Willie Mays Aikens once spent considerable time in a vain effort to meet his namesake. Now, all of a sudden, it should be the other way around. Willie Mays, make it a point to congratulate the kid.
The symbolic ceremony in a South Carolina delivery room two weeks after the '54 World Series could be seen as a prophecy when Aikens swung for the second time today and sent his fourth home run of the '80 World Series out of the park. What Willie Mays did 26 years ago was unique. But he never came close to what Willie Mays Aikens has done this week.
Aikens is as one-dimensional a player as Mays was versatile. But in 17 games in four World Series, Mays never stroked a home run. In four games of his first World Series, Aikens has hit four home runs, each just a bit more majestic than the one before.
"I'm not sure the two in Philadelphia would have been out of here," K. C. pitcher Rich Gale said. The rockets in the first and second inning today left his bat with such force that Aikens stopped a few feet from the plate each time to admire his work.
On his second homer, the bat was scarcely fully around when Aikens dropped it and, in a Reggie Jackson-like motion, froze almost completely and watched the ball clear the fence, the Royal bullpen and land in a storage area. He had done almost the same thing before his first-inning blast splashed into the waterfall in deepest right. The second act was artistically perfect.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
With that second home run today, Aikens joined some Mays-like company. And some others who, like himself, were suddenly touched with extraordinary consistent power for one brief period in October. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Bauer, Gene Tenace, Duke Snider and Jackson each have hit four home runs in one World Series. Snider did it twice.
Yes, Aikens is aware of what he needs to grab the home-run and runs-batted-in records all for himself.
"I need two more homers," he said, referring to Jackson's record of five. "And I need five more RBI."
Five more RBI would lift him past Bobby Richardson's seven-game record of 12. Three more and either the Phils or Royals sweeping the next two games would allow Aikens to slip past Ted Kluszewski's six-game record of 10.
Aiken's homers have come in binges, two in Game 1 and two today in Game 4.
In his off days, when he fails to send anything beyond the Missouri border, he still wins Series games. He was held to just two hits in Game 3. But the one in the 10th drove in Willie Wilson with the winning run of a game K. C. almost worked to give away.
He is an uncomplicated fellow, thoughtful enough to make certain his mother was able to fly here from Seneca, S.C., to see him play for the first time in pro ball. Also, he is honest enough to admit:
"This just don't feel like a World Series. It just seems like good old-fashioned baseball. I'm not really excited, not feeling any presure. I am aware of the records, but I'm not thinking about them all the time. I do have a chance to get them, if I just keep hitting the ball."
In truth, Aikens did not say that exactly. He has a speech impediment, stutters quite a lot. It is something he has worked on with more passion than his home-run stroke, something that once made him confused and bitter but which actually seems to imrove with each trip to the Series center stage.
"When I was kid," he said, "I was scared to go inside a store. I'd send another kid inside to get what I wanted. I also was scared to go up to a girl and talk to her, ask her out. But overcoming something like that is a lot like getting good in baseball.
"Baseball is a game of habits. So is speaking in front of strangers and large crowds. You improve each time you do it -- and you keep making yourself do it. I think I started to overcome it when I started in pro ball. I had success, and so people wanted to talk to me -- in the minors and the in the major leagues.
"I decided I couldn't be a person isolated. I couldn't tell reporters I didn't want to talk. I made up my mind I'd go ahead, and if I stuttered I stuttered."
Day by day, Aikens also seems more comfortable with his name, in part because he quickly is doing wondrous deeds on his own. Once he was frustrated with public-address announcers who introduced him by his full name.
"Do they say George Howard Brett?" he asked.
Also, Aikens went out of his way to avoid wearing Mays' number, 24. When he was acquired this year, from the Angels with shortstop Rance Mulliniks for Al Cowens, Todd Cruz and Craig Eaton, he could not wear his familiar number, 22, because pitcher Dennis Leonard already had claim to it.
Of the available alternatives, 24 was most appealing -- but Aikens did not immediately begin doing it proud. He is just the heavy-duty bomber a team full of run-crazy missiles needs, the one slugger capable of driving in such as Willie Wilson, Brett and some others with one Ruthian swing. In the beginning of this season, though, the bomber was a bomb.
Not completely mended from serious offseason knee surgery, Aikens hit and fielded equally poorly. He began to press -- and got worse. The crowds were nasty enough for him to publicly ask for mercy. He played much better on the road than at home.
"I even was worried about coming back here after the first two games in Philadelphia," he said.
Fan abuse no longer was a problem, for Aikens had recovered so dramatically about the All-Star break that he ended the season with 20 homers, 98 RBI and 14 game-winning hits.
Aiken's development surely would have been slower if South Carolina State had not dropped baseball after his freshman year. It was a concession to Title 9, the equal-opportunity act. When the men's baseball program ended, the girls' basketball team began. And Aikens attended college one more semester, then signed with the Angels in 1975.
When the Angels grabbed Rod Carew last year, Aikens knew he would be traded. It simply was a matter of to which team. He originally thought it would be the Mets, but that deal was canceled when the team changed owners. He still is angry at the Angels for signing Carew instead of allowing him a chance to assume the first-base job.
Aikens has been on homer binges before, sometimes with five or six in a week. Rookie Manager Jim Frey first was attracted to Aikens when, as a 19-year-old playing in a sophisticated summer league in Baltimore, he hit several long home runs in Memorial Stadium.
"He hit 'em to the spots Boog (Powell) used to hit 'em," said Frey, the former Oriole coach.
Frey surely is one of the reasons the Royals traded for Aikens and also one of the reasons he corrected his early season slump. From trying to squeeze the bat too hard because he thought that was the way to generate the most power. Aikens now controls it better and flows into each pitch.
Aikens now is on the sort of roll few athletes ever experience. He hit two home runs in Game 1 of the Series on his birthday. He hit two home runs in Game 4 of the Series when his mother finally got to see him play in person. He hardly is glib, but did say of the possibility of seeing Mays: "I hope to meet him either before he dies or before I die." o
To the Royals after his Game 1 performance, he said: "I didn't get no presents from nobody else. I had to give two to myself."
"Today, he was too high to say anything in the dugout," said Clint Hurdle.
"At least 30,000 feet."