Not sure if <a href=”http://www.kansascity.com/sports/royals/story/647140.html”>this</a> is sad or hopeful. Willie Aikens will always be one of my favorite 3-4 Royals. And it’s not just becase he hit four home runs in the 1980 World Series.
(As an aside, the ’80 World Series may have been the pinnacle of my kid fandom. It came at the perfect moment in my life: we had just moved to Kansas City, I had the white-hot intense fandom of a nine-year-old, George Brett just dropped one of the greatest years ever on the American League, etc. By 1985, I wasn’t cynical yet, but I wasn’t as single-minded about sports as I was in ’80. When KU won in ’88, I was transitioning into adult fandom. So when I write a book about growing up in the 80s one day, expect lots of references to the Royals-Phillies World Series. Game six was just on ESPN Classic, by the way.)
Nope, I will always love Willie because of something that happened the next spring. Various Royals used to do clinics and autograph signings at Macy’s stores around the city. In the spring of ’81, my mom got me tickets to one at the old downtown store. I remember Jim Frey, the manager of the Royals, was there teaching us how to hit. Some pitcher I don’t remember talked about how to throw a change-up. At some point they announced Willie Aikens would be signing autographs at Bannister Mall later in the day. I gave my mom a pleading look and she gave me the “Yes, we can go there and wait in line too,” nod. Awesome.
So we get to the Bannister Mall and take our place in line and I explained to my mom that we shouldn’t say much to Willie when we got to the table. I had read that he suffered from a really bad stuttering problem and that was why he didn’t talk to the media much. Being a conscientious kid, I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. As we waited, I kept thinking, “Just say please and thank you.”
Finally, our turn came. Willie smiled and said hello and his handler asked what my name was so he could personalize his signature. I spelled it for him, since Jim Frey had signed his picture to “DUSTAN” earlier in the day. Idiot. I was NOT disappointed when his sorry ass got fired later in the year. Anyway, Willie starts to scribble and says, “Are you going to the game tonight?” I’m pretty sure my eyes were the size of saucers. Willie Mays Aikens was talking to me! I stammered out a “No.” Suddenly I was the one who struggled to speak. He asked why and I said because we didn’t have tickets. He laughed and said that was a good reason, then leaned in and beckoned me with his finger. When I leaned in, he mock-whispered, loud enough for people close to us to hear, “You should tell your mom to buy you tickets then.” Everyone laughed, I took my picture, said thank you, and we walked away.
When they make the movie of my life, at this point Willie will slide a couple of primo tickets across the table to me and tell me to enjoy the game on him. I wasn’t quite that lucky, though. I think it rained that night, anyway. The point is, I was super impressed that a guy who allegedly wasn’t comfortable talking to people took 30 seconds to have a conversation with me. That’s a big, fat, huge deal when you’re nine.
And that, my friends, is why Willie Aikens will always be one of my favorite Royals.