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Otis Nixon

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1989 Topps #674 Otis Nixon

Otis Junior Nixon

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[edit] Biographical Information

The older brother of Donell Nixon, Otis Nixon stole more bases in the 1990s than anyone else.

He first caught attention with some great seasons in the New York Yankees minor league system in the early 1980s. In 1980, he scored 124 runs in 136 games for the Greensboro Hornets of the South Atlantic League, thanks to an OBP of .412 and 67 stolen bases. In 1981, he stole 72 bases for the AA Nashville Sounds, maintaining an OBP of .413 in spite of a .251 batting average, as he drew 110 walks. In 1982, between Nashville and AAA Columbus, he stole 107 bases, drew 108 walks and scored 90 runs. This was the height of the 1980s stolen base era, as Rickey Henderson set the single-season major league stolen base record, while Vince Coleman would set the minor league record the following year. He returned to Columbus for a full season in 1983 and stole another 94 bases in 138 games, hitting .291 and scoring 129 runs while drawing 96 walks. He was clearly ready to start in the majors at that point, but his teams focused on his weaknesses rather than his strengths: he had almost no power (his last professional homer had been hit in 1980 and he had never collected as many as 20 extra-base hits in a season, while never reaching the magic .300 mark as a hitter). As a result, it would take him a number of years to establish himself as a major league regular.

Nixon got his first taste of the majors by playing 13 games for the Yankees at the end of the 1983 season. He hit only .143, and the Yankees (or more precisely, owner George Steinbrenner) had suddenly fallen out of love with the stolen base after the signing of free agent speedster Dave Collins in 1982 had been a dud. Thus, the Yankees did not see Nixon as a future starter and traded him to the Cleveland Indians after the season, along with P George Frazier, in return for 3B Toby Harrah. Otis began the 1984 season as the Indians' starting left fielder, but hit only .154 in 49 games and was sent down to the minors on June 18th. He was with the AAA Maine Guides the rest of the year, hitting .277 in 72 games, with 39 stolen bases. He then spent all of 1985 and 1986 with the Indians, playing over 100 games both seasons, but being used almost exclusively as a back-up: he had 162 at-bats in 1985, and only 95 in 1986. He did hit his first three major league homers in 1985 (he would not hit another until 1990), but hit only .235 the first year. The second, however, in spite of his few opportunities, he hit .263 with a .352 OBP, scored 33 runs and stole 23 bases in 29 attempts. The Indians had their first winning record in ages that season, and there should have been a lot to like about that contribution; however, the Indians already had an excellent lead-off hitter in Brett Butler, two other young and productive starting outfielders in Mel Hall and Cory Snyder, with another waiting in the wings in Joe Carter, with first baseman Pat Tabler hitting .326. There was just no playing time available for Otis and in 1987, after hitting only .059 (1 for 17) through May 5th, he was sent back to the minors with the Indians having already started a tailspin that would make them end up with the worst record in the major leagues that year. Nixon finished the year with the AAA Buffalo Bisons, where he hit .285 with a .371 OBP and 51 runs scored in 59 games, proving that he was still a very good table-setter.

Having run out of opportunities with Cleveland, Nixon moved as a free agent to the Montreal Expos in 1988. He was not expected to make the big league club and made only a cursory appearance in spring training before being sent down to the AAA Indianapolis Indians. He was hitting .285 with 40 steals and 42 runs scored in 67 games when the Expos called him up on June 21st. The team was 32-35 at that time and had been playing listlessly, prompting the decision to call up Nixon and Rex Hudler, a player with a very similar profile: a former minor league star with a lot of speed but no record of success in limited playing time at the big league level. The two minor league veterans lit a fire under the club, running with reckless abandon as the team began to win. The Expos improved to 63-52 and moved to within 4 1/2 games of the first-place New York Mets on August 13th, when the bottom came falling out: they were swept by the Mets in a doubleheader the next day, and were 12 games back and out of the running by the end of August. Still Nixon and Hudler and endeared themselves to fans, and both would have a lengthy career as big leaguers as a result of seizing their opportunity. For his part, Otis hit .244 in 90 games with the Expos, scoring 47 runs and stealing 46 bases. He was not quite the regular centerfielder, as Dave Martinez got a lot of playing time at the position as well, but at least saw a lot of action, something which continued over the 1989 and 1990 seasons, when he played 126 and 119 games respectively, stealing 37 and 50 bases. He hit only .217 in 1989, and his OBPs during the period weren't great (.312, .306 and .331 in his three seasons in Montreal), but he was an outstanding defensive outfielder, given his great speed, and was a threat to steal and come in to score every time he was on base. However, the Expos were now coming up with a number of good young outfielders, notably Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker and Moises Alou, who all saw their first major league action in 1989 and 1990, so there was no reason to keep Nixon around, especially as he was already 31 and seemed to be a career back-up.

Thus, at the end of spring training in 1991, the Expos sent Nixon and minor league Boi Rodriguez to the Atlanta Braves in return for C Jimmy Kremers and P Keith Morrison, neither of which would ever play a major league game for the Expos. For their part, the Braves, coming off a last-place finish in 1990, used Nixon almost every day, although he got starts at all three outfield spots. His presence at the top of the line-up paid immediate dividends: on May 16, 1991, Nixon broke Tony Gwynn's National League record of five stolen bases in a game when he stole six bases against the Expos. Hall of Famer Eddie Collins was the only American League player to have ever done that before; Eric Young would later accomplished the feat in 1996, as would Carl Crawford in 2009. Nixon had a break-out season, hitting .297 with 81 runs scored and 72 stolen bases in 124 games as the Braves surprised everyone by challenging the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West title. However, by the time the Braves clinched a completely unexpected pennant in late September, Nixon had been suspended for drug use, playing his last game on September 15th. He had been plagued with issues stemming from alcohol and drug abuse during his career, including running into problems with local authorities following a traffic accident in Montreal, QC. As a result of the suspension, he missed the entire postseason, including the 1991 World Series, during which the Braves were defeated by the Minnesota Twins in seven games.

Nixon played for the Braves in 1992 and 1993, getting into 120 and 134 games respectively. He hit .294 in 1992, scoring 79 runs and stealing 41 bases as the Braves returned to the World Series. This time, he was part of the ride, going 8 for 28 with 5 runs scored in the NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and 8 for 27 (.296) with 3 runs scored and 5 stolen bases as the Braves lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series. However, he made the last out of the series in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 6: with the Braves trailing, 4-3, and pinch-runner John Smoltz representing the tying run on third base, he tried to bunt for a base hit, but the ball was fielded by pitcher Mike Timlin, who threw him out to end the game and give the Blue Jays their first Championship. Nixon was normally an outstanding bunter, but he failed to surprise the defence that time. In 1993, he hit .269 with 77 runs scored and 47 stolen bases, helping the Braves to a third straight division title. He was an excellent 8 for 23 (.348) in the NLCS, but the Braves were still upset by the Philadelphia Phillies. Nixon was now 34 and the Braves' farm system was quite productive, so he was not retained after the season. Instead, he signed with the Boston Red Sox for 1994, beginning the nomadic phase of his career. Over the next five seasons, he would be a starter in the outfield and the lead-off hitter for five different teams, playing in over two-thirds of the games each season, and continuing to be a productive player. He never reached 100 runs scored in a season, but twice had 87, stole at least 50 bases every year form 1995 to 1997 and led the American League in singles with the Texas Rangers in 1995. With his speed and defense, he was a useful player, although it should be noted that he never had a single season during his career during which he managed an OPS+ of 100 (his best were a 94 and a 93 in his first two seasons with the Braves). His complete lack of power explains this, and the fact that OPS does not factor in stolen bases. That made him a below-average offensive player, which explains to some extent while he would continually move from team to team at that point.

Nixon played one last season in the big leagues in 1999, when he was back with the Braves as a back-up at age 40. He hit only .205, with 3 extra-base hits in 84 games, but still managed to score 31 runs and steal 26 bases. The Braves once again won a division title (they had not missed the postseason in any season that it took place that decade), and Nixon was able to return to the World Series to end his career. He only had three at-bats in the entire postseason however. His last major league appearance came in Game 4 of the World Series against the New York Yankees on October 26th when he was inserted as a pinch-runner for Bret Boone with the score tied at 5-5 in the top of the 9th; he was thrown out stealing by Joe Girardi, the Braves failed to score, and then lost the game an inning later when Chad Curtis homered off Mike Remlinger to lead off the bottom of the 10th, completing a four-game sweep.

In all, Nixon played 17 seasons in the major leagues, hitting .270/.343/.314 in 1709 games. His career OPS+ is only 77 because of his complete lack of power: he only hit 11 homers and 27 triples during his long career, the latter because he hardly ever managed to get a ball past the outfielders in order to use his speed to extend his hits. He did score 878 runs, and stole 620 bases, which puts him 16th all-time. His OBP was a lot lower in the majors than in the minor leagues, because pitchers soon figured out that he would hardly ever hit anything more damaging than a single, and were thus willing to challenge him by throwing strikes at any time, negating some of his natural patience as a hitter.

Following the severe warning that his 1991 suspension constituted, Otis managed to get his life back under control, and played until he was 40, a remarkable feat for a player who was not a regular before the age of 30. He became a born-again Christian, steered free of intoxicants, and after his playing career worked on offering housing and employment services for paroled felons. He turned his home into a halfway house, but the inspiring story found a negative twist in 2013, when he was accused of running a scam by which he induced families of detainees to pay for a bed in his halfway home, even though the prisoners in question were not eligible for parole, by promising to exercise influence on parole authorities and the governor of Georgia. His home lost its designation as an approved halfway home as a result of the serious allegations. More trouble followed a couple of months later when he was arrested on drug charges following a traffic stop in suburban Atlanta; police pulled him over for erratic driving in the small hours of the morning on May 4th and found a crack pipe in his pants and a suspected crack rock and more drug paraphernalia in his car. Nixon claimed that the material belonged to his son and he did manage to pass sobriety tests, although he still faced serious criminal charges.

[edit] Notable Achievements

  • AL Singles Leader (1995)
  • 50 Stolen Bases Seasons: 5 (1990, 1991 & 1995-1997)

[edit] Records Held

  • Stolen bases, game, 6, 6/16/1991 (tied)

[edit] Further Reading

  • Danny Gallagher: "Nixon, Hudler persevered a long time", in Remembering the Montreal Expos, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, 2005, pp. 118-124.

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