Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Contemplating Otis Nixon

Otis Nixon's 1987 baseball card,
when he was 28 and in his fifth
season in the majors.
The news that former big league outfielder Otis Nixon was arrested over the weekend on cocaine charges didn't come as a complete shock. He'd been involved in cocaine before — suspended in 1991 for it — and in February he was the subject of a TV news report that claimed he was scamming the families of prison inmates. It has not been a good year for the now-54-year-old.

Nixon, a very fast switch-hitter with no power, played for seemingly everybody over his 17-year career, and his path had two significant crossings with that of the Twins.

His turn with the Twins came in 1998, when he was 39. It was actually one of his better seasons — he hit .297 with the highest OPS of his career (.705). He stole 37 bases and was caught seven times. It's my vague recollection that he was injured on a kick in the jaw on a play at second base; whatever was the cause, he missed most of May and only appeared in 110 games as a result.

1998 was a pivotal year for the Twins franchise. Look at their roster -- a bunch of old guys looking for another paycheck (Terry Steinbach, Paul Molitor, Nixon, Mike Morgan, Bob Tewksbury); another bunch of veterans who were basically never all that good (Ron Coomer, Marty Cordova, Pat Meares, Brent Gates, Orlando Merced); a handful of youngsters who played less than a dozen games each (Corey Koskie, A.J. Pierzynski, Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz). They went 70-92 and were, frankly, a bore. It's one thing to be a bad team; it's another to be bad with no future, and that was the 1998 Twins.

After the season, the Pohlads issued a budgetary decree that forced Terry Ryan and Tom Kelly to stop pretending they could compete that way. The Twins went to the kids, and even though the 1999 and 2000 teams lost even more games, they were interesting — and in 2001 they were contenders.

The other significant crossing was indirect. In fact, strictly speaking, Nixon wasn't even there.

He was one of four men splitting time in the Atlanta Braves outfield in 1991, along with Ron Gant, David Justice and Lonnie Smith. He was easily the rangiest of the four outfielders, and also easily the least potent at the plate, although '91 was one of his more productive seasons. But his season ended in mid-September for his cocaine suspension, and the Braves went down the stretch and into the postseason with an outfield of Smith in left, Gant in center and Justice in right.

Smith, although a speedy man, was a terrible defensive outfielder, and for the World Series games in the Metrodome, Bobby Cox used him as the designated hitter and deployed a backup first baseman, Brian Hunter, in left. Certainly had Nixon been available he would have played those Metrodome games.

Twins fans who remember that World Series remember that the winning run in that classic Game 7 was set up by a bloop double to short left-center by Dan Gladden. What if Nixon had been in the Atlanta outfield? Would it have been a double, or even a base hit?

We'll never know.


  1. Interesting, thanks. I hope Nixon gets it together.

    I always thought of Nixon as the guy who bunted the last out in the World Series (in 1992).

    Nixon was the Twins' opening day center fielder in 1998, and I remember not being excited about it.

    1998 was the year a hungover David Wells pitched a perfect game against the Twins. Knoblauch had left. Pohlad had tried to sell the team. I agree, that season was especially tough to be a Twins fan.

  2. I'll never forget the flying drop-kick as seen on ESPN in the 1990s he tried to do after being hit by a pitch. It was a classic - seemed to levitate in mid-air for a split second with his cleat straight toward the pitcher.