For 43 years in prison, sports was a guiding light for exonerated Kevin Strickland

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Days after an exonerated Kevin Strickland was released from the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron after the tragedy of serving the longest known wrongful conviction in state history, the Kansas City Royals learned of his yearning to feel the grass beneath his bare feet at Kauffman Stadium.

So they had “a little something for me,” as Strickland described the tender invitation — one that coursed more deeply than the Royals could have anticipated in a man who says sports has been vital to his survival.

“Yes, sir,” he said in a phone interview with The Kansas City Star on Wednesday. “Without sports, I might not be here talking to you on this phone today.”

That day, the scoreboard touting his own long-anticipated arrival on the field (“MR. STRICKLAND; WELCOME TO THE K!!”) was a variation on a wistful vision for Strickland, who on April 28 will be a panelist for the Midwest Innocence Project’s 2022 Faces of Innocence virtual event.

The scene harkened back not merely to his piercing 43 years of wrongful incarceration. Or to a summer spent cleaning those stadium stands and looking longingly on the field.

It cast him reeling in the years to a youth baseball career that made him believe as a young teen, and even now, that playing pro baseball had been his rightful destiny.

“When I look back now, you’re making me smile; there were some nice moments in my life,” he said, ruefully adding, “That was my calling, and I let it slip by me. I did.”

Fanciful as it might sound, it’s a moving experience to hear Strickland think of some of the sweet days he wishes he had back. Before he was sent on what he called “assignment for the government” over most of the last half-century, he lamented drifting from baseball and having “kind of lost my way.” He quickly noted, “It wasn’t in a murder way, so let’s get that straight.”

So on that sunny day at Kauffman last fall, he gazed around and immersed himself in a setting beyond what met the eye.

He thought about what it might be like to chase down a ball in the cavernous outfield. He pictured himself diving for one or crashing the outfield wall to clasp another.

Most of all, though, the 62-year-old simply absorbed the sensation of the gorgeous turf beneath his feet. He stood enraptured for the few minutes he could before his spinal stenosis was going to leave him shaking in pain.

“Unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “And then I felt it. And it was just plush. It was plush. Almost wanted to reach down and get me a piece and chew it. But it was plush. …

“I didn’t feel a bump in the road. Wasn’t no pebble. It was my dream. I’d always wanted to be on a major league field.”

He also appreciated the nice lunch the Royals provided that day. And what he figured was a double-stuffed bag of apparel featuring a heap of gear he hasn’t even had a chance to open yet. He received an autographed Sal Perez jersey, too, and another with his own surname stitched above the No. 21.

The number stood for the year he was at long last released … even as he still is seeking to find more emotional freedom.

“I still ain’t there right now today,” he said. “I’m only out four months. I haven’t gotten set up. I’m still under everybody’s tutelage and guidance. I don’t know my directions on the road.

“But, yes, that field. It gave me that sense of, ‘You’re here, man; you made it.’ Yes, yes it did. It was a relief. I didn’t cry-cry. But I think I got a little teary-eyed out there.”

Life before prison

Powerful as that statement from Strickland is to ponder in itself, it’s also a glimpse into something long sustaining for Strickland.

“Sports was a big part of my life before prison,” he said, laughing and adding, “and throughout prison history.”

When he was about 3 or 4 years old, he recalled, his mother, Rosetta Savannah Thornton, looked at his legs and told him, “You’re going to be a football player.”

The very suggestion triggered his imagination that he was meant to be an athlete. Pretty soon, he was playing so many sports that he “didn’t have time to take a bath” — though he allowed as how he did bathe — and realized he held the gifts of coordination and balance and speed.

As he gradually grew toward a 5-foot-5 stature, though, he reckoned football wasn’t his game and that basketball also wasn’t based on a simple calculus: “If he’s standing there at 8-foot-10 and he’s leaning on the rim, you can’t put the ball in the hole!”

But baseball, well …

“I don’t believe in blowing my own horn,” he said, laughing as he called himself “phenomenal.”

He playfully added that he was sorry there was no video of his exploits playing in what he remembered being under the umbrella of the Church of the Living God. At the time, he “pretty much governed” the territory at second base, he recalled, and he swears he never once struck out.

He could steal his way around the bases; so what, he said, laughing again, if he may have prospered by 11-year-olds struggling to catch?

And he’s still proud of the time the regular catcher didn’t show up and he volunteered for the job as others looked away.

On the first few pitches, he said, he closed his eyes when the batter swung and kept getting hit in the chest gear or shoulder or even let the ball hit the umpire, who urged him to “catch some of these balls.”

Next thing you know, though, a pitch zoomed right into the pocket of his glove even with his eyes closed. Suddenly, eyes open, he was catching it and even calling pickoff plays.

In the years to come, alas, he’d have to adapt much more extremely than that.

“If I could dial it back in life,” he said, “I would go back to when I was that age.”

‘The aura of the place’

By that age, Strickland had been to Kauffman more than a few times. His father, L.R., who died in 2011, became a chef who often was given Royals tickets by patrons; Strickland remembers the sensation of sitting in seats a few rows behind the dugout.

He still can envision his first view, overwhelmed by “the size of the place, the aura of the place.”

Still is, even as he thinks now how “I could very well possibly have been on the field playing if I had stayed focused and away from the wrong company.”

Strickland spoke only in generalities as he described why he didn’t play baseball at Southeast High before dropping out and applying to join the military.

“I started running into guys who … started taking up my time and influencing me to go other ways that I shouldn’t have went,” he said.

Strickland was 18 when he was arrested in 1978 for the triple-murder from which he was finally exonerated after serving more than two-thirds of his life in prison.

Remarkable coverage by The Star’s Luke Nozicka helped free Strickland, who among others is forever grateful for the Midwest Innocence Project and Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker — whom he calls “the gem in my life” and is thrilled continues to check in on him.

Over much of his prison span, sports became crucial to him again by providing diversion, solace and recreation.

“That’s what kept me afloat in prison,” he said. “Trying to stay away from the riff-raff and (enjoying) my life in sports. That’s what I did. Yes, I did.”

For one thing, he watched sports constantly since he had television in his cells purchased through jobs in prison and family assistance. While there often were opportunities to watch events in a group setting, Strickland was more apt to watch in his cell to avoid the inevitable trash-talk that came with different people pulling for different teams.

“If me and the TV got in a fight,” he said, “I stood a pretty good chance of winning that.”

Frustrated with the local teams for many years, he took to embracing winners around the NFL and Major League Baseball during the droughts. But he reveled in watching the Royals win the World Series in 2015 and, of course, back in 1985 — when Frank White was playing for the Royals long before he’d become the Jackson County executive and attend the evidentiary hearing that led to Strickland’s exoneration. (White is expected to soon meet with Strickland to sign a Louisville Slugger bat in his name.)

He also exulted in seeing the Chiefs win their first Super Bowl in 50 years, stoked by Patrick Mahomes — the quarterback Strickland recalled tracking back to a Texas Tech team that was “going to score 60 but let you get 62.”

As it happens, Mahomes ultimately was tracking Strickland, who was invited by the Chiefs to attend the Dec. 5 game against Denver but was unable to attend.

“Obviously, it’s terrible that he was in jail for that long being an innocent man, but I’m glad he’s out now,” Mahomes said days after Strickland’s release, adding that he hoped his example could prevent future cases of “that same situation” causing innocent people to “lose a big part of their life pretty much.”

Path to better health

Before Strickland suffered two heart attacks that led to being diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2016, he also was nourished by recreation in prison. But he was particular because of what he described as a tendency toward conflict in team sports.

“Everybody doesn’t see the rules the same way,” he said, laughing. “Three strikes you’re out; you don’t get four. You know, sometimes people who don’t play as well as you, they want to bend the rules a little bit.”

So he didn’t play softball, and he avoided basketball both because of his height and his observations about the nature of the prison game.

“Disagreements generally end up with violence,” he said. “I was in the practice of trying to get out of prison, so I couldn’t be subjecting myself to situations that would cause me to possibly lose my life about ‘you fouled me’ or ‘you out of bounds.’ “

So handball became a habit, typically one-on-one.

“I came to a point in my life in prison where I decided if I couldn’t work out a disagreement about an out ball with one guy, without it getting real serious and dangerous, then maybe my communication skills are extremely poor and I need to work on that,” he said. “That’s how I deduced that situation: ‘Maybe I’ll go and play this one-on-one sport, and if I can’t get along with this one guy then maybe I need to go seek some help somewhere.’ “

He paused and added, “And mind you, I did take over that game, too.”

He laughed and laughed as he said that, perhaps reflecting a lighter spirit to go with a lighter body in several ways now.

With the considerable assistance of Genesis Health Clubs, which has provided a free lifetime membership and trainers, Strickland lost 30 pounds in 100 days in preparation for spinal surgery two weeks ago. Despite some anticipated excruciating flare ups of pain in the aftermath, he already is more mobile for longer periods of time.

Soon, he believes, he will be able to “run, jump and play like the other children.” And one day before too long, he hopes, he’ll get to go back to Kauffman Stadium and enjoy even more of a sense of pure freedom.

“If I could run the base path, at least walk it, just to feel the distance …” he said, pausing and adding, “I need to feel that before I die. I really do.”

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