Alan Wiggins, AIDS, and the San Diego Padres

Alan Wiggins was the first mlb player to die from AIDS, and possibly the first well-known pro sports player to die from AIDS; he’d helped the Padres win their N.L. pennant in 1984, and was one of the better major league players of 1983 and 1984. But he died in an L.A. hospital about a month shy of his 33rd birthday, and had practically disappeared in the years since he left the Baltimore Orioles in 1987. The San Diego Union reported his death on January 6, 1991, as coming from not AIDS but lung cancer:

Alan Wiggins, who in 1984 led the Padres to their only National League championship, died Sunday night in Los Angeles at age 32. Wiggins died of respiratory failure from lung cancer, his mother-in-law said last night.

Wiggins, suspended by the Padres and traded to Baltimore after drug problems in 1985, died at Cedars Sinai Hospital, where he had been a patient since Dec. 1.

The switch-hitting outfielder-turned-second baseman is survived by his wife, Angie, and their three children — Cassandra, 8, Alan, 5, and Candace, 3.

“He went down so fast, I’m sure the drugs and everything had a lot to do with it,” said Wiggins’ mother-in-law, Anna Wood of Altadena.

“This should be a lesson for so many people. I saw him fight for his life, for his breathing.”

Wiggins, who moved from Poway to his native Los Angeles last year, had been out of baseball since being released by Baltimore in 1987.

Wiggins set the existing Padres club record for stolen bases with 70 in 1984, when he scored 104 runs as their leadoff hitter and led them into a World Series that Detroit won in five games.

However, Wiggins’ career went downhill early in 1985 after he disappeared for the opener of a series at Dodger Stadium and drew a suspension that led to his admittance into a drug-rehabilitation center. It was the second time Wiggins spent time at a substance-abuse center.

Joan Kroc, who owned the Padres at the time, was unwilling for Wiggins to rejoin the team, and General Manager Jack McKeon traded him to Baltimore in a June 27 fire sale for journeyman left-hander Roy Lee Jackson.

Wiggins finished the season batting .285 in 76 games with the Orioles. He averaged .251 in 71 games the next season and was released by Baltimore Sept. 29, 1987, after hitting .232 in 85 games.

“Alan developed pneumonia just before Thanksgiving,” said Wood. “We thought he was over it, then he started coughing and we put him in the hospital.” It was then Wiggins learned he had lung cancer.

Wood said funeral services for Wiggins tentatively are scheduled for Friday in Pasadena, with interment at Rose Hill Cemetary in Whittier.

Wiggins’ former San Diego teammates were stunned by the news.

“He died at 32? My goodness!” said Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn, who won his first NL batting championship (at .351) hitting second in the lineup behind Wiggins in 1984.

“You talk about a catalyst! It seemed like every time I came up, Wiggie was on base. He was Mr. Excitement. He made things happen. He started out playing center field and left field, then did a great job when he moved to second base.

“Wiggie was controversial. He always bucked the system. I guess rebel is the right word for him. He’d say something, and 22 of the 25 guys on the ballclub would disagree, but this is a terrible loss for everybody.

“He should still be playing, but he was never the same after he left San Diego. He left and we waited five years to get another leadoff man (Bip Roberts).”

Gwynn lived near Wiggins in Poway but said he hadn’t seen his former teammate since early last year, before the Padres went to their Yuma spring-training camp.

“He was in good spirits, but he didn’t look like himself,” Gwynn said. “He looked like he hadn’t eaten in several days. He told me he was doing a lot of fishing at Lake Poway. I asked him if he missed baseball. He said he did in some ways, but not in others. He seemed content. He had his son with him.

“This is hard for all of us to accept. He should still be an outstanding ballplayer.”

Wiggins, who once attended Pasadena City College, originally was signed by the California Angels, but they released him after he allegedly fought a teammate while playing for Quad Cities of the Class A Midwest League in 1978.

“I had great rapport with Alan,” McKeon said. “I took a chance on him in the draft, and he became our catalyst in 1984. He was a good kid who ran into problems. When we lost him, it took three years to find another second baseman (recently traded Roberto Alomar) and five years to find another leadoff hitter (Roberts).”

“Alan was one of the best sparkplugs any club ever had,” said Padres veteran shortstop Garry Templeton. “He was electrifying on the bases.

“He was the main guy in 1984. It was an automatic run for us if he got on base. He was great at every position he ever played.

“This is a sad day. Alan Wiggins should still be playing.”

The knowledge that Wiggins had actually died from AIDS was released about a week after he died, in a long Los Angeles Times article outlining the young hopes and premature decline of a man who, unfortunately, is probably now best known merely for how he died, not for his achievements on the ball field:

PASADENA, Calif. – The three sat together in pews at Calvary C.M.E. Methodist Church in Pasadena Friday during the funeral service, trying to comfort one another and erase feelings of guilt created by their friend’s death.

These were three of Alan Wiggins ‘ closest friends growing up in Pasadena, staying together from Little League to junior high to the Senior Babe Ruth League to being high school teammates.

There was Warren Hollier, a 6-foot-6 pitcher and the star of the group, who eventually earned a baseball scholarship to Oral Roberts. There was Lyle Breckenridge, the shortstop, who went to Cal. There was Wayne Stone, the right fielder, who also wound up at Oral Roberts.

And there was Wiggins, who, a doctor told the Los Angeles Times Saturday, died of complications caused by AIDS.

The four friends were all close, all sharing the same dream. They were inseparable, playing ball at Brookside Park across from the Rose Bowl in the mornings. Their diamond was nothing more than a sandlot. They would rake an infield, build a pitching mound, and while playing the field, pulled their hats on tightly to prevent them from falling into the stickers.

“We’d sit around and talk about pro ball, what was going to happen, how we’d do,” Hollier said. “Alan and I were best friends. Neither of us had a dad, or much money, and we figured sports was our way out.

“Alan probably had less than any of us, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. I remember once when he didn’t have any shoes to wear, so he wore these white Converse high-tops, and he didn’t care who laughed at him.”

What did matter was that Wiggins could outrun anyone in his bare feet. He knew he was going to play ball. He just knew it. All you had to do was ask him.

“Alan knew he had superior talent,” Stone said. “I remember one day I was working, and he said to me, ‘You know something, I’ll never have to work a day in my life,’ and he kind of laughed.

“You know something? He never did.”

Said Wiggins’ brother, Donald: “I remember those guys would actually sit around and practice signing autographs. That’s why when you look at his signature, it’s so good. He had been practicing.”

Wiggins, 32, died Jan. 6 of complications caused by AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, according to one of his doctors. Wiggins had been suffering from complications caused by AIDS for three years, said the doctor, who declined to be identified.

Wiggins’ family and the staff at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Hospital decline to publicly acknowledge the cause of death, but one family member, and several friends of Wiggins, confirmed that Wiggins died from complications caused by AIDS.

“He has had some health problems for some time, he knew what was happening,” said Dr. James McGee, Wiggins’ psychiatrist in Baltimore. “The last few times I talked to him, about four months ago, were not fun, happy conversations. He was not in good shape and wasn’t optimistic.

“Things were not going well for him.”

Wiggins, who had been hospitalized on several occasions, was admitted into the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai at 2:20 a.m. on Nov. 29. The admissions report said Wiggins was “coughing, had breathing difficulty, and a clear indication of pneumonia.”

He drifted in and out of consciousness during his stay, and 37 days later, he was dead.

“It’s so tough when you see someone going through the pain he was going through,” said Ronald Wiggins, Alan’s 35-year-old brother, “and not being able to do anything about it. We always hung onto that hope. We kept praying God would perform a miracle. We held out hope right to the end.”

The man whose athletic body and enabled him to be the catalyst behind the San Diego Padres’ 1984 National League championship team weighed less than 75 pounds at the time of death.

“I feel like basically he died alone,” Hollier said. “We all cared about him greatly, but I think he felt embarrassed about what happened, and he shut us out. I mean as close as we were, none of us even knew he was sick. Can you believe it?

“I’ve shed a lot of tears over this, and I don’t want to place blame on myself or Lyle or Wayne, but we feel bad because we were not persistent enough. We used to say all the time, we need to go down there (to San Diego), grab the brother, pull him aside, and straighten him out. But we lost contact.

“He always felt embarrassed about the problems he had. He probably just needed someone to say, `It’s OK.’ I don’t want to put any guilt on myself, but I wish I had been there for him, and given him encouragement.

“It’s really a shame. There’s so much I wanted to tell him. There’s so much I wanted to thank him for what he did.

“Most of all, I just wanted to tell him that I love him.”

Steve Garvey was the only member of the 1984 Padres World Series team that attended the services. Lee Lacy was the only Orioles player who arrived. In all, there were only five former teammates who paid their respects to Wiggins.

“Some friends, huh?,” said Tony Attanasio, Wiggins’ agent and confidant. “I remember when he was with the Padres, and was in Minnesota (in drug rehabilitation). He’d call me and say, `Here’s my number, tell the guys to call me.’ I’d go to the ballpark, give out the number to a few guys, and you know what? Not once did anyone call.

“That’s what makes me sick now, seeing these guys come out in the paper like they’re his friends, and they’re not even at the funeral. His friends were at the service. The rest is pseudo, and that bothers me a lot.”

A postscript following Tony Gwynn’s death: In Men at Work, George Will’s book on baseball, Gwynn talks at some length about Wiggins and his effect on Gwynn’s approach to hitting. Some quotes from Gwynn: “We haven’t had a guy like Wiggy since he left. Having a guy like that in front of you can open up some things for a hitter.”
“At times in 1984 I’d see out of the corner of my eye that Wiggins had got a great jump, so I’d take the pitch even if I already had a strike on me.”
“As soon as he was gone [to the Orioles], the fastballs ceased coming. . . . If Wiggins stole second and I didn’t have a strike on me, I’d take another pitch so he could steal third.”

Published in: on January 4, 2011 at 3:23 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. His agent is confused between his pro baseball teammates and his friends growing up. They weren’t in the locker room when he was handing out Alan’s phone number. Very human story.

  2. I always tell the story of getting tickets from my boss to Chavez Ravine to see the Padres and Dodgers play. In the first inning, Wiggins got on, Stole second, and scored on a base hit. I got thrown out of the ballpark for supposedly causing a riot because I was wearing my Padre Cap and would turn around and face the crowd and raise my hat, and get bombarded with beer, nachos half eaten hot dogs, ect. The Pads won so that was a little consolation for missing the last six innings!

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