The night before he hit two home runs in his first World Series game, Willie Mays Aikens of the Kansas Ciy Royals prayed that he would hit two home runs. He went to bed and prayed. "I asked the Lord to let me go out and get two or three hits. I asked Him to let me go out and hit a couple out.I can't believe I did it, I can't believe I went out and did it. I'm thankful."
His mother named him Willie after an uncle. "The doctor put in the Mays," Willie said tonight, a gentle smile lighting up his face.
Willie Mays Aikens was born Oct. 14, 1954.
The doctor must have been watching television the week before.
The week before, Willie Mays had worked a piece of magic never forgotten. In the Polo Grounds, Willie ran into deep center field, his back to the plate, his head tilted back so he could see the baseball coming. Vic Wertz hit it. He hit it 420 feet. Only Willie Mays, flying, could catch it.
Mays was a kid then. The Hall of Fame was 25 years away. Most of the 660 home runs were yet to be hit. The doctor didn't care. He had seen Willie Mays do magic; he would honor this new Willie, the baby boy Aikens, by writing "Mays" on the birth certificate.
Imagine going through life as Jack Dempsey Jones or Babe Ruth Smith. If you are Willie Mays Aikens and you pick up a baseball bat, you better be good. In two big league seasons now, Aikens has hit .280 for California, .278 for Kansas City. If Willie Mays is forever singular, Willie Mays Aikens is good enough to know the Lord wouldn't have to send a wing of angels to hand carry the baseballs over the fence. Aikens has hit 41 home runs in two seasons. The Lord helps those, Aikens said, who help themselves.
But at bedtime last night, the whole of it came to Aikens.
On his 26th birthday, the big guy named for baseball's best player ever would come to bat in the World Series.
So he prayed.
And then he took batting practice.
The Royals would lose tonight's game to Philadelphia. They would lose by a run, 7-6. During batting practice, Aikens was worried that something bad would happen. He was driving the ball out of the park. As they say in the dugouts, he was freezing ropes. Aikens was so strong, so consistent, that he was worried.
"I felt good in BP," said the first basemen who is 6 feet 2, 220 pounds. "I hit the ball hard every time. When I do that, I usually have a terrible baseball game. Tonight, I didn't.
First time up, he flied out. He noticed something. The Phillies' pitcher, Bob Walk, brought fast balls inside. The book on the left-handed hitter says jam him. He can't get the bat barrel on a fast ball on the fists. the book says so.
"The first two fast balls he threw me were in on me," Aikens said. "I thought to myself, "They're going to get in and tie me up.' What they didn't know is that if I'm looking inside, I can turn on a fast ball."
In English, that means Willie Mays Aikens is practically Willie Mays Himself if he knows a fast ball is coming on the inside part of the plate. He moves his body away from the plate. He gets the barrel of the bat there in a hurry.
Second time up, with a runner on, Aikens hit a Walk fast ball 400 feet, sailing it high into the night and over the boards in right center. It made the Royals' lead 4-0.
Third time up, Aikens struck out. He learned something in the doing. "He threw me a low fast ball in the dirt and I swung at it. My last time up, I said to myself, 'Make sure you stay back and hit a stride.'"
By then the Phillies were in front, 7-4, and the Royals and George Brett on third base with none out in the top of the eighth inning.
"All I was thinking about was hitting a scrifice fly," Aikens said. "But he came in my wheelhouse."
This home run flew 380 feet.
That brought the Royals within a run, 7-6, but they could no no more. Aikens' second home run drove Walk to the showers and caused the Phillies to bring in their best relief pitcher, Tug McGraw, who promptly shut down the next six Royals to give Philadelphia its first World Series victory since that old right-hander, Woodrow Wilson, was humming his high hard one in Washington.
"I'm thankful," Aikens said, "but if we could've won, I'd be happpier.This game will give me more confidence now. I know I'm capable of hitting the ball out of the park here."
In eight league championship playoff games last week, the Phillies and Royals hit a combined four home runs. They hit four tonight in a ball park where baseballs become rockets exploding as spectacularly as the fireworks that lit up the sky before they threw out the first ball of this Series.
A sudden burst of home runs would seem to favor the Phillies, a team built on the strength of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski. It was Kansas City, though, that had three of the homers tonight; two other times, Philadelphia outfielders bounced off the fence to pull down long shots.
Still, with four of the seven Series games to be played in the Philadelphia launching pad, it will be the hometowners who win with the big stick. Tonight's work by Kansas City was against a rookie named Bob Walk, the only pitcher not good enough to throw in the five-game series against Houston for the league championship. What Willie Mays Aikens will do against Steve Carlton, for instance, is not what Willie Mays Himself might have done.
As important as winning Game 1 is, the way the Phillies did it is practically as important. They came from four runs behind. They won the National League championship with two straight eighth- and ninth-inning rallies. Barely 15 minutes after Aikens' second home run tonight, the Phillies came back with five runs -- the last three on a Bake McBride homer.
"Our team is not down because we lost one game," Aikens said. "We are still good enough to win. We can still go out and beat Carlton."
Willie Mays would like the thought.