To hear this clean-cut, seemingly earnest ex-major league baseball player tell it, it doesn¹t get much better than a methamphetamine high.
"I ain't gonna bullshit you, man, it's an awesome drug," says Glendale native Kevin Wickander, who pitched on and off in the big leagues from 1989 to 1996. "Meth is perfect for me all the way around. It's made me feel exactly how I wanted to feel, and that's with no pain and so focused on me that nothing else matters."
The 37-year-old is presenting this glowing testimonial in a noisy visiting room at the Maricopa County Jail, his residence for the past seven months. It's a sunny Saturday afternoon, September 20, a day after Superior Court Judge Peter Reinstein sentenced Wickander to four years in prison.
Earlier, Wickander had pleaded guilty to theft of a computer and other property from a Phoenix business. He already was on probation in separate cases for felony possession of methamphetamine and tools with which to commit burglaries. The judge could have sentenced Wickander to six and a half years.
Besides losing his freedom, Wickander also has lost his family (he hasn't seen the two young children he had with ex-wife Kim in more than two years) and most of his material possessions. He's even lost his baseball pension, which court records show he signed over to his former spouse after not paying child support for about two years.
When Glendale police arrested Wickander in February, he had no permanent home, and had stashed his remaining possessions in a storage shed, where he says he spent hours on end.
But here he is in the county jail, insisting that going to prison for what likely will be about three years is a good thing. Wickander looks healthy, sturdy enough even to step onto a mound somewhere and throw a baseball hard and true, just like the old days.
He speaks in adrenalized riffs that makes one wonder how truly wired he must have been on meth, or on the amphetamine pills known as "white crosses" that he says he usually pitched on during his major league career.
Though he appeared in 150 big league games, Wickander was a journeyman, not a superstar. Fans remember him mostly for his emotional response to the fatal March 1993 boating accident that involved three of his Cleveland Indians teammates, including his best friend, Steve Olin.
Wickander at times tends to exaggerate, even about events easily corroborated or refuted, such as how much money he made in baseball, or how he performed in a given year. But he seems straight when he says it either was prison for him or something more permanent: death.
"This drug took me by storm, man. I think about it right now, and I been eight months clean. If I walked out right now, I'd think about using. I'd have to be with the right people to stay clear.
"There are a lot of broken souls in this place, me included," he continues. "It's built to break your spirit, if you have one left in you. But I don't have a worry in the world in here. It's lonely and it's scary, but it's scarier thinking about going out there in the world again."
The path Wickander took to his current predicament isn't uncommon among professional athletes. Still, his descent from admired athlete and self-proclaimed "regular Christian-type dude with all-American values" into meth addict and petty criminal is instructive.
It's a tale of how drug abuse can destroy anyone, regardless of circumstance. It's also about a local kid who clawed his way to the top of his lucrative, high-profile profession, but was grossly unprepared to handle basic life pressures during and after his career.
At first blush, Kevin Dean Wickander seems an unlikely subject for a tale such as this. Though his family declined to be interviewed for this story, his upbringing in Glendale apparently was a positive one.
"I grew up in Middle America, and my parents were Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver," Wickander says, referring to characters in the 1950s television show Leave It to Beaver.
He was born in January 1965, the second of Jerry and Ardith Wickander's three children. Now retired, Jerry owned a successful West Valley concrete company; Ardith ran an arts-and-crafts store until a few years ago.
Jerry Wickander coached his middle child in Little League, and it soon became apparent that the boy had great athletic potential. Wickander later attended Phoenix Cortez High School, where he played baseball and was, by all accounts, a popular, outgoing kid.
He says he had grown to love the challenge of pitching a baseball, though he got little attention from major college programs and pro scouts during his senior year.
One coach who did come around in the spring of 1983 was Grand Canyon College's Gil Stafford. Wickander says Stafford took him to a Bob's Big Boy restaurant and made his recruiting pitch.
"Kevin was a competitor, and that's what I was looking for," recalls Stafford, a respected baseball man who now is Grand Canyon's president. "He was a local neighborhood kid who wanted to win really bad -- a free spirit, but one who was willing to listen to his coach. He was a Canyon kind of guy, a blue-collar west-sider. I liked him the first time I met him."
Though Stafford says Wickander had excellent work habits on the ball field, some of the pitcher's other exploits had profound repercussions. While at Grand Canyon, he impregnated a young woman who gave birth to a daughter, now 19. (Wickander says he's had little contact with that daughter, though Maricopa County court records show her mother won thousands of dollars in back child support in 1998.)
Wickander says he dabbled with marijuana in high school, but didn't like it. He says he snorted cocaine a few times during college, then swore it off because "I didn't want to ruin my chances at going pro."
Those odds became better as his career at Grand Canyon blossomed. During Wickander's freshman year, he beat cross-town rival Arizona State University, which had on its squad a talented left fielder named Barry Bonds -- "Fastball in on his hands, maybe another, then hook him down and away," Wickander says of how he pitched the future star.
In 1986, Wickander led Grand Canyon to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) crown, the pinnacle for a small college program. He says the Cleveland Indians then drafted him late in the first round, and offered a $100,000 signing bonus. Club archives, however, indicate it was the second round, though he was accurate about the bonus.
Teams ever are on the prowl for competent southpaw pitchers, and the Cleveland chain groomed Wickander to face left-handed hitters in the late innings, usually in pressure situations. (It's a role similar to that of Arizona Diamondbacks lefty Mike Myers, who pitched in 69 games this season, but threw only 39 innings. His salary: $1.5 million.)
At the end of the 1989 season, the Indians called up the 24-year-old Wickander from their Triple-A team. He says he recorded his first big league out against future Hall of Famer Robin Yount -- now a D-Backs coach. After the game, Wickander says, he adjourned to a pub to celebrate his major league christening as he had in the minors -- by drinking himself into oblivion.
In the majors, Wickander says he quickly embraced the amphetamines that he claims were readily available in Cleveland's clubhouse -- those so-called "white crosses."
"There were cases of the stuff around every big league clubhouse I ever was in," he says. "About half the guys did crosses' as part of their day. It pushes you an extra two hours, which helps over a 162-game schedule. I got right into them, pitched on them, enjoyed them."
Cleveland's clubhouse, he continues, typically had three pots of coffee brewing before and during games. "There was your caffeinated, your decaf, and the third pot -- it usually had a red line around it. They called it The Mud. It was like syrup, molasses, because it had a ton of white crosses ground into it. You drink two or three little cups and, wham."
A spokesperson for the Indians denies any knowledge of the so-called "Mud," and says Wickander's recollection is incorrect.
Wickander made the opening-day roster of the 1990 Indians, and started well. But that May, he shattered his pitching elbow in a fall on a concrete runway at Anaheim Stadium. The injury ended his season.
He says he tried to corral his growing depression over the turn of events with alcohol.
"I wasn't a nasty drunk," he says, "and people around me thought I was pretty cool. Maybe since I always picked up the tab, even though I wasn't rolling in it."
Major leaguers didn't make nearly the money in the early 1990s that they do today. Records indicate Wickander made $100,000 in 1990, and the most he ever collected in the majors was $290,000 in 1996, his final season.
Wickander worked hard at rehabilitating his elbow, though he didn't make the major league club out of spring training. Sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs to get back into game shape, Wickander drank so much and so publicly there that Cleveland's brass took the unusual step of ordering him into an inpatient alcohol-rehab program.
He stayed there for 30 days, and says he only rarely has had a drink in the decade since then.
The Indians gave Wickander another chance at the start of the 1992 season. Again, the team sent him to Triple-A, where he performed admirably and got recalled to Cleveland that May. Within a few days, he earned his first save as a major leaguer.
That May 28, Wickander married his high school sweetheart, Kim Pennington, at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas. Wickander's best man was fellow Indians relief pitcher Steve Olin, a good-natured family man with whom he'd risen through the minor league ranks.
The wedding date also marked the first anniversary since Wickander had gone into rehab.
Kevin Wickander excelled for the remainder of the 1992 season, appearing in 44 games. He says he went to spring training in Florida in 1993 fully expecting his best year yet.
But on March 22, 1993, came the tragedy that would define the rest of Wickander's baseball career and, in a way, the rest of his life.
It was the Indians' only day off during spring training, and pitchers Olin, Bob Ojeda and Tim Crews got together with their families for a day of riding horses, fishing and picnicking.
Wickander says he'd wanted to join his pals, but had promised to take his wife to nearby Disney World.
In the late afternoon, Olin, Ojeda and Crews stepped aboard Crews' 18-foot fishing boat for a spin around Little Lake Nellie, in rural central Florida. As the boat circled back to shore at dusk, it hit the underside of a dock that Crews apparently didn't see. Toxicology tests indicated that Crews had a blood-alcohol content well above the legal limit for intoxication.
Olin died instantly, and Crews died the next day, of injuries that were described in grotesque detail in subsequent news accounts. Ojeda suffered severe lacerations to the scalp, and was hospitalized for days. (He'd return to the Indians later that season, but was out of baseball within a year, reportedly suffering from severe depression.)
Steve Olin's widow, Patti, gave Wickander her late husband's favorite watch at the funeral. Wickander still lists the watch as one of his three most prized possessions, with his own wedding ring and Grand Canyon's 1986 championship ring.
Opening day approached in 1993 under what had become a national microscope, and the Cleveland Indians tried to cope with the tragedy. The media constantly called on Wickander to discuss his feelings about the death of his best friend.
But Wickander wasn't doing well. The haunted pitcher turned his clubhouse locker into a shrine -- media accounts at the time described how Olin's mitt sat atop the locker, his shower togs stayed put on the floor, and a framed enlargement of Olin's baseball card faced the room.
Wickander says he tried his best as the season started, but his head wasn't into it. He says he didn't turn to alcohol for solace, but concedes he was increasingly depressed by the deaths. Just a few months into the season, the Indians traded him to Cincinnati, hoping a fresh start would be best for all concerned.
But the change of scenery didn't help Wickander. The Reds released him at the end of the season, and he says no other team expressed immediate interest in his services.
Life had become extremely stressful for the 28-year-old pitcher: His wife was expecting the couple's first child, but he was unemployed and had been anything but thrifty in the preceding years.
"I didn't know what it was like to save money," Wickander says, "and we spent whatever we had, or didn't have."
He temporarily found work in Taiwan, and pitched there for a few months before returning to the States shortly before the birth of his child. He remained out of work in Phoenix, as major league baseball went on strike in August 1994, which ended the rest of that season and the World Series.
But in 1995, the Detroit Tigers signed Wickander, then assigned him to Triple-A Toledo for the start of the season. He did well, and got called up to Detroit that May. It turned out to be the best year of his major league career, and, he says, more than that.
"My daughter was born, my wife and I were happy, and I was playing for the legendary Sparky Anderson, a lifelong dream," Wickander recalls. "My teammates included Cecil Fielder, Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, and they respected me. Sparky told me I was a guy he'd go to war with, because I was a gamer, no complaints, just doing my job."
Despite that, the Tigers traded Wickander to the Milwaukee Brewers near the end of the 1995 season. The following year proved to be another tough one, as he suffered an injury to his left shoulder that he says caused him to pitch poorly.
Milwaukee released Wickander at the end of the 1996 season. No team picked him up for the 1997 season, and the Texas Rangers released him at the end of spring training in 1998.
Wickander says he hasn't touched a baseball since then.
"I'd never had a job other than baseball," Kevin Wickander says. "I'd worked for my dad's company, but I always knew I was gonna go back and play ball. I finally started figuring out that we were broke, and I didn't know what to do about it."
He says he found a possible solution in the want ads -- as a car salesman for a local Nissan dealership. "It fit me just right. I'm a go-getter, and I was still doing those white crosses by the boxful, going like a son of a bitch, which you have to do in that job."
Wickander says that, after a rugged initiation, he became a top salesperson, first at the Nissan dealership and later at Camelback Toyota. It was on a test drive while working for the latter that Wickander says a potential customer introduced him to meth.
"I took a guy out that I knew from high school. I was pushing 70, 80 hours a week, and I was kind of looking that way [methamphetamine]. We're driving out in the Camelback mountains, and he asks me if I want to do a hit. Sure.' The guy never did qualify for the car -- a black Tundra. But I called him next morning and said, Hey, can you hook me up with some more of that stuff?' Boom, it was off to the races. Anything with ephedrine in it, I love it!"
By mid-1999, Wickander says, he was smoking meth three or four times a week -- "I never was a junkie hanging out in the projects, but I had my crutch with me all the time, because I could never seem to get ahead."
The latter is corroborated by an April 1999 court document that details the foreclosure of the Wickanders' northwest Phoenix home. Months before that, Wickander says, his wife had kicked him out of the house, and later filed for divorce. (Kim Wickander -- who has remarried and changed her surname -- didn't respond to a request for an interview.)
Kevin Wickander slipped ever deeper into the meth subculture. Before the end of 1999, he'd discovered a niche that suited his tweaker lifestyle perfectly: remodeling west Phoenix houses at all hours of the day and night.
"I had learned from my dad how to build a house from the ground up," he says. "I knew someone who would buy homes from a leasing company, have them redone inside, then rent or sell. I could make a little cash for my drugs and food, and have a place to live for a few months at a time."
Wickander says he rented a storage shed, which became a surrogate home for the next few years: "I ran a light cord outside of it and tapped it into the main wire. I had a TV in there, a little air-conditioning unit, most of my clothes, and my baseball memorabilia. It was a place I could chill out."
Wickander toiled alone in the remodels -- nine in all, he says -- until his arrest last February. "I was low overhead and a hard worker. I could work at 4 in the morning and no one cared. Guys would steal tile from somewhere, then sell them to me half-price -- I'd get a kickback from my boss. I'd fence a bunch of other stuff. To tell the truth, the cops missed a lot of other stuff they could have got me for."
Phoenix police first arrested Wickander in August 2000 after watching him break into a vacant home on West Greenway Road. Police reports say undercover officers saw him scale a wall, pry open a back door, then leave without taking anything. Detectives found disconnected water lines in the bathroom and kitchen inside the home, which led them to believe Wickander had been planning to steal the dishwasher and other items.
The police reports say Wickander confessed to breaking into homes looking for items to use in his remodels. He spent two days in jail before making bail, then checked into a Phoenix drug treatment center, where he stayed for about a month.
In February 2001, a judge put Wickander on two years' probation after he pleaded guilty to a reduced felony charge. But the following month, Glendale police arrested Wickander for possession of an ounce of meth. Again, he confessed, but a judge then reinstated him on probation despite the new felony conviction.
Though Wickander had promised to participate in substance-abuse counseling, he says he soon returned to his itinerant, meth-fueled ways.
John Sloss, a Scottsdale criminal-justice consultant who prepared a report on Wickander's behalf before the recent sentencing, says, "When the glory days and the money was gone, so was his support group. Kevin never did learn how to deal with defeat, or with day-to-day life outside of pro sports. I'm talking about the ability to face reality."
Continues Sloss, a onetime chair of the Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles: "I think that his charm, good looks and ability to articulate became a disservice to him, during and after baseball."
Wickander says his girlfriend, Melissa Hernandez, left him before his February arrest. (The pair later resumed their relationship.) He says Hernandez had become pregnant with his child in late 2001, but couldn't tolerate his incessant drug use. Hernandez, who didn't respond to requests for an interview, gave birth to a daughter earlier this year.
"I was smoking meth every day by then," Wickander says. "Didn't have no family, my girl had left me, didn't feel like cutting tile anymore. I was just living to meet my connection, the never-ending cycle."
Sensing that something momentous was about to happen, Wickander says he asked his father to take possession of the items that still meant so much to him -- his college title ring, his wedding ring, and Steve Olin's watch.
On February 12, Phoenix police arrested Wickander for theft, a few days after the burglary of a computer, a photocopying machine and other property from a north Phoenix rental firm. He denied committing the theft, but admitted he'd let an associate stash the stolen items in a home he was remodeling. If he hadn't gotten caught, Wickander told authorities, he would have fenced the stolen goods, and split the proceeds with the actual thief.
This time, finally, Wickander faced a guarantee of serious prison time, up to 13 years on the single theft count. His Phoenix-based attorney, Warren Levenbaum, knew prosecutors would be demanding a mandatory prison sentence, because Wickander had continued to commit crimes while on probation.
In July, Wickander pleaded guilty to the theft charge. Under the conditions of his plea bargain, probation would not be a possibility, and he faced up to six and a half years in prison. That's what deputy county attorney Katherine Macrae and probation officer Roger Humphries wanted Judge Peter Reinstein to impose.
"While [Wickander] is articulate, educated and personable," Humphries wrote in a presentence report, "his performance has been minimal at best. He . . . has repeatedly made cognizant decisions continuing to use illegal drugs and committing new offenses against the public."
Levenbaum hired John Sloss to prepare an "alternative sentencing proposal" for the judge.
"Mr. Wickander went from being on top of the world as a major league baseball player to depths that he never dreamed were possible," Sloss wrote. "Mr. Wickander appears to have gone from one setback to another, and demonstrated a total loss of how to get his life back on track."
Sloss' report included a letter in which Grand Canyon president Stafford said he will offer Wickander a job as a pitching coach at the school after prison.
"I think Kevin has a lot to offer college kids by working with them and telling them what he's gone through," Stafford tells New Times. "He's had more than his share of life issues, some of them his doing and some of them not his doing, like the boat accident. Hopefully, we'll be a big part of the support groups he'll need when he gets out -- that's the only way he'll possibly survive."
At Kevin Wickander's sentencing on September 19, his parents expressed both love for their son and heartbreak over what has happened to him.
"Kevin has lots of friends and family who love him," Ardith Wickander said, "but drugs took over his life. The seven months he's been in jail have been a blessing in disguise. . . . I think he's realizing what he's done to his family, his career, and most of all, to himself."
Jerry Wickander then told Reinstein, "Kevin didn't pay attention of how people have to work and do the right thing. We tried to do everything we could, but we haven't run into anything like this before."
Melissa Hernandez promised the judge that she'll be there for Wickander when he gets out of prison -- "I love him very much, and I'll give him all the support he needs."
Finally, Wickander stood and faced Judge Reinstein. "I'll work my fingers to the bone when I get out," he said, trembling and weeping in his black-and-white jail stripes. "My family needs me and I need them. I am not a menace to society."
Reinstein looked down at the ex-pitcher from the bench, and got to the point.
"Not many people are able to play in the major leagues," he told Wickander. "It's probably every little boy's dream, and you realized that dream. Your fall from grace is so much longer and farther than most people I see. I would agree with your parents that you yourself probably don't know why this happened to you."
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