The Braves got the best and worst out of Otis Nixon. Literally.
During his career, Nixon was truly a leadoff hitter: he hit for no power whatsoever, and he was fast. Very fast. He was a student on how to run off of pitchers, famously taking notes on how each pitcher he faces does his windup and pickoff moves.
Nixon was drafted out of Louisburg College (N.C.) by the Cincinnati Reds, 21st in the first round, in the amateur free agent draft of 1978, but he didn’t sign. He was then drafted by the California Angels, fourth in the first round in the first amateur free agent draft’s secondary phase in 1979, but he didn’t sign with them either. When the New York Yankees drafted him third in the second amateur free agent draft in ’79, he signed then three days later. I don’t know why he didn’t want to sign earlier with the other teams.
He started his pro career with Paintsville in the Appalachain League (R) and made a quick splash, leading the league in walks (57). This earned him a promotion to Greensboro in the South Atlantic League (A) in 1980. There, he led the league in stolen bases (67), runs scored (124) and walks (118), batting .278 in the process. Looking good so far.
This earned him a well-deserved promotion to the Nashville Sounds of the Southern League (AA). For 1981, he led the league in walks (110) and also had 71 stolen bases, but at shortstop, he committed 56 errors. Yoicks.
Nixon split 1982 with Nashville and the Colombus Clippers (AAA), getting an astouding 107 stolen bases and 108 walks between the two teams. Though not exactly the next Rickey Henderson, having just 4 home runs his entire pro career up to that point, Otis was looking mighty fine in the speed and walking department.
The organization had Nixon pull a Ron Gant and he was moved to the outfield in 1983. With a full season at Colombus, Nixon batted .291 and stole 94 bases, and also got himself 96 walks to boot. Nixon was called up in September and made his major league debut against Baltimore on September 9 as a pinch-runner. He got into 13 games, but just had 2 singles in 14 at bats.
After the season, the Boss must have decided that he wanted Omar Moreno in center, because Nixon was shipped off to Cleveland with George Frazier for Toby Harrah, basically. Even in Cleveland, Otis was still stuck behind others, like Brett Butler, Joe Carter, George Vuckovich, and Cory Synder, and still kept on the bench. His highest number of at-bats was 162 in 1985 and he batted just .235 then. His high of stolen bases in Cleveland was 23.
Did I say “high”? Yeah, well, the pun was sort of intended. In 1987, Nixon spent the start of the season with the Indians, but was sent down to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. While there, he was arrested for cocaine possession and spent 28 days in rehab. Nixon became hooked on coke in high school and that continued to plague him later in life. The Indians released him after the season and he was signed by the Montreal Expos.
There, his career began to took off as Nixon was actually given a real shot to play. A starter for more than half the season in 1988, taking the place of Mitch Webster and Herm Winningham, Nixon led Montreal with 46 stolen bases. Nixon’s Montreal years were spent as a part-time outfielder, but he did lead the team again with 50 stolen bases in 1990 at 31 years of age.
On April 1, 1991, during spring training, Nixon was traded to the Atlanta Braves for a catcher named Jimmy Kremers, whose only real accomplishment with the Braves was being with them long enough to get his picture on a 1991 Fleer baseball card.
Nixon played more in Atlanta, starting in 93 games all over the outfield, mostly in center. He led the National League with 72 stolen bases setting a club record that still stands today. No other Brave has stolen 50 since. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was found in September that he had violated his probation concerning cocaine and was suspended for the rest of the season, including the playoffs. The Braves rode their pitching to the World Series and who knows if Nixon would have been able to help against the Twins.
Nixon’s suspension carried over into 1992 and he got back into action in late April. He still led the Braves with 41 stolen bases, and made that super catch against Andy Van Slyke and the Pirates that we still talk about today. But he had to share time with Deion Sanders in center, who had improved greatly from last year’s dismal campaign. It was reported in the book Tomahawked, which chronicled the Braves’ 1992 season behind the scenes, that Sanders and Nixon were both deeply dissatisified with this arrangement.
The Braves reached the playoffs again in 1992 and this time, Nixon was able to play. He collected 16 hits, three of them doubles, and stole eight bases in 13 games, but his and the Braves’ season ended when he tried a surprise drag bunt which failed and gave the Toronto Blue Jays the World Series in six games.
In 1993, Nixon once again led the Braves in stolen bases with 47. And again, he and Sanders shared time in center. Nixon had 8 hits in the NLCS, including 2 doubles, but the Braves lost to the Phillies in six games.
After Nixon left the Braves as a free agent, he became somewhat of a base-stealing nomad, making a stop with the Red Sox in 1994, and of course leading them in stolen bases with 42. He was traded after the season to the Texas Rangers with Luis Ortiz for… Jose Canseco. Whoopee.
In 1995, Nixon led the Rangers with 50 stolen bases and became just the third Ranger to steal 50 bases in a season, joining Bump Wills and Dave Nelson in the immortal club. Nixon signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays and, you guessed it, led them in stolen bases with 54 in 1996, six off the club record. In 1997, Nixon was, as usual, leading the team in stolen bases (47), when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Bobby Cripps (Wow, what a name). He stole 12 bases with them. In 1998, Nixon signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins. Doing what he knew how to do best, he led the team with 37 stolen bases at 39 years of age.
Nixon came full circle, as he signed with the Braves for the 1999 season at 40 years old. He was the starting left fielder for a couple of months before being replaced by Gerald Williams.
… wait for it …
… wait for it …
… led the Braves with 26 stolen bases, beating Chipper Jones’ total by one! Whooo!
Otis didn’t do much to finish his career, although he scored a crucial go-ahead run on a Brian Jordan (yes, him) double in the 12th inning of Game 3 to help the Braves steal one in the Astrodome. He got a single in the NLCS and a single in the World Series. And that’s all she wrote.
After looking at it closely, I think Otis is the oldest Red Sock (35), Ranger (36), Blue Jay (38), Twin (39), and Brave (40) to leda his team in stolen bases.
Otis is now a Christian motivational speaker; he advertises that, along with his baseball career at otisnixon.com.
His career line was .270/.340/.313 and his OPS+ was 77. Just like the leadoff hitter he was. At least he got a nice 17 season career and his 620 career steals rank 15th of baseball history.