In ‘The Royal,’ a life is rebuilt in spite of everything
By Tyler Kepner
The greatest player in the history of the Kansas City Royals slammed his palm onto a conference table at the Baseball Hall of Fame last Friday. George Brett was pretending to be an FBI agent showing off his badge.
Just like that, you were not in Cooperstown. New York, anymore. You were somewhere with the Royals in the early 1980s, and you might be in serious trouble.
“He brings my name up, he brings Jamie Quirk’s name up — and he brings your name up,” Brett said, pointing to his old teammate, Willie Mays Aikens, across the table.
“And he brings Vida Blue’s name up, and Jerry Martin’s name up and Willie Wilson’s name up. And he says, ‘You know, we had a meeting earlier about calling up bookies and betting games. Let’s just say George and Jamie are calling some guy we got a wiretap on …’ ”
Brett was shaken and quickly understood: He stopped betting on football games. But the FBI did not care much about him and Quirk. Investigators were trying to signal the others that they were onto their cocaine use.
“If we had stopped right then and there, we’d have never 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 kept doing it for a decade. Like Blue, Martin and Wilson, he served a short prison term after the 1983 season, but that was hardly the worst of it. That is not why Samuel Goldwyn Films has turned Aikens’s life story into a movie, “The Royal,” scheduled for release July 15. It will be available for streaming and in limited theaters, and it had a premiere May 27 at the Hall of Fame.
For Aikens, 67, it was his first trip to Cooperstown, where Brett is enshrined for a career that ended with 3,154 hits in 1993. By then Aikens was deep into his cocaine addiction, which came to consume him during a six-year career in Mexico after eight seasons in the majors as a slugging first baseman with the then-California Angels, the Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays through 1985.
In 1994 he was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for selling 2.2 ounces of crack cocaine, on four occasions, to an undercover female officer. Aikens has said he was interested in the woman and complied when she asked him to cook the cocaine into crack.
That decision made Aikens — the first player with two multihomer games in the same World Series, in 1980, when the Royals lost to the Philadelphia Phillies — a public face of the gross disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenders. A 1986 federal law punished people far more severely for crack; it took until 2010 for Congress to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100-1 to 18-1.
Aikens was incarcerated for 14 years, and has now been out of prison as long as he was in. “The Royal” mostly chronicles his transition back to society — reconciling with his wife and family, becoming a father again, working on a road crew digging manholes and, with Brett’s help, securing a job as a minor league coach for the Royals.
“How many people in this world go through their 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’m hoping that the movie will help save some lives.”
Actor Amin Joseph, who plays a crack dealer in the FX series “Snowfall,” portrays Aikens. Joseph, 42, grew up in the New York City borough of Harlem and said he remembers crack vials strewn on playgrounds. He was drawn to playing a different kind of figure impacted by drugs.
“There are real people in our communities that are dealing with this and still healing, and like 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 consider society, the people that we judge.”
Aikens’ background gave him a pathway to return to baseball, but it was not always smooth. 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 first encouraged him to tell his story for the athletes at Brett’s son’s high school, a scene loosely depicted in the film. It became a revelation.
“When I picked him up at the halfway house and I heard him talk, I had tears in my eyes. I really did,” Brett said. “I was so proud of him.”
Aikens — who testified before Congress in 2009, urging sentencing reform for drug offenders — has told his story many times since, to Royals prospects and to students at the team’s Urban Youth Academy. The message has stayed all too relevant in baseball; while cocaine was a scourge of the 1980s, the death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, in 2019, revealed the toll of the opioid epidemic on the sport.
Four Angels teammates revealed in court this year that they, like Skaggs, had received oxycodone pills from Eric Kay, a former Angels communications director who was found guilty on two charges for his role in the death of Skaggs. Prosecutors argued that Skaggs had died from a pill or pills he received from Kay that were disguised to look like oxycodone but were actually fentanyl, a far stronger opioid.
“This drug that they have right now, it’s mixed in with Oxycodone and drugs like that, and it’s a blind 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 knock it out. It doesn’t even give you a chance.”
Almost in spite of himself, Aikens survived to get another chance. Now he has taken his story to a theater in Cooperstown — and, soon, far beyond.