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The drug dealer who hated Bill James

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Monday night, I wrote about Evan Longoria and Willie Mays Aikens, who wasn't named after Willie Mays and wasn't actually named Willie Mays Aikens at all (at least according to one reputable source). One source I consulted was a recent book about Aikens, titled Safe at Home: Willie Mays Aikens. Yep. There it is again.

Anyway, I checked the index for any reference to Willie Mays. The index does not contain any reference to Willie Mays, who is mentioned on Page 11. It's that sort of index. Anyway, I happened to notice that Bill James is referenced in the index. Checking the reference, I found this page, describing a moment late in the 1982 season. It was a disappointing season for the Royals, and Aikens had been taking some heat from the fans ...

He stood at the bar with Liebl one night and felt like he wanted to punch anyone who came too close to him.

"Willie, I know baseball better than just about anybody," Liebl said. "And what most fans don't understand is this. You think George Brett hit .390-whatever because he's just that good? Give me a break. He hit that because you were hitting behind him. There's this guy Bill James who thinks he can turn this game into some sort of science, like physics or chemistry. Put a number on all the patterns and predict everything but who you're gonna marry. Bill James can't measure what you mean to a team, Willie. Never will be able to understand it. You're fearsome up there, man. They can't calculate intimidation. And George owes you a big part of his paycheck."

Now, I should mention that this book is less a biography than a semi-fictional memoir. Unless you believe that Aikens (or "Liebl") is really able to recall a conversation in a bar from 30 years with any sort of real detail. The book is full of paragraphs like that. Or perhaps "semi-fictional" is too harsh; perhaps "impressionistic" is a kinder way to put it.

Anyway, that same year (1982), Bill James' first nationally published Baseball Abstract appeared on the shelves. Toward the back of the book, Bill ranked Aikens as baseball's sixth-best first baseman. Which was pretty good! Bill did point out that Aikens was hurt badly by Royals Stadium. Oh, and that Aikens was a terrible first baseman. In 1981 (in the last self-published Abstract), Bill had written, "If there is somebody worse than Aikens, he must be playing first with a machete." But in 1982, Bill wrote, "I must report now that Aikens was 100% improved defensively in 1981; he was all the way up to dreadful."

And then Bill went on from there at some delicious length, in that particular way that he had (and still has, if perhaps less often). I suppose it's possible that this "Liebl" fellow really did read the '82 Abstract, or maybe he'd just read something about Bill James and considered him a good foil while trying to butter up his friend, the slugging first baseman who couldn't run or field.

Either way, I became curious about this fellow. He's in the index. A number of times. Liebl's first name was Mark, and he was a jock-sniffing drug dealer. Or maybe he was just a drug giver, as he seems to have been quite generous with his cocaine, at least when it came to baseball players. Liebl lived in a Kansas City suburb, Overland Park, probably within two or three miles of where I lived, completely unsuspecting that a goodly percentage of my favorite team's best, highest-paid players were coked up half the time.

According to the book, Aikens met Liebl in the spring of '82. Vida Blue introduced them, and after a game a bunch of people went to Liebl's house. I was probably still up, watching Letterman or reading a Harlan Ellison story or thinking about naked ladies.

Vida introduced Willie and Rita as Liebl walked upstairs. They all sat down and Willie looked around: bats, photographs of Liebl with famous ballplayers, baseball signed by them, too. The place was a baseball museum. He could hear Liebl coming back down the steps.

"Your waiter is here with your meal," he said. He was holding a dinner plate full of cocaine above his shoulder.

He set it on the table in front of them.

"You come to my house, and all your problems go away," he said. "Here we come to be happy together."

Willie sat up closer to the table and stared at the coke.

"Man, I ain't tried it yet, but I realize this is like a dream, man. Getting high in a baseball museum, man. I realize it's a dream, and I never even had it yet."

Anyway, there's a lot more like that in the book. I haven't found a great deal of baseball yet, but I suppose the baseball's beside the point in a book. We know that Aikens did a lot of drugs, and now we've got the book-length treatment. Which I suppose is a good thing. If I were a baseball player, though, I would beware the bearers of platters piled with addictive narcotics.