“Nixon goes as far as he can go. He caught the ball! He caught the ball! I can’t believe it! What a catch by Otis Nixon!”
If you’ve been a Braves fan for long enough, you probably remember that call. It was July 25th, 1992, the Braves had won 12 straight, and they were in a close pennant race. In the top of the 9th, Andy Van Slyke crushed a ball that would have left the field had Otis Nixon not scaled the 10-foot wall at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and brought it back. It would prove to be the most significant on-field event for Otis Nixon in his 17-year career.
To that point, Nixon had already played for 4 big league teams, the Yankees, Indians, Expos, and Braves, and he would celebrate his 33rd birthday that year. And many people learned that day that he had tremendous “ups”, but everyone knew he had speed. Entering his age-33 season, he had already accumulated 264 stolen bases, including 71 the previous year and 50 before it. Speed was his game, and even the advanced metrics agreed in retrospect. In his first year in Atlanta, despite only a .698 OPS, his speed and the era in which he played meant that he was almost league average in wRC+ (99). And in only 124 games, he was able to put in a respectable 1.9 fWAR. And he got even better. Despite league average run-creating ability, that and his defense carried him to 2.6 and 2.5 fWAR seasons during his last 2 seasons in Atlanta. A mostly average ballplayer, Atlanta was able to use his speed to reach some of his best stolen base totals and his best seasons based on his total contribution to the team.
And if that was all that I had to say about Otis Nixon, then you probably wouldn’t care. But you know Otis Nixon by some of the things he was involved in off the field. And as Atlanta was beginning their run of consecutive playoff appearances, it was Nixon’s disappearance from a playoff race that probably cements his name in your mind.
On September 17, 1991, Major League Baseball announced that Otis Nixon would not be eligible for the postseason. He got busted for cocaine. So instead of being a speed asset off the bench, a defensive replacement for the inexperienced centerfielder Ron Gant, and a veteran presence on the team, Nixon would serve his suspension and miss a run that would take the Braves all the way to the World Series.
Some fans may still resent Otis Nixon for that. And while he would return to Atlanta in 1999 to steal 26 bags in a part-time role at the age of 40, he would show up once again on the radars of Georgia residents when he was busted with crack in 2013 in Cherokee County, GA. Later that year, one of his homes was burned in arson. In 2017, he was reported missing when he didn’t show up for a tee time in Woodstock, GA. He was married in 2000 and divorced in 2004. Re-married in 2010. Divorced in 2012.
According to Baseball Reference, he’s made close to $20M in his career in player salaries. He seems to have stayed mostly near his home base of Georgia after his playing career has ended. But to use the cliche, “demons” have seemed to follow Nixon around. It cost him a postseason ban, perhaps two marriages, it’s led him to multiple arrests, and one could even wonder if that’s why he ended up playing for 9 different teams in a 17 year career. And regardless of what you think of his on-field contributions, most baseball fans will associate Otis with the off-the-field stuff, and that’s a shame. However, you ask any Braves fan how they remember Otis, and the opening of this piece comes full circle.