to a new two-year, $1 million contract. Then you’re gonna get a three-month jail sentence just like all the other guys. (So much for your brilliant voluntary rehab strategy.)
But you actually are going to stop drinking and stop doing drugs at the rehab place. Cold turkey. It’ll stick for a few years, too.
And I’d love to commend you for that achievement. I really would. But it’ll be the same as before … you’ll only do it to save your own ass and keep playing ball. You’re not going to have any huge realizations or anything like that. Same goes for your time in prison. You’re not gonna learn any life lessons being there. It’ll be one of those minimum security places. And get this: It’ll be a co-ed prison.
I mean, come on now.
Before you know it, you’ll be released. It’ll basically be like a vacation.
Just with worse food and more sex.
Toronto Star/Getty Images
Real life, though … that won’t be anything like vacation.
Things are going to spiral for you after you’re released from jail. You’ll have missed spring training, and when the season starts the Blue Jays are going to make you a part-time DH. No more first base, and no more regular playing time. You’re gonna struggle with those changes, and not fully accept them, and have an awful year in 1984. In a flash, before the next season really even gets rolling, you’re gonna be out of a major league job altogether.
The Jays will offer you a front-office position when they release you in ’85. You should take it, Willie — grab it, run with it, man — but you won’t. Instead you’ll ship out to play down in Mexico. You won’t have any other opportunities in professional baseball at that point. So you’ll head south.
And for the next few years you’re going to live in sleazy hotels, have sex with a different lady nearly every night, and absolutely destroy baseballs when you’re at the plate. You’ll hit .454 in 1986.
No joke: .454!
Different language. Same bat.
You’ll be sure that all the teams in the States are seeing that hitting display. You’ll be convinced that it’ll only be a matter of time before you’re back in the majors.
But you know what? Your phone ain’t gonna ring. No major league teams are gonna come calling on you, Willie. They’ll be done with you.
You’ll have nothing to show for those years down there.
Actually, strike that, you’ll have hepatitis and two young daughters to show for it. By two different women.
You’re gonna head back to Kansas City with your tail between your legs.
Rock cocaine is going to be the greatest thing you’ve ever experienced, Willie.
I feel terrible writing that out. It’s not something I want to put down on paper. But I’m just being honest. Sad but true, man.
Powder cocaine will have screwed up your nose after all those years of using. You’ll have snorted so much when you’re with the Royals that your nose will constantly be raw and in pain. Some nights, you won’t be able to sleep because it hurts so bad. You’ll have to take painkillers just to get some rest.
Well, crack is gonna solve that problem for you.
It’s going to happen during a real low point in your life — the summer of ’87, back in Kansas City. Just when it looks like you might be getting an opportunity to play over in Japan for $300,000, you’re gonna be told you can’t go. That criminal record is going to make getting a work visa impossible. You’ll be dejected, and depressed. If you’d still had a close connection to your faith at that point — and the strength that comes from knowing that there’s always hope, always a bigger plan, even in the darkest of times — maybe you could’ve pulled yourself out of that funk and turned over a new leaf. But you won’t. Instead, you’ll start to not really care. About anything. Or anyone.
And you’ll turn to that pipe.
Immediately you’ll realize the high with crack is a whole lot stronger than what you used to experience snorting a pile of coke up your nose. When you snorted, you had to wait till it started to flow through your bloodstream before you felt it. With the pipe, as soon as you inhale and blow out that smoke, you’ll feel the high. It’ll be almost magical.
But there are two things I should warn you about.
While you were busy chasing prostitutes down in Mexico, Congress back in the States was hard at work passing some racist-ass laws that treat crack cocaine offenses way more seriously than powder coke violations. Someone busted for crack will be looking at the same sentence as a person who had sold 100 times the amount of powder. That’s gonna mean a lot of black folks in the hood are gonna catch big-time drug sentences, while the white dudes in boardrooms doing lines in the office bathroom are gonna get off far lighter.
And last time I checked … you were black. So watch your back, man. That’s all I’m saying here, really.
The other thing you should know, though, is that using crack is going to be different than what you’re used to. The high won’t last as long. So you’ll have to smoke a lot to stay high.
You’ll just sit around all day and night and … smoke.
And smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke.
Welcome to hardcore, full-on, all-out addiction, Willie.
This is gonna go on for a while, too. Not just a week, or a couple of months. There will be years of it. Years and years, actually.
By 1993, you won’t be doing much other than chasing the females, drinking way too much, and smoking rock cocaine. And in order to pay for what you need to feel good at all times, you’ll be selling some rocks on the side, too.
You’ll have three girls over one night and you’ll run out of stuff at like five in the morning, so you’ll go out to cop some powder and be back by six. You’ll be down in the basement getting everything ready to turn it into rocks and, before you can even cook it up, you’ll hear a noise at the front door.
This won’t be like that other early-morning knock from a decade earlier. It’s not going to be one of those quiet knocks like last time around. This one is going to be….
BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM.
Then one of the ladies is going to shout something you’ll never forget as long as you live.
“It’s a kick-in!”
To this day, I can still hear her shout those words in my head, but at the time you won’t know what she’s talking about. You’ll have to ask her.
“Willie, it’s the cops. We’re fucked.”
They’ll bust in the door and put you face down on the basement floor and slap the handcuffs on you. Then they’re going to tell you that you sold drugs to an undercover police officer.
And get this … here’s what you’re going to be thinking at the time:
This is no big thing.
For real. No lie.
You’re gonna be facedown on the carpet with a cop’s knee in your back … acting like the whole thing is nothin’.
You won’t know that what you were getting arrested for is going to be a federal case, since you crossed state lines to buy some of the cocaine you sold to the officer. You won’t know anything about how the drug laws at the time treated people who sold crack cocaine more harshly than those who sold powder coke. Or about mandatory minimums. You won’t know a lot of things, Willie.
You’ll just think about the fact that you have money in the bank and access to good lawyers … and about how, one way or another, you’ll get out of this mess.
It’s not gonna be that simple, though, man. And even if you did have some shot at making it that simple, you’d blow it in flash. Because….
You’re an addict. Simple as that. I could make a million other excuses for you. But that’s the bottom line.
When you get out on bond, you’re not going to be able to resist going back to the pipe, even though one positive urine sample would mean your bond would be revoked and get you sent back to jail. So you’ll offer the guy doing the piss test $50 to pee in that cup for you. When he says no, you’ll offer him $100.
Bad move, Willie.
After he calls the prosecutor and turns you in, that’ll be an additional charge of bribing a public official added on top of everything else. It’ll be snowballing on you. And when you hear about the additional charge, and the court date, instead of showing up at court, you’re gonna stay home … and get high.
You won’t have learned a damn thing.
When the cops show up at the door again to come get you, you’ll be in there with some women. You’ll have just ordered a pizza, and when the delivery guy gets there, the cops are gonna burst in and take you downtown for booking.
They’ll be nice enough about it. They’re going to give you time to eat the pizza before they take you away.
So let me just say this much: Enjoy those slices, man. Savor them. Take small bites. Because it’s gonna be a while before you have pizza like that again.Enjoy those slices, man. Savor them. Take small bites. Because it’s gonna be a while before you have pizza like that again.
Drugs will be everything to you at that point. Heck, you’re even gonna pick your attorney based on a recommendation from a buddy you used to get high with.
My guy’s the best. He can get you off, no problem.
You’re going to be offered a deal that would’ve had you serve five years in prison if you snitched on some of your boys — wear a wire, sucker them in, the whole nine.
And you won’t be into it.
So you’ll go to trial and be convicted on all charges. When it’s all said and done, the sentencing judge in your case is going to lay it all out there for you. He’ll tell you to stand up, and have a few words for you before reading your sentence.
“Mr. Aikens, you used to play ball here in Kansas City. You were a great player at one point for the Royals. And look at you now. You just trashed your entire life.”
A few moments later, he’s gonna hit you with a whopper. The max sentence for the charges you were facing — 20 years and eight months.
Leavenworth ain’t gonna be anything like that sex-on-vacation prison.
Maximum security. Federal pen. Serious jail. With gangs and fights and people getting jumped and … well, I mean, it’s gonna be real prison. You’ll think you’ve seen some things by that point in your life — violent stuff, beatdowns, cruelty — but you ain’t seen nothing like this. Watch your back. At all times. Sleep with one eye open.
They’ll make you the caretaker of the softball field, and you’ll be the ringer for the Christian Kings team. But you’ll get in a fight with a member of the Crips early on and get placed in solitary for two months. Then you’ll get transferred to a prison in Atlanta, and on your first day, you’ll see a guy take a pipe and go upside another inmate’s head.
Welcome to your new home, Willie!
This where things are going to end up for you. And, well, look … I told you this was going to get crazy. That you should’ve followed through with that pledge you made as a kid to devote your life to the Lord and live by the example He set. I mean, look at what you’re gonna get yourself into, man. With all those terrible, selfish decisions you’re going to make. This is where all that is going to lead you.
Julie Denesha/Getty Images
But after all this, I actually do have some good news for you.
In prison you’ll start attending a regular drug rehab program, and going to chapel and reading your Bible. You’re actually going to begin looking at yourself in the mirror. And you know what? Before you realize it, 10 years are going to fly by … and you’ll have been working on yourself the whole time.
You’ll bring God back into your life, and make your faith a priority again. You’ll let it guide all that you do.
So you’re going to finally stop denying your problems, and the fact that you brought them on yourself. You’ll admit that you have a drug problem and accept full responsibility for … well … everything. Once you’re off drugs for a few years, and you get your biology in order, you’re going to realize things that you were never able to see when you were out running the streets and getting high. You’ll think about your daughters, and how they must have felt, growing up with the most deadbeat dad on the planet.
They will be born when you’re a full-on drug addict during the late ’80s, so they simply won’t be important to you at the time. It was females and drugs and playing baseball … and not much else.
You’re going to finally recognize how awful that is. You’ll cry your eyes out about it in that cell.
And you’re going to want to fix things.You’ll cry your eyes out about it in that cell. And you’re going to want to fix things.
Make that your mission from here on out.
Do all you can to reconnect with those kids and then go about the process of figuring out how to be a dad … not just a man running around in the world who has kids somewhere.
Humble yourself. Stop being so selfish all the damn time.
You’ll get photos and some letters in the mail one day from your older daughter, Lucia. Cherish them. Write back. Reconnect. Then your younger daughter, Nicole, and her mom, Sara, are going to fly in from Mexico to visit you in jail. Appreciate that. Realize how special it is. Show them as much love and affection as you possibly can. Open your heart. Let them in. And make it clear to them that things are going to be different from that point forward.
Don’t try to be a tough guy. Don’t act all big and bad. Cry your eyes out, Willie. Because those visits — and those people, that family — are blessings. Honest to goodness. After all you’ll have done, and all the hurt you’ve caused … you’re still going to have people in this world wanting to show you love. People caring enough about you to come and see you, even after you hadn’t cared enough to do the same for them in the past.
That will be a blessing from God right there.
God won’t stop looking out for you after that.
In 2008, out of the blue, you’re going to get a letter from your lawyer telling you that the federal government has changed the sentencing guidelines for people found guilty of selling crack cocaine. When they sent you away for selling 2.2 ounces of crack, you got locked up for what would amount to the sale of 15 pounds of powder.
Well, 14 years after you were sentenced, the changes in those guidelines will be made retroactive, and you’ll be released four years early.
You’ll be ready to start over. To show you’re a new man. To be accountable and responsible and … to be a good person.
When you get out, here’s what I want you to do….
I want you to write a letter to the people of Kansas City apologizing to them for your past behavior, owning up to what you did, and promising never to let them down again. Pour your heart out to those people, Willie. Be real with them and let them know that you want to be a part of their community again — someone who will be there to share his story with others and help them through tough times, and someone they can be proud of.
It will be so important for you to do that. And if you do, you’ll begin to see that people will welcome you back into their hearts.
At the halfway house in Kansas City where you’ll be staying, you’re going to become reacquainted with an old buddy named George Brett. You will have reached out to George while you were incarcerated — along with Hal McRae and a bunch of other guys on the team who you respected — and won’t have heard back from any of them other than Hal. You won’t take offense to it. They didn’t owe you anything. But I’d be lying to you if I said that it won’t hurt at the time.
When George shows up at that halfway house, though, it’s gonna feel like a brand new day. You won’t have spoken to him in more than 20 years, but it will be like you two haven’t missed a beat — like you’d been together the whole time. He’s gonna show his old teammate some love. And he won’t look at you as a drug dealer, or some lowlife who had been in prison for the past 14 years. He’s going to treat you like an old friend. It’ll be another one of those blessings, that’s for sure.
George will take you to speak at his son’s school about your journey and the lessons you’ve learned over the years. And then, before you know it, he’s going to come to you with what seems like a pretty far-fetched idea.
“I’m gonna start taking you over to some ball games so you can meet Dayton Moore. He’s the GM for the Royals now. Good guy. I think you should meet him.”
You’ll stay silent as he talks. Not knowing where he will be going with it.
“And I think you should get back into baseball.”
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A year or so later, long after you first meet Dayton, he’s gonna reach back out to you. You’ll be in a good place at that point — clean and sober, doing the right thing, working a steady construction job. Replacing manholes. You’ll have even gone in front of Congress to tell your story and provide testimony that helped convince the government to decrease sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100–1 to 18–1. You’ll be an upstanding member of society, and Dayton is going to see that. He’ll call you out of the blue one afternoon.
“Hey, Willie. It’s Dayton Moore with the Royals. I was wondering if you’d have any interest in going out to Arizona for a week and talking to our players as a guest instructor.”
You won’t be able to say yes fast enough.
You’ll stand up in front of the young guys and tell them your story, and do all that you can to provide some mentorship.
You’ll be good at it, too. So they’ll invite you back. People are going to start noticing. And before too long, Dayton’s gonna call you up again with a full-time job offer.
You’re going to be part of the Royals family again, Willie.
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Things will start looking up when it comes to your family life, too.
You’re going to marry Sara and solidify the bond that she fought to keep alive while you were away in prison. You’ll be doing everything you can to make up for lost time with your daughters, and then, get this….
On January 3, 2011, you’re going to become a father again. To a beautiful baby girl.
At age 56.
And this time around you’ll be able to do it right. Don’t mess it up, man. Be a responsible, caring, thoughtful … dad. And then watch how much joy it brings to your life. It’ll be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
Everything will be looking good. New life, great new job all lined up, healthy new baby. You’ll be on top of the world.
But remember what I said early on in this letter about how good things don’t last forever? How they can be fleeting? How life has a funny way of lifting you up only to knock you right back down again?
A few weeks after Sarita is born, you’re going to head off to Arizona to begin your work with the Royals. The cellphone is gonna buzz in your pocket. It’ll be a buddy from back home in Kansas City.
“Willie. It’s Sara. She … Willie … she had a stroke. A real bad one.”
Your wife, the mother of your newborn baby, is going to be in a fight for her life. You’ll rush back home and hurry over to St. Joseph Medical Center and see her unconscious, with what seems like a million tubes connected to her body.
You won’t be ready for what you come back to. It’ll be worse than you thought. And you’ll be crushed.
After that, though, you’re going to learn, and witness, and truly understand — maybe for the first time in your life — what family’s all about.
Sara’s mom will move in to help take care of the baby. Your second-oldest daughter, Nicole, is going to drop out of college to help take care of her mom and Sarita.
It won’t be easy. For anyone. But you’ll be in it together.
And for the first time in your life, you’ll have your children calling you Papi.
As I sit here finishing up this letter to you, my faith is stronger than ever, and it’s what keeps me moving forward every day. Sara is still in pretty bad shape. She can’t really walk too well, and she struggles every day to get around the house. But when that little girl of ours comes home from school each day it brings her so much joy. She’s happy here. And I do my best to take care of her.
Sarita is seven now, and a handful, and on most days I need to be both the mom and the dad in a lot of ways. But I don’t see it as anything extraordinary. I’m blessed to be in the position I am today. Beyond blessed. And I’m really just doing the normal things that a parent does when he’s not on drugs and pays attention to his kids. The stuff I should’ve been doing all along for all my children.
I bathe her, and comb her hair, and put her clothes on, and feed her, and take her to school. And after I drop her off and head to work at the ballpark, and talk to those young players each day as they’re starting on that journey you began way back when … everything kind of comes full circle for me.
These days I think a lot about whether someone like me — an old-timer with some tough real-life stories to share and 14 years of hard time in the rearview mirror — might have made a difference to me back when I was your age. Before everything I’ve told you about here today happened.
I go back and forth on it, honestly.
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I’d like to think that I could have made that sort of impact. That if I walked up to you right now, and sat you down for long talk, everything might’ve worked out differently. That my wisdom and sincerity would shine through, and that it would help set you on a different path. I’d love to believe that. I really would.
We’ll never know, though, Willie.
And lots of times I get to thinking that, as sad as it sounds, things played out exactly as they were meant to. That since I couldn’t bring myself to leave that Minneapolis hotel room back in ’79, or to stop myself from doing any of the other boneheaded things I’ve told you about in this letter, that maybe I was just destined to go through all that stuff. Maybe the decision not to walk out of that room was all part of God’s destiny for me.
I don’t know.
But one thing that I do know is that when I’m done with this letter, I’m gonna get up and walk into a very different type of room. The room belonging to my beautiful daughter — our beautiful daughter — Sarita. And I’m going to give that little girl a hug the likes of which she’s never felt before.
Because I finally know what really matters in life.
So just remember, young buck, no matter how bad it gets for you, and no matter how low you sink, keep pushing forward knowing that….
You got that hug coming to you down the line.
And when it finally comes around … let me tell you: It’s gonna feel better than anything you could ever imagine.