The Gadfly

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

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.

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."  

After compiling a career batting average well below .250 up to that point in 1991, Nixon has never hit below .266 or stolen fewer than 40 bases in each of the seven seasons since then. In batting practice before games, it's easy to see he continues to hone an already refined art. After a few practice bunts, nearly all of his swings result in sharp ground balls or line drives to the opposite field. He has become the quintessential singles hitter, with exceedingly modest career highs of just 21 doubles, three triples, and two home runs in a season.

But stolen bases frequently transform Nixon's singles into doubles, and, less often, his doubles into triples. Despite his advancing years, he has actually improved his effectiveness as a base runner, having swiped 72 bases in 87 attempts over the past two years, for an amazing 83 percent success ratio. "You don't have to protect Otis by swinging at pitches" to distract the catcher when he is trying to steal, says Twins outfielder Matt Lawton, who frequently hits second in the lineup right behind Nixon. "In fact, he is such a good base stealer that you do him a favor not swinging and letting him take the base. And as a hitter, I can tell he distracts the pitcher. He changes their delivery [to the plate] and I see a lot more fastballs."

So completely has Nixon embodied a water-bug-like style of play that most Twins fans would guess he is three or four inches shorter than his actual height of 6 feet 2, and underestimate his current weight of 180 by about 10 or 20 pounds. In fact, Nixon was in danger of wasting away to those proportions earlier this spring, after an infamously malicious incident in which Kansas City rookie shortstop Felix Martinez kicked him in the face and broke his jaw as Nixon slid into second base.

"I didn't know anything when it happened; I was sliding and then it went black. But when I saw the replay, there was no doubt it was intentional," Nixon says, his voice measured and matter-of-fact. "He apologized to me later and I accepted it. I figured I've made mistakes in my life and hopefully this kid will learn from his. He said he would never do something like this again. And 30 days later he goes and sucker-punches somebody in a fight. So he lied to me."

While Martinez was eventually ostracized by other players and demoted to the minors, Nixon could eat nothing but soup for 45 days. "My fiancée got really creative with all these soups, and I would eat and eat and eat--it felt like all I was doing was eating," Nixon remembers. "And I might gain three or four pounds. Then I'd go to bed, wake up in the morning, and all the weight would be gone. It was tough both mentally and physically to stay in shape."

In the first few weeks after his return, Nixon was forced to wear a special helmet with a bar brace. "It must have been really tough to hit with that thing on; I know I couldn't have done it," says Twins hitting coach Terry Crowley. "But Otie never complained. He never complains about anything. He's just a consummate professional."

A notoriously slow starter--his career average in the month of April is .212--Nixon was even further behind this season because of the broken jaw. "It's only been in the past couple of weeks that he has been able to show what he can do," Ryan says. "But he's just a good guy to have around. He's got quiet leadership capabilities." Twins manager Tom Kelly echoes the praise, claiming that "when he's been healthy, he's been everything we asked for and more."

It is up to Ryan and the Twins whether they exercise their option on Nixon's contract and bring him back for another year. Without tipping his hand, Ryan notes that "Otis has been able to bridge the gap for some of the kids we like in our system--Tori Hunter, Chris Latham, Jacques Jones--so we don't have to bring them up here until they are ready." For his part, Nixon, who has been on nine major-league teams including the Twins, says he doesn't mind moving around. "If you can generate something that will help a ballclub, somebody will want you around. That's why I came here." Wherever he winds up next year, Whitey Herzog's decade-old prophecy is likely to continue bearing out: Otis Nixon will get on base, make more than a million, and discipline himself enough to earn every penny.  

Brad Zellar is on vacation. His baseball column will return in two weeks.

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