Nixon, Otis

Primary Position: Center field
Birthplace: Evergreen

First, Middle Names: Otis Junior
Date of Birth:  Jan. 9, 1959
Current Residence: Woodstock, Georgia

High School: West Columbus High School, Cerro Gordo, NC
College: Louisburg College, Louisburg, NC

Bats: Both       Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 180|
Debut Year: 1983        Final Year: 1999          Years Played: 17
Teams and Years: New York Yankees, 1983; Cleveland Indians, 1984-87; Montreal Expos, 1988-90; Atlanta Braves, 1991-93, 1999; Boston Red Sox, 1994; Texas Rangers, 1995; Toronto Blue Jays, 1996-97; Los Angeles Dodgers, 1997; Minnesota Twins, 1998

Awards/Honors: Tarheel Boys of Summer Top 100

Career Summary
G             AB       H             R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1709    5115    1379    878    318      11        .270     .343     .327     +16.6

Otis Nixon stood at second base and basked in the moment. More than 27,000 people were on their feet in Fulton County Stadium on that steamy July night in Georgia in 1991, showering applause down on a man most had never heard of when he arrived in Atlanta just a few months earlier. The Braves then thought they had traded for a journeyman speedster who could steal a base and fill the occasional hole in the outfield. “The Braves might as well have traded for Richard,” a hometown sports columnist quipped, referring to the former president. “Neither had been able to hold a steady job in the big leagues.”[I]

Instead, the team and its fans got a wizard, a spinner of dreams. At second base, holding the bag high over his head, was the guy maybe most responsible for a remarkable season that had the basement Braves knocking on the penthouse door. Nixon had just stolen his 59th base, breaking a team season record that had been set in 1913, back in days of spitballs and Model Ts, back when the Braves were still in their ancestral Boston home. He led the National League in stolen bases and was third in hitting. More important, he was the ignitor atop a suddenly potent lineup that had powered the Braves to second place in their division, a mere four games off the pace. “Before the game I was thinking it would not be that big of a deal until several years down the road when I looked back on the moment, but it did feel really good when I did it,” Nixon said then of his record-breaking larceny. “Winning the division, though, is what’s really important.”[II]

The Braves did and went on to their first pennant in more than 30 years, but not before the other Otis Nixon showed up, the one who would burn through four marriages and whose drug use would grab headlines. The struggle between talent and temptation would mark Nixon’s career. Suspended by the baseball commissioner in September for twice testing positive for cocaine, he sat with strangers in a rehab center and watched his teammates in the World Series.

Nixon played for 17 years in the majors – only four North Carolinians have played longer — but those three seasons in Atlanta in the early 1990s were his best. The man who had been used mainly for his legs established himself as an everyday player. He hit close to .300 during that span, stole bases with abandon, and roamed the outfield with aplomb. His leaping catch in 1992 to rob the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andy Van Slyke of a home run became a signature moment in the history of a franchise that would dominate the decade.

Nixon retired at age 40 as the most prolific base stealer North Carolina has ever produced. His 620 career stolen bases are almost triple the total of the second-place finisher, Brian Roberts. He is among the top 20 in six other offensive categories and ranks 40th in the Tarheel Boys of Summer Top 100.

Artis and Gracie Nixon lived on a leased tobacco farm in Evergreen, about 60 miles west of Wilmington, North Carolina, when Otis was born in 1959. The eight siblings and half siblings included Otis’ younger brother Donnell, who also played in the majors. “I didn’t realize the severity of our poverty since everyone around our small community was on the same page,” Nixon said.[III]

He excelled in all three major sports at West Columbus High School and was chosen by the Cincinnati Reds in the 21st round of the amateur draft at the end of his senior year in 1978. He opted instead to play for Louisburg College, a private, two-year school in the North Carolina town of the same name. The New York Yankees took him as their first pick the following year.

Nixon developed into a feared base stealer as he rose through the Yankees’ farm system:  67 steals in Class A Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1980; 72, a Southern League record, in Class AA Nashville, Tennessee, the next year; and an International League record 94 steals in Class AAA Columbus, Ohio, in 1983.

He showed less skill with a glove, however. He made a league-record 53 errors in Nashville as a shortstop, and he was only marginally better in Columbus at second base. He moved to the outfield late in the 1983 season, the year he was summoned to New York where he debuted as a pinch runner against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 9. He hit .143 and stole just two bases in 13 games. The Yankees traded him to the Cleveland Indians the following February. Nixon welcomed the move because New York, he said, was a dead end. “Definitely, I was backed up in New York’s outfield situation,” he explained after the trade. “Regardless of what I would have done in spring training with the Yankees this year, I was seeing myself in Class AAA. That would have been hard to swallow.”[IV]

In Cleveland, the left field job was his to lose. He was to join with Brett Butler, another speedy new arrival, to spearhead the Indians’ new “bunt-and-steal” attack. He didn’t do much of either while hitting a mere .154 in the first three months. He was shipped to the minors in June.

With Butler firmly ensconced in center field and in the leadoff spot, Nixon was a spare part during his remaining three seasons with the Indians. He shuttled back and forth to the minors and was used mainly as a pinch runner when in Cleveland.

It was during one of those minor-league stops, in Buffalo, New York, in 1987 that Nixon was first arrested for cocaine possession. He paid a $500 fine after pleading to a reduced charge and entered a rehabilitation program. The Indians granted him free agency at the end of the year.

The Montreal Expos signed him. After acquiring Dennis Martinez and Pascual Perez, pitchers with addiction problems, the team had a reputation for giving players second chances.[1] Nixon spent much of 1988 in minors. He was called up in June the following season and would never go back down again. He wasn’t playing regularly, though. Used primarily as a pinch runner and defensive replacement, he never got more than 270 at bats a season for the Expos.

The team was in West Palm Beach, Florida, preparing for the new season on that Sunday, April 1, 1991, when Manager Buck Rodgers called Nixon into his office to tell him he had been traded to Atlanta. “I just laughed and said, ‘April Fool’s, right?’ But he wasn’t laughing,” Nixon remembered.[V] The Braves had paid next to nothing for him: a minor-league catcher and the ubiquitous “player to be named later.”

Braves’ Manager Bobby Cox didn’t think Otis Nixon would be an everyday player.

The teams at the time shared the same training camp. Nixon simply gathered up his stuff and walked across old Municipal Stadium to the Braves’ clubhouse. He carted with him some brutal numbers. He was 32 with a lifetime batting average of .228. Despite an 11-year pro career, he had only four full seasons in the majors. On the Braves bench were top-shelf outfielders: David Justice, Ron Gant, and Lonnie Smith. Nixon seemed destined to ride the pines once again. “When we first got him, I didn’t think he’d play every day,” Manager Bobby Cox admitted. “I figured he’d get 200-250 at bats, be used as a defensive replacement and primarily as a pinch hitter.”[VI]

In his first exhibition game after the trade, Nixon went 2-for-3 and stole two bases. “I think Otis Nixon and the Braves are going to be a good thing,” he said.[VII]

It wasn’t until mid-May that he showed his teammates how good he could be. Substituting for an injured Justice and inserted into the leadoff spot, Nixon began playing regularly. He hit consistently, fielded gracefully, and, of course, stole bases easily. He unraveled pitchers the way Lou Brock used to in St. Louis or as Ricky Henderson did in Oakland. Nixon tied a major-league record in June by stealing six bases in a game. By the end of the month, the Braves were playing .500 ball and were, according to the sportswriters, riding an “Otis elevator to the top.”[VIII] By the end of August, they were leading their division, the first time they occupied such a lofty perch in eight years. Nixon ended with a .297 batting average and 72 steals.

Accolades should have rained down on him. Instead, there was things like this: “Whoever keeps track of baseball’s asterisks should take the one dropped from Roger Maris’s record and slap it by Nixon’s club stolen-base mark,” an Atlanta newspaper columnist wrote after the season. “Let the wording read: ’72 steals, 1991, but wasn’t there when his teammates needed him most.”[2][IX]

Nixon tried to ward off such criticism by contending that the anxiety caused by a bitter fight with his first wife over the custody of their two young daughters had led him briefly astray. The pounding only got worse when the Braves outbid seven other teams after the season and re-signed Nixon, quadrupling his yearly salary to $8.1 million, or the equivalent of about $17 million in 2022. How could the team pay that much for a druggie, who let his teammates and the city down by choosing coke over baseball? What kind of message does it send to the kids? “It hurt, man. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Nixon lamented at the time.[X]

He missed the first month of the 1992 season, serving the end of his suspension. He then made fans forget his sins by repeating on the field what he had done the year before. Though Nixon got off to the best start of his career, the Braves entered June in fifth place, five games out of first. Led by an offense anchored by Terry Pendleton, the defending Most Valuable Player, and a pitching staff headed by Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, the team went 19-6 in June to cut its deficit in half. The Braves were atop their division by the end of July and were amidst a 13-game winning streak when the Pirates came to town.

Nixon’s robbery of Andy Van Slyke has gone down in Braves’ lore as The Catch.

July 25 was one of those sultry nights in Georgia. Not a breeze stirred in the stadium during a taut affair that the Braves were winning 1-0 going into the last frame. Van Slyke, a slasher and a Pirates’ All-Star, stepped to the plate with a runner on first. He rocketed the first pitch he saw to deep right center. Nixon pursued at a full gallop. He leaped with his back to the wall and snagged what would have been the go-ahead homer a foot beyond its top, preserving the win. In Braves’ lore forever more, it would be known as The Catch.

Nixon again hit close to .300 and stole 42 bases. No one was happier when the Braves returned to the World Series. “Not being part of it last year made this year very sweet for me,” he said after his team lost in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays. “I was going through a lot of pain and dealing with a lot of things I had to deal with regardless of whether I was going to play baseball or do anything else in life. For me to go through that and not be there with my teammates, that was hard.”[XI]

So was most of the following season for Braves’ fans. Again, the elevator helped take them to the top. More than nine games behind the San Francisco Giants in early August, the Braves went 22-8 in September and won the division on the last game of the season. Nixon was again the catalyst. He hit .325, got on base 40 percent of the time, and stole 16 bases in the last 30 games. Atlanta lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the league championship series, but Nixon hit .348.

A free agent after the season, he signed with the Boston Red Sox. He was 35 but hit .274 with 42 steals in the strike-shortened 1994 season. The Red Sox, though, finished below .500 for the third consecutive year and traded Nixon to the Texas Rangers after the season for Jose Canseco.

Nixon played for five teams over the next five seasons, hitting close to .300 and stealing more than 40 bases a year. It all ended back in Atlanta in 1999 where Nixon was the backup to star center fielder Andruw Jones. The 40-year-old finally showed signs of wear. His usually steady batting average dipped to .205 and he stole just 26 bases in 84 games. He retired at end of season.

His 1991 drug suspension was long forgotten when Nixon settled in the Atlanta area where he remained a popular figure. “These fans have watched me go through the highest points in my life and the lowest points, and they’ve had a lot of compassion,” he said. “Atlanta has been very forgiving. If you come clean in Atlanta, I believe they will forgive you.”[XII]

He married R&B singer Perri “Pebbles” Reid in 200, in what turned out to be the first of two short marriages with singers. The couple divorced four years later. The two other marriages were even shorter. Nixon has three children.

He was arrested twice in 2004 for cocaine possession and placed on probation each time.  He seemed to get serious about his addiction. He became an ordained minister and started the faith-based Otis Nixon Foundation in 2008. According to its website, it attempts “to serve the youth of America through motivational speaking and life coaching.” His goal, Nixon said, was to help kids avoid the problems he faced. He published his autobiography a year later.

“Drugs turned me into an ugly monster,” he said at the time. “I went to drug rehab several times and I could have died several different times. I didn’t. I’m here and now I’m going to help people through the word of God. I had to reach for God. It was a calling.”[XIII]

John Schuerholz remembers Otis Nixon as the exclamation point of a great team.

Despite the good intentions he may have had when he said that, trouble continued to follow Nixon. He was pulled over by police in suburban Atlanta in 2013 for driving erratically. Officers found a pipe in Nixon’s pocket and what appeared to be crack rock scattered around the vehicle. He was sentenced to three years of probation. Two years later, he was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and permitting an unlicensed person to drive. In 2017, he left home, telling his girlfriend that he was going to play golf. He never arrived at the course. Police found him safe two days later. No details about his whereabouts were revealed.

But we can’t end it that way, on such a negative note. Nixon was more than just a man who succumbed to temptation. He was a talented player with magic feet that scorched the wind. Let’s end, instead, with John Schuerholz, the Braves’ general manager in the days when Otis Nixon was a champion. “He made one of the single greatest defensive plays in Atlanta sports history,” he said. “He was the human exclamation point to the sentiment that these guys are good, these guys could really make plays like that, and this is a team you could love.”[XIV]

[1] Martinez won 245 games during 23 years in the major leagues. The early part of his career was plagued by alcoholism. Cited for drunken driving in 1983, he entered rehab and turned his life around. Perez, a .500 pitcher during his 11 years in the majors, was arrested for cocaine possession in his native Dominican Republic in 1984. He was convicted of a lesser charge.
[2] Maris of the New York Yankees hit 61 home runs in 1961, one better than the season record set by Babe Ruth in 1927. Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick shamefully ruled that Maris’ achievement would be accompanied by an asterisk to signify that he needed more games to hit his homers than Ruth did. Frick, a former newspaperman, was a friend of Ruth’s and helped him write many of the newspapers stories that appeared under Ruth byline during his career. Major League Baseball finally righted the wrong by dropping the asterisk in 1991, Nixon’s first year with the Braves.

[I] Bisher, Furman. “Nixon Not Only a Bargain, But a Real Steal for the Braves.” Atlanta (GA) Constitution, Aug. 4, 1991.
[II] Rosenberg, I.J. “Nixon Breaks Franchise Steal Record.” Atlanta (GA) Constitution, July 31, 1991.
[III] Petrillo, Zac. “Otis Nixon.” Society for American Baseball Research.
[IV] Associated Press. “Outfielder Nixon Prefers Indians.” Journal Herald (Dayton, OH), March 15, 1984.
[V] Rosenberg, I.J. “Addition of Nixon Is No Joke.” Atlanta (GA) Constitution, April 3, 1991.
[VI] Associated Press. “Late Bloomer: At 32, Nixon Finally in Spotlight.” Macon (GA) Telegraph, Aug. 1, 1991.
[VII] Rosenberg. “Addition of Nixon Is No Joke.”
[VIII] Petrillo.
[IX] Bradley, Mark. “If They Lose, Braves Will Wonder ‘What if?’ Atlanta (GA) Constitution, Sept. 17, 1991.
[X] King, Mike and I.I Rosenberg. “Braves Outfielder Otis Nixon Breaks Silence.” Atlanta (GA) Constitution, Jan. 19, 1992.
[XI]Zack. Bill “Atlanta Braves.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), Oct. 26, 1992.
[XII] Stevens, Alexis. “Ex-Braves Outfielder Otis Nixon Found.” Atlanta (GA) Constitution, April 11, 2017.
[XIII] Petrillo.
[XIV] Stevens.