Once a teammate, always a teammate for baseball great George Brett.

Brett's legendary 21-season as a Kansas City Royal is an open book.  First-ballot hall of famer in 1999. Three batting titles won in three different decades. Lifetime batting average of .305.  One of only five players in MLB history to collect at least 300 home runs, 3,000 hits, and a career .300 batting average.  American League MVP.  World Series champion. 13 times all-star. Rawlings Gold Glove winner.

The accomplishments on the field made Brett an automatic to have a place forever in Cooperstown, New York.

But, beyond bats and balls, past signing autographs and telling hall of fame stories, there's a more recent, and perhaps far more important win credited to Brett that needs telling.  It's about the former third baseman's reaching out to a former Royals' teammate, and helping him get his life back.

Willie Mays Aikens and Brett were teammates for four seasons (1980-'83) in Kansas City.  Aikens came to the Royals for what would be the organization's first American League pennant season.  Aikens came over from the then California Angels to be the everyday first baseman.  When Kansas City battled the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1980 World Series (Phillies won in six games), Aikens put up incredible numbers.

In the six games, with the national spotlight shining, Aikens batted .400. He clubbed four home runs ( 2 blasts in Game 1 and two more round-trippers in Game 4).

Photo by Don Laible for TSM
Photo by Don Laible for TSM

As magical as the Fall Classic was for Aikens in 1980, by 1985 he was out of the game.  The slugger had his career derailed by drugs and alcohol.  His being mixed up with drugs and alcohol brought a 20-year-plus prison sentence in Georgia.  Released early in 2008, after serving 14 years, Aikens had a long road of recovery to travel.

This is where the two former Royals would reconnect.  Aikens has told his part of this amazing story of on-going success. Brett is also is remembered for his "Pine Tar" incident at Yankee Stadium during the 1983 season.  After powering a home run off of Yankee ace reliever Goose Gossage, then Yankee skipper Billy Martin challenge the bat Brett used.

As home plate umpire Tim McClelland viewed the bat, it had more than than 18 inches (from the bat's knob) of pine tar on it.  24 inches is what the ump measured. Brett's bat was thrown out of the game, as he was for the manner in which he challenged the ruling.

Aikens wanted to get back into baseball, particularly within the Royals' organization, but needed a spokesman; someone to go to bat for him.

Former Kansas City Royal Willie Mays Aikens in Cooperstown last month for the Hall of Fame Classic.  Photo By: Don Laible for TSM
Former Kansas City Royal Willie Mays Aikens in Cooperstown last month for the Hall of Fame Classic.  Photo By: Don Laible for TSMEnter Brett.

" When we got Willie from California in a trade where we (Royals) gave up a few players including Al Cowens, I was impressed how he swung his bat," said Brett recently while speaking at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown as part of the Legends of the Game series. " I'm here to celebrate Willie's turning his life around."

When teammates, Brett tells that he and Aikens weren't close.  Inside and outside the clubhouse, the two infielders didn't share beers or even hang out with each other.  For the future hall of famer, he looks back at the learning period in getting to know his first baseman as rewarding.

" He (Aikens) was put behind me in the line-up. I saw him put on a show many times, when pitchers had no choice but to pitch to him."

With all of Aikens' ups and downs in his life, Brett was waiting for his former teammate when he was released from prison.

With Aikens returning to Kansas City, the friendship was renewed.  What truly got the ball rolling for Aikens and his second chance at life was a call from Brett requesting that he speak at his kids' high school.  500 hundred students listened to 45 minutes of  the evils of alcohol and drugs from an athlete that ended up losing all of the fame and fortune gained as a pro.

So impressed with Willie's message in life, Brett, who is the Royals' vice president of baseball operations, wanted to get involved with his former teammate's rehabilitation process.

Happy memories of the mighty Royals teams of the early 1980's came rushing back to Brett.

" He (Aikens) may have been the slowest guy in the league; he couldn't run a lick.  Willie was a good teammate.  I remember how he liked to play poker in the back of the plane during road trips. Willie was a real good poker player. Because he had a stuttering condition, Willie was a quiet guy, and kept to himself much of the time.  Our nickname for him was Mick."

Aikens' return to baseball began while he was at a Royals home game. Along with Brett, they met with Royals' then general manager Dayton Moore (now president of baseball operations).  Brett gave his best presentation for Aikens to be hired as a hitting coach for the Royals' minor leagues.  After the hard sell, and three years later, Aikens had the light of redemption shine on him - in Arizona.

Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett speaking in Cooperstown recently about his friendship with former teammate Willie Mays  Aikens.  Photo By: Don Laible
Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett speaking in Cooperstown recently about his friendship with former teammate Willie Mays  Aikens.  Photo By: Don Laible

25 miles northwest of Phoenix, Surprise Stadium is the spring training home to the Kansas City Royals.  It is also where Aikens once again would slip into a Royals' uniform, and begin a second life for himself in baseball.

" He (Aikens) was like a kid in a candy store when he first arrived in Surprise," Brett remembers.  " Willie was also the last to leave the ballpark. And since he speaks fluent Spanish, Willie was able to communicate with our Latin players."

Appreciating the acts of kindness bestowed upon him by the Royals, and individually by Brett, early on in his return to baseball Aikens was a fun guy to be around. Being back in the game was earned by Aikens. His celebrity had nothing to do with where he is today as a special assistant to baseball operations/leadership development .  After release from prison, Aikens worked a construction job, while living at a halfway house.

" God blessed me through my friend George Brett, after 14 years in prison," said Aikens, also in Cooperstown for the screening of the film The Royal made of his life story.

Brett reviews his post-playing days with Aikens simply as, "Once a Royal, always a Royal."

After a laboring day or air travel, that began in Washington D.C., and is finalized with landing in Hamilton, New York, followed by an hour's drive to the Village of Cooperstown, two former teammates hugged on stage before 100 listeners sharing their amazing journey. Message delivered. Hopefully, the kindness told is spread wherever those in attendance live, and gets duplicated.

Kristine Bellino, WIBX

Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter from the Mohawk Valley, now living in Florida. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com. 

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