KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday, the text messages and phone calls started pouring in. By 2 p.m., Willie Mays Aikens still hadn't gotten to them all.
All had heard the news: almost 17 years since he was sent to prison on federal drug charges and almost three years since he had been released, Aikens was returning to the Kansas City Royals as a minor league hitting instructor.
"This," Aikens said Tuesday afternoon, "is a blessing."
Aikens, 56, will go to work immediately. He will attend spring training and bounce around the Royals' seven minor league affiliates once the season starts.
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Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Aikens' hiring is something that has been discussed for more than a year. His past was discussed, Moore said, but ultimately everyone, including owner Dan Glass, came away comfortable with the decision.
"We didn't hire Willie because we're trying to do him a favor," Moore said. "We all agreed he could be influential. He's got a great heart, a passion for young players."
Aikens believes he has plenty to share with them, thanks to his troubled past. Aikens batted .282 with 77 home runs and 297 RBIs in 511 games as a first baseman/designated hitter with the Royals, with his finest moment coming during the 1980 World Series, when he hit .400 with four home runs and eight RBIs against Philadelphia.
However, he got caught up in drugs — which led to a cocaine-related suspension and prison time — and his career came to a swift end. Things got worse for him in 1994, when he was convicted of selling 50 grams of crack cocaine to an undercover officer and sentenced to 20 years and eight months in prison.
Aikens eventually cleaned up his life with the help of his longtime partner, Sara (whom he were married just three months ago). Aikens said she stuck with him the whole time he was in prison and made sure he maintained a relationship with his two daughters, including one from a different relationship.
"Before that, I really didn't know what love was," said Aikens, who is also celebrating the recent birth of a newborn daughter. "I had a chance to see a lot of people in prison that never got any visits. Their family members had abandoned them and they were left to rot by themselves.
"Through the grace of God, I wasn't one of those people because I had family behind me that visited me," he continued. "I'm thankful I was able to get to know my girls."
Since his release from prison in 2008, not only has Aikens spoken at schools and other events, he's also gotten a chance to tell his story to some of the Royals' young players. He spent a week in Surprise, Ariz., last fall as a guest hitting instructor, and also spoke to several of the Royals' top young prospects last week, all of whom were in the city for the Royals' career development program.
"I didn't have any problem getting their attention, especially when I talked to them about life issues," Aikens said. "I think they paid attention to what I was saying."
And apparently, so were members of the Royals' front office.
"I've heard Willie speak about his experiences," Moore said. "It's powerful testimony, something every young player should hear.
"He has different life experiences than many of our coaches," Moore continued. "Players are faced with a lot of challenges and temptations throughout their careers, and Willie can perhaps influence and guide a player in a way that can be very impactful."
Aikens, however, knows his job is about more than that. He's never coached full-time before, but he is confident he can help young players improve as hitters, too.
"There are always doubts in back of your mind because you're starting out doing something that's new to you, and baseball is a game of habits, of routine," Aikens said of his ability to coach. "But after a period of time, it becomes second nature. I knew how to hit as a player, and I know the things a player must do to be a good hitter.
"This," he said convincingly, "is something I can do."
"Willie," Moore said, "deserves this opportunity."