My induction into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2000 was the start of re-establishing a good relationship with the team over the next several years. At the time, I had no money. I was going through problems in my marriage and a bankruptcy. I had just finished a drug rehab program at Shawnee Mission Medical Center. I think through most of the ’90s the Royals wanted nothing to do with me. Once you leave the game, you leave. I never felt like they really cared about me afer they released me in 1990. It’s basically that a team doesn’t want you to embarrass the organization. They always categorized you the same way, and they never looked at whether you could change or how you could change. I remember one trip back to Kansas City when I was with the A’s, one of the Royals front-office people was in the elevator with me and says something like, You are disgracing something by fighting and all of that. It was the same old crap. I just looked at him and dropped the F-bomb on him. He was probably thinking, That’s why we got rid of you. In their brain, I was the angry guy, the guy who couldn’t get along with anybody. I was the guy who embarrassed the team during the drug thing back in 1983 and 1984, and they wanted nothing to do with me. Or maybe they just knew I was screwed up and didn’t want to help. I’m not blaming them for anything that happened because I made whatever decisions were made in my life. At the time, I did (blame them). At the time, I was still mad at them because they didn’t sign me to four more years. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t let me end my career here. I didn’t understand why George was so special and everybody else wasn’t. When I learned I was going to go in to their Hall of Fame I was at about the lowest of the low points in my life. I was just lost, considering bankruptcy, mad at the world, losing my wife. But nobody really knew any of that because if someone asked how I was doing, I lied. I didn’t want anybody to know what was going on. It came at a time when I really needed something positive to happen in my life.
But it was nerve wracking. It was nerve wracking because I didn’t know how everybody would accept me. I hadn’t been a Royal since 1990. I was an Oakland A and then a Chicago Cub. You don’t really know how deep the blue runs. So, I was apprehensive how people would accept me. I was worried that everybody kind of knew that I had been messed up. There were a lot of things going on in my head. But it was good. It was surprisingly good. The fans are pretty appreciative of things. I didn’t get any boos – at least I didn’t get any I heard. I got to ride around in a car and wave at people. I had been back to the stadium after I retired, but this was the first time I had been back down on the field. I was going in at the same time as Whitey Herzog, which surprised me. I didn’t know how he would deal with stuff. He was the guy who was always saying I couldn’t hit. I hadn’t seen him in forever, but the funny thing was he tried to take credit for me becoming a good hitter. We were at this press conference together, and they would ask me a question and I would start off answering it. I’d get three or four words out, and he would take over – you know just Whitey being Whitey. I was in such a messed up place in my life that I just let him do it because I didn’t want them asking me about some of the things in my life. And in some ways he did make me the hitter I became because he was the one who said I should have been a switch hitter. I was really nervous about my speech, and I really don’t remember very much of what I said. I do remember it was hot as hell down on the field, and my whole shirt was just full of sweat. And they gave me a nice party afterwards up in one of the suites.
But the whole thing was kind of surreal to me because when you don’t get a lot of accolades like that you don’t know how to handle it. I was never a guy who was very good being out in the public eye because then everybody is looking at you, and I kind of shied away from that. And my brain wasn’t in a good enough place yet to think anything positive. I remember doing an interview with Fred White. I have seen that interview on television, and I can see how small I was because I had just gotten out of rehab for the cocaine. I don’t remember if Fred even asked how my life was going or anything, and if he did, I lied. In a sense, that’s bad because if you let people know what’s going on they might have a way to help you, but you are embarrassed. You don’t want people to know you have screwed up millions of dollars. I didn’t screw up millions, but I screwed up the money I had left. So, that day was pretty cool being back at the stadium.
But my life was still a wreck. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any job … I think it was a few weeks afterward that I went back to the Royals saying, OK, I’m in your Hall of Fame now. Can I have a job? Basically, all they had was a scout position. I don’t know if I talked to Allard Baird or his assistant. There were so many new people at that time that I didn’t really know who to talk to. That’s when they said they would send me to scout school down in Arizona that fall, and that led to me getting back on my feet when the Arizona Diamondbacks got in touch with me about a coaching job. Getting into the Hall of Fame was really about the only good thing that had happened in my life for about eight or nine years. There is supposed to be a suite out there named after me. I haven’t found it yet, but I haven’t walked around the whole stadium Supposedly, everyone who is in the Hall of Fame has a suite named after them Another step in the healing process was when I came back here in 2005 for a Negro Leagues event. I had been living in Toronto since 2002, and I hadn’t been back to Kansas City. Bob Kendrick invited me to come to the Legacy Awards. I was really scared how the fans would receive me. When we pulled up in front of the museum there was about 18 inches of snow on each side of the street. All these people were standing there. When I got out of the car they started clapping and welcoming me back. That’s when I started talking to the Royals a little more. Several years later they named a minor league base-running award in my honor. That was pretty cool.
It’s a responsibility, and I was really happy to accept it. Before I wouldn’t want to accept any responsibility for anything because I didn’t want anybody to know what I was doing. I wasn’t that far from being out of trouble. So those two honors are pretty cool. Those two things, getting into the Royal’s Hall of Fame and the base-running award, mean more to me than any other thing I accomplished except for the World Series because they are – if I’m thinking right – going to be something that are there forever. Records are made to be broken. So, somebody may get more hits in a year than I had in 1980 or they may steal more bases than I did in 1979. But when you have an award named afer you, that’s there forever. Or if you are in the Hall of Fame, that’s there forever. And it means a lot more to me now than it meant when I was playing. I can say to my grandkids, That’s Papa. I signed a baseball for Kayden, my oldest daughter’s son, the other day. It said, I love you very much. Papa. Then I wrote 1982 batting champion, 100 hits from both sides, 668 stolen bases, second most hits in the ’80s and 1985 World Series Champs. When you are able to do that with pride it makes you feel really good. You can tell your grandkids you did some really good things. You also tell them the truth about some of the things you messed up. But it’s a good feeling, man, when I can be proud of the things I have done.
Willie James: GETTING INTO THE ROYALS HALL OF FAME Photo Gallery
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