"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.