It's not quite nowhere, but it's far from heaven, heaven being the American League and a designated hitter's spot in someone's lineup. For Willie Aikens, this city 80 miles southeast of Mexico City is home. Temporarily. If the former California Angel, Kansas City Royal and Toronto Blue Jay can't make it back to the major leagues, then leading the Mexican League with a .447 batting average, 37 home runs and 106 RBI makes it bearable, especially if you're being paid in U.S. dollars.
"If no one signs me, I'll keep on living," Aikens said. "I can come back here. I can live on the money I make here, and I have money I made in the States. I still have a couple of options."
The option he most wants may be closed to him. Aikens would love to return to the major leagues, perhaps for the September stretch drive. But no one wanted him this spring, after he hit .311 in the International League in 1985. The Blue Jays helped him catch on in Puebla, where he is building impressive statistics and enough confidence to believe that he could be back in the majors despite his age -- he will be 32 in October -- and his past.
After the 1983 season, when he batted .302 with 23 home runs and 72 RBI, Aikens was arrested along with Willie Wilson, Jerry Martin and Vida Blue on charges of attempting to possess cocaine. Aikens was sentenced to 90 days in the federal correctional facility in Fort Worth, Tex., a far stiffer punishment than any levied against players who have since admitted to actual drug use. Aikens said that he is clean and has been for a while, and he is willing to prove it by undergoing drug tests.
""I guess you have to look at the state we were in, Kansas, and that we were the first baseball players ever to be caught up in something like that," Aikens said. "The judge told us when he sentenced us, 'I'm not sending you to prison because you were trying to buy a certain amount of cocaine. I'm sentencing you because of who you are.' We had a responsibility to live up to.
"After that happened to us, other players haven't been treated as harsh as us. I mean, they never caught us with anything. The charge was attempting to possess cocaine. They had us on tape. Other players later confessed to using cocaine, and they were using longer than I did. I used for a year and a half. Some guys were using for eight or 10 years. I knew some of them. Then they get 10 percent of their salary and community work. That wasn't anything compared to what we had to go through. I spent 81 days in prison and was suspended 45 days and did community work."
Aikens was traded to Toronto during his suspension. He was reactivated May 16, 1984, and hit only .205 as the Blue Jays' first baseman. He was released by Toronto May 9, 1985, and re-signed by the organization 10 days later. He expected better treatment after a solid season in the minors last year, but his phone did not ring last winter. He said that the Blue Jays' new manager, Jimy Williams, told him that the team thought his bat was slow, and triple A was out because they had youngsters they wanted to develop as designated hitters. Aikens believes that, but he also believes that his past influenced other teams to shun him.
"I honestly think it was one of the reasons I wasn't invited to spring training," he said. "The years I had in the major leagues and the stats I had .271 career batting average , there's no way the year I'm a free agent no one calls."
Aikens, who is fluent in Spanish from years of winter ball in Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, said that a part-time scout for the California Angels is watching him. He is worth watching. In a league considered a little below the triple-A level, Aikens is within easy reach of the records for home runs and RBI -- 46 and 144. His team, the Angels, plays at Estadio Hermanos Serdan, near the new highway that brings trucks and traffic to the largely industrial city of Puebla.
"I'd have better stats if I was playing up north, where the ball carries better than it does here," he said. "I'd have close to 50 homers now. Another thing is that it rains here every single day around 5 o'clock, and it's cold. That counts against me."
Aikens' career is at a decisive stage. If no one calls, he could stay here, although Japan also offers the possibility of an extended baseball life. It's the bumpy bus rides that can take 18 hours over mountain roads, dressing at the hotel because there's no real locker room and playing under dim lights against so-so players that make him long for the major leagues again.
"I can help someone as a DH. I know I can," said Aikens, who makes daily treks to town for newspapers to keep track of major league statistics. "It's not like I'm hitting .300 with 20 home runs: I'm having an exceptional year. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing down here and keep hoping."