On a perfect night for September baseball at Washington Nationals Park last year, as his band played "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" toward the end of his I'm-still-as-manic-as-George-Brett-used-to-be show, Bruce Springsteen gazed upward at a screen showing a video tribute to his late saxophonist Clarence Clemons. In a visual echo, Clemons towered above him on all the stages in the footage, too.
The day of the show, I had re-read Bruce's eulogy of Clemons from June 21, 2011, in which he referred to a photograph on the altar as "a picture of Scooter and The Big Man, people who we were sometimes." Springsteen went on to excoriate the fellow as much as he praised him, with the same sheer honesty with which he eulogized his similarly flawed but equally beloved organist Danny Federici in 2008. Bruce loved the boys in his band, but sure was conscious, and consequently forgiving, of their sins and shortcomings.
And as I watched Bruce watching the Big Man in a baseball stadium, his facial expression, part contented and part wistful, made me think he was thinking of the same line from the eulogy -- look at those people, those two wild SOBs, we were together sometimes.
The ballpark setting and the elegiac moment, and the white guy/black guy buddy film, made me think of George Brett and Willie Mays Aikens, another emblematic 1980s friendship my brain had chewed up a lot of cells trying to figure out over the past three years. Willie, the Kansas City Royals slugger turned drug addict had now, after 14 years in prison, become the face for reforming discriminatory drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. During the two years I had just spent researching and writing a book on him, I regularly watched the footage of his legendary 1980 World Series performance. He hit two home runs in two different games that Series; ended with a batting average of .400; and stared down Steve Carlton, possessor of a stare of the uttermost disdain.
Willie, like Clarence, was a big, bad man, and as joyful and playful and confused and destructive as Springsteen made Clemons sound. They both had stage presence of absurd proportions. In my favorite scene, from Game 1, Willie is lumbering to the plate after a home run and, among the Royals gathered to greet him, you can see Brett hit him on the helmet. Willie pauses for a moment as if to say, I'll be damned, Gorgeous George just smacked me on the helmet for hitting a home run in the World Series, then turns his head to look back at Brett again as the next round of head slaps and back pats ensues.
For me, the Kansas City Royals of the 1980s were the baseball version of The E Street Band.
Indeed, I watched the footage with Willie a bunch of times in his living room in Kansas City, and every time that congratulatory scene arrived, he would shift on his couch, draw closer to the tube, and marvel with the same sort of gaze with which Springsteen stared up at his departed band mate: Damn, I used to play in the same band as George.
For me, the Kansas City Royals of the 1980s were the baseball version of The E Street Band. I was 9 years old when Willie Mays Aikens turned Veterans Stadium into his personal bandbox, and he and George Brett and their crazy cast -- part funk band, part Allman Brothers - embodied an America that enchanted me. Country boys and California surfers, Motown menace and Mississippi cool, the Royals played with a unique spirit, a rebel defiance, which fed my imagination. They were a raucous band.
But I soon would be baptized into the world of American fraud, for that myth I had invented for myself, or that television had created for me, fell apart off camera. In 1983, I experienced my first lesson in that great American phenomenon called disillusionment, a common theme in Reagan America, as Bruce so well sings. Aikens, my favorite player from the team, had been busted along with three other Royals for purchasing cocaine, and was going to jail. The Royals would soon cut him, as would the Blue Jays a few months later, and he would disappear into the anonymity of the Mexican Leagues by 1986.
I didn't know then, not yet, that he was also disappearing into a sordid haze of drugs and despair. George Brett, my second favorite Royal, would keep on bringing down the house for years to come, a baseball, California version of Springsteen, and they, in very different ways, would come to stand for me, culturally, for one end of two very different, but emblematic pathways that people took in the '80s: Absurd success or bombastic self-destruction.
Many years later, still obstinately stinging at the betrayal, I decided I wanted to write a book about Willie, primarily to understand the man who had deceived me so, but also to get a grasp on these paradoxes of the era in which the consumer - of junk food, of images, of drugs, of entertainment, and of lies - became an American archetype.
Instead, the book experience turned into something straight out of a Springsteen song - bittersweet, hard fought, tragic, but ultimately ending with a sort of regretful wisdom that I will forever cherish. And, above all, it ended with a friendship, not legendary, like Bruce and Clarence or Willie and George, but in no small part owing to the examples of these famous men.
The April day we were driving to George Brett's house Willie said to me, "This is where I would have lived, man." He was referring specifically to the Mission Hills neighborhood of Kansas City, a stately, boulevardish amalgam of mansions that feels like Buckhead in Atlanta or Westchester, New York, or Chevy Chase near D.C. But we both knew what he meant: Had I stayed clean, man, had I not blown it first on coke and then on crack and simultaneously, on women, I would have been George's neighbor. I would been a rich man.
Brett's house itself, from the outside and on the inside, feels like a Spanish palace. The tile, the porticos, the colors remind you that, though he lives in the Midwest, this is a Southern California boy through and through.
Willie has two bad knees and two bad hips, a gray beard and a bald head, but as he rang the doorbell, he got bouncy.
Brett answered and in his loud, showman's voice said, "Get on in here, Mick!"
their mutual affection filled the room like the pleasing spring breeze.
He always called Willie ‘Mick,' I could never get straight why, and they back-slapped each other all the way into George's wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling wood library.
And as we sat and talked about what had happened to their lives over the past 25 years, their mutual affection filled the room like the pleasing spring breeze. Brett thrived on Willie's good humor and adoration; Willie, peeking out from under his gray hoodie, acted like he was in the presence of a rock star.
But there was an elephant sitting squat on top of the antique coffee table. George was as loyal a friend to Willie right now as could be, setting up a speech for Willie at his son's school, constantly lobbying the Royals to hire Willie in some capacity, calling Willie regularly to urge him to stay on the straight and narrow, harassing and haranguing him into living a clean life. But, for 25 years, they had not spoken.
Willie had a theory, one he had repeated to himself in his head so often in prison that it had become a sort of nighttime prayer: George was pissed, real pissed, 25-year-long pissed. Willie knew his self-condemnation rote: I let George down by becoming a cokehead even before I became a crackhead, I let the team down, and George to this very day is pissed about that. I was a fun teammate, a popular teammate, but, ultimately, a bad teammate. I never became the cleanup hitter for George I was supposed to be, I just messed things up. And therefore I am a bad friend. On sleepless nights in his cells in Leavenworth and Atlanta and Estill, he invariably repeated this penance like a rosary.
George, he knew, wouldn't go to bat for him until he had now seen the full proof that Willie was going to build a life. George, he knew, was showing him what they called tough love. Get your act together, my friend, and this friend will back you up all the way. Keep on snorting, forget about it.
And so, that odd couple of the '80s was reunited, chastened and aged into a steady, self-aware sort of friendship that would become the spine of the book on Willie's life.
To understand their relationship better, in literary terms, I turned one day during a writing slump to the old masters of ideas, the Greeks. Aristotle, as with most big topics, was, at least on paper, the proprietor of the idea of classical friendship. He broke it into three categories: utility, pleasure and goodness.
Utility - friendships abounded in ancient Greece as much as they do in contemporary America: You are my friend because you help me, and I'll help you back. George certainly fulfilled that role for Willie since his release from prison.
Pleasure - well these were two guys who sure as hell enjoyed one another's company as much in 2010 as in 1980.
Goodness - the highest and most difficult form of friendship, meant thinking the best and doing the best for the friend regardless of utility or pleasure. George was doing that now; in fact, even with his intentional cold shoulder, he had been doing it for the past 25 years. Willie was getting it. And a friendship in full, seemingly stalled, was now thriving.
Today, he would die for George. Kill for him.
In 2011, Willie, in large part due to George, and other Aristotelian backstops like Hal McRae, Pat Gillick, Frank White and agent Ron Shapiro, got hired as a minor-league hitting instructor by the Kansas City Royals. Twenty-five years ago he tried to be George's cleanup hitter. He failed. Today, he would die for George. Kill for him. Willie is forgiven, and the boys in the band are pure energy when they are together at spring training or Kauffman Stadium, mugging it up, just like Bruce and Clarence did so many times onstage.
On Sept. 19, 2010, at about four in the afternoon on a day that was ballpark gorgeous, I could barely speak as I tried to tell Willie over the phone that my mother had just died. I had just left her hospital room, my dad had held her right hand and I her left as she slowly eased her way into the wherever souls go. She had been in septic shock, couldn't open her eyes or move her fingers, but a few minutes prior she had nevertheless managed to send a tear wiggling down her face as I said goodbye to her.
All I could hear was a roar. For days it kept up, like a jet engine was inside my head. She was, in a very unhealthy Irish way, but also a lovely Irish way, my world. My brother had died in a car accident when I was young, and, from adolescence onward, I had spent my life trying to protect my mother from this bone-deep pain. I fought for her happiness like a Spartan soldier. Now that war was over. She had died of bone cancer.
Willie was the first person I had called. You see, I had already broken all the rules of a biographer - Willie had become my friend, irresistibly and undeniably. I could not refrain from admiring him. The poet William Butler Yeats coined a phrase, "things fall apart," that became the title of Chinua Achebe's classic novel. They sure are pretty sounding words. True, no doubt, but also a bit of a truism from overuse. American literature's recycling dumps have stockpiles of books on the topic of things - lives, relationships, bands, friendships - falling apart.
The other big stockpile of books, so large it could fuel a city as the incinerators burn them, are redemption stories. Tons of them, by addicts and crooks and the ill and brokenhearted. And I had fallen, after microscopic examination of Willie's life, of his cheap deeds and monumental lies, for his effort to put things back together. The challenge was not to tell another cheap redemption story, but to write a redemption song, for Willie's life was singing now - married, a father to be yet again, repairing his relationships with his daughters, caring for his failing mother.
No one had wanted to buy the book when we shopped it around. Most publishers said there really wasn't an audience for what they called "black addiction books." Another just said there wasn't a market for "black books." Still, others said the world was saturated with "addiction books."
Then one day the mighty Steve Wulf, now an ESPN writer from whose words I had gotten years of nourishment when he wrote at SI, called to say ESPN Books wanted to buy it.
We dug in, Willie and I, with all the gusto that he used to dig his back foot into the box. The only rule was heartbreaking honesty - he had to tell the truth about every bad thing he had done - from watching as his baby daughter gashed her leg to the bone on a jagged mirror that he used for snorting coke to taking one last hit of crack as a cop pulled him over on the highway; from almost killing a man in prison to nearly ruining his two daughters' lives.
And we became friends, the utilitarian type. He was giving me the stories I needed; I was giving him his platform.
Then we became friends some more, taking pleasure in being together, in going out to eat fried chicken at the end of the day in Kansas City or strolling along the streets in Manhattan. We enjoyed one another's laughter, conversation and support.
He kicked it up a notch from biographical subject to good friend to friend bearing goodness.
But that day my mom died, Willie started to pay it forward for George. He kicked it up a notch from biographical subject to good friend to friend bearing goodness.
I couldn't write. Writing takes a certain kind of concentration, a maddening kind, which soul-buckling grief precludes. I had a hard enough time getting up in the morning.
But I would leave my phone on, and at about 7:30 each morning the "Hey, Greg" call would come.
One morning: "Hey, Greg, you know how easy it would have been for me to quit when some Muslim dude nearly killed me in prison?"
Another: "Hey, Greg, you know how much I wanted to kill myself every time my daughter visited me in prison and refused to kiss me?"
Another: "Hey, Greg, look at yourself. You think your mother would be proud of you right now, giving up like this?"
I got back in the box, some days more wobbly than others, and dug into the disgusting portrayal of his cocaine years. Willie kept calling, one day harassing and another consoling, each time spot on given my condition. And he urged me to dig into the worst days of his life.
Then, one cold January day, another call came. ESPN was closing its book division and terminating all outstanding contracts. I felt like the floor had fallen out again. My mother had promised she would live to see the book come out. She didn't, and now there wasn't going to be a book at all.
I rehearsed how to tell Willie, certain that Mr. Cool himself would crumble this time, too.
First words out of his stutter-prone mouth: "Ain't got no doubt someone else, will buy it, Greg. Let's keep going. We gonna finish this together."
But a month later, he, weeping this time, called me. His 42-year-old wife, Sara, who had recently given birth despite having Lupus, had had a terrible stroke.
I had been struggling with how to end the book, and, it makes me sick to say, that the writer in me, and the utilitarian friend, saw it right then and there: a hospital room, Willie and his daughter standing above Sara's bed, and Willie doing the right thing. Just as he described it.
But the good friend in me, the friend wanting to reciprocate Willie's goodness, was flailing. What do you say to American Job, a guy who had been in the belly of the whale just about his whole life, when things fall apart as soon as he was starting to put them back together?
I tried calling him like he did me, but wasn't connecting. I began to think the whole thing was cursed. But then one morning Tom Bast, an old-school sports book guy from Triumph Books in Chicago, started calling me and talking in hushed tones and code words as if he were some sort of secret agent, saying he thought he could convince his boss to put up a little coin to buy the book. He sent along a contract that we thought we could negotiate a bit. Then one day he called and said sign it as is, right now, trust me if you don't this ain't gonna happen.
I called Willie, told him the news and the situation, and he stayed silent.
Then, in that spectacular South Carolina stutter of his, he said: "God is good."
I soon found out that all during his battle to survive his wife's tragedy - who kept calling him, bucking him up and pushing him forward, but George Brett. And the subject of my book - Willie so full of goodness - and I finally got the story of his cursed, blessed, selfish, glorious, cowardly, heroic, and friendship-saturated life onto bookshelves.
In the text, we tried mighty hard to nail the sentiments of his life while sidestepping sentimentality. But the night Bruce played in D.C., as the amplifiers reduced the volume so my wife and I could take in the Big Man in full without distraction from our ears, I picked up the phone and dialed my other hero from the '80s.
"They're playing our song," I told Willie. He doesn't know "The Rising" from "Rosalita," but laughed his I-know-my-laugh-makes-the-world-feel-good laugh, and told me he had sold 300 books at an autograph session that day. You see, Willie had become a successful traveling salesman ever since MLB had killed George's upstart idea of giving Willie his personal booth for signings during All-Star festivities in Kansas City in July.
The official book tour was long over; our press was good, but not wide; sales were solid, but not spectacular. But, golly, did the work win me an Aristotelian friend, and I finally allowed sentimentality, so insistent, to trump sentiment.
"Hey, Willie," I said as the final image of the Big Man froze above, Bruce, the band, and the stadium. "It's fun to play in your band."
We call each other once in a while now, and I troll for updates on the state of the Royals rejuvenation. For the first time in decades Kansas City is playing ball close to the way Kansas City used to play ball. And, the taste of Kansas City barbecue in my mouth whenever I look for their box score before going to bed at night, I pull for a team in a city so Midwestern and flat and lovely that it seems somehow exotic to my East Coast eyes, because, through the uncanny routes that friendship takes, it is a team that helped save my life.
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