This past Friday, the story of legendary baseball Hall of Famer Wiliie Mays Aikens hit the big screens. The Royal is an inspiring story of at the intersection of baseball, faith and second chances. With a diverse cast that features star actor Amin Joseph, LisaRaye McCoy, Michael Beach and Elizabeth Rohm— it’s guaranteed to make you laugh, cry and inspire you to live a meaningful life with purpose.
The film opens up in a prison with Aikens, played by Joseph, holding his slightly bowed head in his hands. With a wooden cross firmly nailed to the wall before him he writes to his beloved, estranged daughter Camilla, “I used to dream when you were born that someday I’d be your hero. Like I was a hero in Kansas City hitting all those home runs in the World Series.”
With thoughts of the peak of his career on his heart, Aikens reminisces on a moment celebrated and cemented in baseball history as he sits in his prison cell. In 1980, while playing for the Kansas City Royals, Aikens was the first player in major league history to hit 2 home runs in two different games of the World Series. He spent a total of 16 years as a professional baseball player, 7 years in the big league.
Arrested in 1994, for selling 50 grams of crack cocaine to an undercover officer, Aikens was sentenced to 20 years and 8 months in federal prison. His case brought attention to disparities in drug sentencing laws that largely impacted Blacks and Hispanics. A similar amount of powder cocaine would have resulted in, at most, 27 months. He was the first Black major league Hall of Famer with no history of violence to serve a life sentence for selling crack cocaine. A sentence that he would separate him from his wife and children. He would spend years healing and re-building the bond— letter after letter, prayer after prayer.
There are three words that comes to Joseph’s mind when he thinks of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that we’re imposed on Aikens: “cruel, life-altering, and impactful. Perhaps in America we have more of a legal system than a justice system,” he says.
“I think that we need to empower judges and lawmakers to have flexibility and to look at crimes as we look at individuals,” Joseph continues. “That we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing because it can ensnare people that could often provide many of their gifts, resources, talents, ingenuity, and their genius to society. Many of them are trapped in a legal system that approaches them almost like cattle. I think that’s one of the biggest issues,” he adds.
“There’s a circle of truth around my head to shine a light on some of the injustices of draconian prison sentencing,” adds Joseph. “It’s remarkable to be able to play a character that used his faith in God to overcome insurmountable pressures in the snares of drug addiction. I hope that my portrayal is truthful and invokes individual change in the lives of the audience.”
Based on the biography, Safe at Home by author Gregory Jordan, the book caught the attention of New York based businessman Scott Resnick ten years ago, who would later finance and produce the film project. “It’s a very important story. It’s about a man who came from poverty, a tremendous disadvantage, Jordan says. “Through his own sheer talent, he rose to some of the greatest heights in our culture and professional sports before suffering a dramatic reversal of fortune. Most of it was his own doing but that was further impacted by the unfairness of the mandatory minimum sentence laws. It’s a story of redemption, perseverance, faith, and there is also a significant social justice component to the story that really resonates. It’s a timeless story but it’s relevant today more so than ever.”
EBONY sat down and spoke with baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays Aikens and the film’s star Amin Joseph about the love of baseball and Aiken’s rise and fall and how he overcame it all.
When did you realize that the drug addiction could possibly destroy your career and life?
Willie Mays Aikens: My first case is 1983 as an active major league baseball player, I did 81 days in prison. This basically was the beginning of the end of my baseball career. Even after that, I didn’t think it was a problem. After I got caught, I stayed clean and sober for three years—from 1983 to 1987. I started back using in 1987 mainly because I had a couple of things that happened in my life. I had an offer to go over to Japan and play for 300,000 and I couldn’t get a Visa to get into the county because I had a criminal record. I had been blackballed as a major league baseball player, so I couldn’t get a job in the states. I was in the bush leagues down in Mexico so I just decided that If I wanted to have a drink, I was going to have a drink. I started back drinking and my drinking led me back to my drug of choice, which was cocaine.
What are your thoughts on second chances?
Amin Joseph: I feel that God gives us infinite chances and I connect to Willie’s story because he realized that his second chance came in the way of him devoting his life to Christ and being saved. There are insurmountable chances – seconds, and thirds, and fourths. What makes the story unique is, that a man that fell so many times within the eyes of society realized that the only place he needed to make peace was through his Lord and Savior.
In your own words, why does this story need to be told?
Aikens: Mainly because we still have a drug problem in the United States, we still have an incarceration problem. I believe we have the highest incarceration rate of all the countries in the world right now. Some people deserve to be in prison and a lot of people don’t. Some of the laws are biased, I think they need to be changed because there are so many drugs in the United States. I think my story continues to open up the ballroom of what can happen to a person who is on drugs or a person that is incarcerated. I think there’s a stigma behind a person going to prison a lot of times – that the person is bad, that he’s not gonna be any good anymore. You know the correct name for prison is a correctional institution. So, if it’s a correctional institution that a person is going to then maybe a person can change their lives because if they decide to make a change in their life, they can.
Joseph: I think that Wille Mays Aikens as a baseball player, as a father, as a believer – he is impactful. He touched the lives of the people that have produced this film as well as the hundreds and thousands of people that have read his story and come into contact with him. There is no small level of impact or influence when it comes to saving lives. We’re looking to save one life at a time and take the individual approach to people by let them know that there is love, empathy, and support no matter what we go through. Willie Mays Aikens is an example of that.
In closing, at the theatre buy-out event hosted this past Saturday, Joseph was sure to add that accountability played a pivotal role in Aiken’s success. “… at the end of the day Aikens is accountable and we wanted to show what that journey looks like when you say ‘Yes, I made a mistake’ and you’re willing to get it right in front of people. But that takes a lot of confidence to do that…,” Joseph told the audience.
Never giving up on his dream to return to baseball, Aikens was hired by the Kansas City Royals in 2011, as a minor league hitting instructor – an organization he still works for today. Aikens continues to be a fierce advocate for drug law reform in America. His story was used to help illustrate the racism and injustice in extreme disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. On August 3rd, 2010 President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act. This legislation would limit the stiff mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses that bipartisan leaders all agreed were overly harsh and unjust.
The Royal can be streamed online at Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Redbox, and Vudu.