The Gadfly

After a slow start and a broken jaw, Twins leadoff man Otis Nixon is back to his pesky self

Both of Otis Nixon's legs were out of the batter's box and churning toward first base before his bunt landed on Metrodome Astroturf. In the top of the first inning of a late July game against the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins pitcher Frank Rodriguez had already been burned by a three-run homer from the Rangers' Will Clark; now, in the bottom of the inning, Nixon was doing what he does best, serving as a sparkplug for--and epitomizing--the Twins' Punch-and-Judy offense.

Acutely aware of the 39-year-old Nixon's above-average speed, Rangers pitcher John Burkett bounded off the mound, fielded the bunt on its first bounce, and in his hurry to throw to first dropped the ball. Having already pressured Burkett into an error, Nixon the base runner subsequently took a long lead off first, straddling the area where the dirt turns to turf. Between pitches to the next three Twins batters, a harried Burkett threw over to first five times in a futile effort to keep Nixon close. Finally, with two outs and two strikes on Twins hitter David Ortiz, Nixon--having studied Burkett's mechanics well enough to get a good jump--broke for second. Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez, the best in the game at throwing out base runners, rushed a high-and-wide toss that arrived a split second too late. It was Nixon's 22nd stolen base in just 25 attempts, and the 579th steal of his career, a number that ranks him among the top 20 runners in baseball history.

Later in the game, Nixon's speedy legs would chase down another long fly by Clark, this one hit to the deepest part of left center field. Coming up with the bases loaded in the sixth inning with the Twins trailing 5-3, Nixon slapped a single up the middle against the Rangers' best setup reliever, Xavier Hernandez, to tie the score. And in the eighth inning with a runner on first, Nixon executed a perfect sacrifice bunt to move his teammate to second. Rangers manager Johnny Oates responded by intentionally walking Paul Molitor, who eventually came around to score the decisive run on Ortiz's two-run double for a 7-6 Twins victory.

Single-minded: Otis Nixon's ability to get on first and steal second keeps him in demand
Single-minded: Otis Nixon's ability to get on first and steal second keeps him in demand

Nixon's performance against Texas offered eloquent testimony on why he has survived in the major leagues for 16 years, and why Twins manager Tom Kelly recently remarked that, when everyone on the team is healthy, the two names he is most likely to include in the lineup every day belong to Molitor, the Hall of Famer, and Nixon, batting first in the order and playing center field.

"There's a reason he's been around a long time; he's a good guy, a hard worker who brings value to a club," says Twins general manager Terry Ryan. "We were looking for someone we could put out in center to improve our outfield defense. And you are always looking for a guy who can be a prototype leadoff leader, who knows how to work the pitcher and take walks and be a pain in the neck to the opposition with his bat control and base stealing. It helps that as a switch-hitter he matches up against both righties and lefties, but he is also right for the hard surface we play on here; Otis is a slasher and a hacker who can bounce balls into the turf with the best of them and beat them out for singles, and he is also an accomplished bunter, so he has all the prerequisites.

"Otis is smart," Ryan continues. "A lot of times it is difficult to convince a player to utilize his speed and hit down on the ball and be patient at the plate and not try for the home run or the big hit. Otis doesn't try to do too much. And once you can convince a player with his speed and his talent to stay within himself, then you've really got something."

Nixon himself remembers the exact moment when he began to smarten up. It was 1989, and he had been moving back and forth from the minor leagues to the majors for five years as a utility player, deployed mostly when the situation called for a pinch runner. Instead of "playing within himself" and maximizing his speed, the glory of being a power-hitting third baseman in junior college still lingered in his mind. What turned him around was an assessment from Whitey Herzog, the highly respected manager who won pennants in Kansas City and St. Louis.

"Whitey Herzog said about me, 'If this guy could ever just get on base, he could make a million dollars,'" Nixon recalls, sitting in the Twins dugout the day after the team's win over Texas. "Right around then I got a chance to work with [former Kansas City star-cum-hitting coach] Hal McRae; then in the winter I went and worked with [legendary hitting coach] Harry 'The Hat' Walker. And I came back the next year saying, 'You know, I think I can get in somebody's lineup now. I'm going to slap the ball and just be consistent.' And there was no room for me in Montreal, but the next year they sent me to Atlanta and I got a chance to play."

Next Page »