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Braves Throwback Thursday: Otis Nixon, the final piece in Atlanta’s 1991 turnaround

Thirty years ago today, Braves traded for speedy leadoff man

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San Diego Padres v Atlanta Braves
Otis Nixon, acquired in a trade from the Montreal Expos on April 1, 1991, stole 72 bases for the pennant-winning Atlanta Braves that season. (Getty Images)

The Atlanta Braves under general manager Alex Anthopoulos have made a habit of acquiring key players near the end of spring training, with Anibal Sanchez (2018), Josh Tomlin and Matt Joyce (both 2019) all recent examples.

But perhaps the greatest late spring addition in Braves history came 30 years ago today. On April 1, 1991, Atlanta dealt back-up catcher Jimmy Kremers and a player to be named later to the Montreal Expos for minor-league third baseman Boi Rodriguez and journeyman leadoff man Otis Nixon.

Nixon would enjoy a career renaissance at age 32 with the Braves, who went from “worst to first” in the National League West and reached the World Series for the first time in 33 years. The rail-thin but lightning-fast Nixon would pack a lot into that 1991 season: leading the NL in steals, getting involved in a pair of beanball incidents and missing the final two weeks of the regular season and the postseason after failing a drug test.

Nixon played a total of four years in Atlanta in two separate stints (1991-93 and 1999), with the Braves winning 399 regular-season games and appearing in three World Series with him on the team. Along the way, he made what might be the most-famous defensive play in club history and batted .326 with 11 steals in the postseason.

It all started with an under-the-radar trade made a little more than a week before the start of the 1991 season. Here’s the story of how Nixon got to Atlanta, and how he helped kickstart the Braves’ decade-plus run of fantastic baseball.

A star at tiny Louisburg College in North Carolina, Nixon was drafted three different times before he signed with the New York Yankees in 1979. He posted a .400-or-better on-base percentage at every level in the minors, reaching Triple-A during the 1982 season.

But what Nixon could really do was run. He stole 345 bases in his first 595 minor-league games, including 107 between Double-A Nashville and Triple-A Columbus in 1982 and 94 in 138 games for Columbus the following year before earning a September call-up to the Yankees.

Nixon appeared in 13 games for the Yankees that fall (batting only .143 but stealing a pair of bases) before he was packaged in a February 1984 trade to Cleveland that brought All-Star third baseman Toby Harrah to New York. He shuttled back-and-forth between Triple-A and the Indians for the next four seasons, stealing a total of 57 bases but posting just a .542 OPS (which was terrible even in the offensively starved 1980s).

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians
Otis Nixon played four of his 17 major-league seasons with the Cleveland Indians, who acquired him in a 1984 trade with the New York Yankees. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

In July of 1987, Nixon was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession while playing with the Triple-A Buffalo Bison. He later played a small fine and entered a drug rehabilitation clinic in exchange for not being suspended by Major League Baseball, but his time with the Cleveland organization was over.

Prior to the 1988 season, Nixon signed a minor-league contract with the Montreal Expos, a club with a reputation of giving second chances to players with drug issues, such as Dennis Martinez and Pascual Perez. He made it back to the big leagues that season and was mostly a fourth outfielder for the next three years, stealing a total of 133 bases (including 50 in 1990), but never quite hitting enough (an aggregate OPS+ of 71) to stay in the lineup full time.

John Schuerholz was hired as Atlanta’s general manager in October 1990, shortly after the Braves completed a season in which they lost 97 games and finished last in the NL West for the third straight year. Schuerholz set about upgrading the Braves’ wretched defense, signing former Gold Glove third baseman Terry Pendleton and adding well-regarded defenders Sid Bream to play first and Rafael Belliard to play short.

Atlanta entered 1991 with an outfield of reigning Rookie of the Year David Justice in right, 30/30 man Ron Gant in center and former All-Star Lonnie Smith in left, but Smith injured his knee during spring training and underwent surgery in late March. Veterans Oddibe McDowell and Glenn Wilson didn’t perform during camp and were released, leaving mercurial two-sport man Deion Sanders as the likely Opening Day left fielder and leadoff man.

Schuerholz hedged his bets nine days before Opening Day (which was April 10 that year) when he acquired Nixon from the Expos. At the time, Nixon was viewed as a fourth outfielder, pinch-runner and defensive replacement for Gant, a converted second baseman who would never be confused with a Gold Glover in center.

“I’ll have to say I’m very happy with the trade,” Schuerholz told the Atlanta Constitution. “We needed speed. We wanted speed. Now we have it in Otis and Deion. Our team is almost ready.”

Even so, the Nixon acquisition wasn’t considered a big deal at the time. Bigger news that same day was that the Braves released Andres Thomas, the team’s starting shortstop for parts of the previous five seasons.

With the trade happening on April 1, Nixon told reporters he thought he’d been had in an April Fool’s ruse when informed of the trade. The Expos and Braves shared a spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., at the time, so it was a short walk across the complex for Nixon to join his new team.

Nixon was in the lineup batting second the following night for an exhibition game vs. the Baltimore Orioles, going 2-for-3 with two runs scored and two steals. But once the regular season began in Los Angeles a week later, Nixon was on the bench.

Sanders started the Braves’ first three games in left field, with Nixon appearing as a pinch-hitter in a season-opening loss to the Dodgers. He got his first start on April 14 at Cincinnati, going 2-for-5 with two RBIs and two steals (but also two caught stealing) in a 12-1 Atlanta win.

Atlanta Braves
It was not Otis Nixon, but two-sport star Deion Sanders, who began the 1991 season as the Atlanta Braves’ leadoff hitter. (Getty Images)

Nixon wouldn’t start again until April 22, and the Braves’ outfielder picture got more complicated when Smith was activated from the disabled list on April 29. The Braves suddenly had three men for both their leadoff spot and for left field.

“I don’t think we have to have just one player fill the role,” manager Bobby Cox said in an AJC story published May 3. “They all offer different things. They all have different strengths.”

By that time, Sanders was mired a 3-for-17 slump, with his on-base percentage having plummeted to .313. Nixon had just 30 plate appearances in 11 games, but had a .400 on-base percentage, seven steals and seven runs scored.

Nixon put together a modest seven-game hitting streak from May 1-8, including a three-steal game May 5 vs. the Cubs and a 3-for-5, three runs scored game vs. St. Louis on May 8. Nixon had lifted his slash line to .370/.463/.413, and it was getting more and more difficult to keep him off the field.

The Braves were 13-11 at that point, and had moved into a tie for first place in the NL West. Cox first responded to the outfield logjam by briefly benching the struggling Gant, who responded by smacking three home runs in five games after returning to the lineup.

Sanders was riding the bench by that time, and was demoted to Triple-A Richmond in late May. For the next several weeks, the Braves settled on a four-man outfield rotation of Nixon, Justice, Gant and Smith, with Nixon starting at all three outfield spots at one time or another.

June was an eventful month for the Braves, who went just 12-17 and hovered between second and fourth place in the division. It was even more eventful for Nixon, with three games in particular standing out.

First came a 12-11 loss to the Phillies on June 5, which also happened to be Dale Murphy Night at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. It was the first trip back to Atlanta for Murphy, who’d been traded away by the Braves the previous August.

Nixon went 3-for-6 with two runs scored and three steals, but the real fireworks came in the eighth inning. Phillies reliever Wally Ritchie brushed back Nixon with two straight pitches, the second one hitting him near the knee.

Nixon rushed the mound, and pummeled Ritchie with three punches as the benches cleared. Ritchie later denied hitting Nixon on purpose, but speculation was the beaning came in retaliation for Nixon stealing second with a 7-0 lead early in the game.

“He deserved it,” Nixon told the AJC. “I’m not that kind of player, but he threw at me.”

Nixon was later hit with a four-game suspension by the league (which he appealed), but had the undying devotion of his manager.

“All I know is Otis beat the living daylights out of him,” Cox said. “It made me happy.”

Here’s video:

Less than two weeks later in Montreal, Nixon entered the Braves record books in a 7-6 loss to his former team. He stole a franchise-record six bases, pilfering both second and third in the first, third and ninth innings.

Nixon’s six steals tied a major-league record that had stood since 1912, when Eddie Collins accomplished the feat for the Philadelphia Athletics. Told about tying Collins after the game, Nixon told reporters, “I don’t know who this guy is.”

Here’s video of Nixon’s six-steal game:

Nixon’s base-stealing proficiency wasn’t just about raw speed, however. He kept stacks of notebooks in his locker, detailing the windups, pickoff moves and any other idiosyncrasies of the various pitchers he’d faced.

“I have a book, and in it is every pitcher young and old and what to look for so I know when I can take off,” Nixon told the AJC’s I.J. Rosenberg for a feature published on June 18, 1991. “Every pitcher does something different. They throw from the chest or at a count … one, two, three.”

Three days after Nixon’s six-steal game, the Braves were in Philadelphia facing the Phillies. Things got ugly again in the ninth inning of a 9-2 Atlanta win, when Phillies closer Roger McDowell plunked Nixon in the right shoulder.

McDowell was ejected, and there were no real fisticuffs, though Pendleton — the on-deck hitter — had words with McDowell as Nixon walked down to first. The bottom of the inning featured one of the more bizarre incidents in Braves history, when Cox ordered Tom Glavine — who was one inning away from a complete game — to throw at Murphy in retaliation for McDowell hitting Nixon.

Glavine threw four straight brushback pitches in Murphy’s general direction, and the Atlanta lefty was also ejected. The victory ended a five-game losing streak for the Braves, who were still hovering around the .500 mark at 32-30.

On June 28, Justice — who was leading the league in RBIs — went to the disabled list with a bad back that would keep him sidelined for nearly two months. Sanders came up from Richmond to replace him, with the Braves again using a four-man outfield rotation.

Sanders had just three hits in his first 23 at-bats upon returning, and by early July, Cox had settled on Smith in left, Gant in center and Nixon in right. Nixon tied the Atlanta Braves’ single-season record with his 42nd steal on July 7, and went into the All-Star Break hitting .314 with a .383 OBP and 44 runs scored in 69 games.

The Braves won seven of their first eight games to begin the second half, and moved into second place in the NL West by mid-July. Nixon was running wild by that point, and on July 30 broke Hap Myers’ 1913 franchise record with his 58th steal.

Nixon had two hits that night, extending his streak to 20 straight games. He entered August batting .337 with a .407 OBP.

“He is the guy who sets up our entire offense,” Cox told the AJC’s Terence Moore for a column published on Aug. 1. “He’s exciting, because he’s great at creating havoc.”

(It was also on Aug. 1 that Sanders said his goodbye to the Braves, leaving to join the NFL’s Falcons for training camp. He would return to the Braves for a handful of games at the end of the regular season, serving as a pinch-runner and pinch-hitter.)

Nixon tweaked a hamstring in mid-August, and used a weeklong absence to drop the appeal of his four-game suspension from the mound-charging incident against the Phillies in early June. But he continued to slump when he returned, hitting just 11-for-78 in August and dropping his average below .300 for the first time since early May.

Justice was activated on Aug. 20, joining a Braves team that surged into first place a week later. The Braves and Dodgers traded the lead back and forth into mid-September, when Nixon’s breakout season suddenly fell apart.

Otis Nixon #1
Not known as a hitter, Otis Nixon nevertheless batting .297 with a .371 on-base percentage for the Braves in 1991. (Getty Images)

Nixon went AWOL for a Sept. 10 game vs. San Francisco, telling reporters he was dealing with a “family matter” related to his young daughter. The Braves won four straight over the Giants and San Diego Padres, and carried a one-half game lead into a three-game series with the Dodgers in Atlanta Sept. 13-15.

Nixon started all three games and went 4-for-13 as Atlanta lost the series opener, but won the next two to go up a 1 ½ games in the standings. However, he wouldn’t play another game for the Braves in 1991.

On Sept. 16, the first day of a weeklong road trip to San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, news broke that Nixon had been suspended 60 games for violating MLB’s drug abuse aftercare program. He’d tested positive for cocaine.

Nixon’s season was over after he’d batted .297 (including 22 bunt singles) with a .371 OBP, 81 runs scored and a club-record 72 steals in 124 games. He’d reached base via hit, walk or error in 81 of his 93 games started.

Smith took over in left field and in the leadoff spot, but the Braves lost three of seven on the trip to fall out of first place.

Columnists were unsympathetic toward Nixon, with the AJC’s Mark Bradley writing that Nixon’s fine season should contain an asterisk because he “wasn’t there when his teammates needed him most.” Moore called Nixon a “jerk,” writing that he “didn’t respect his teammates or himself enough this year to refrain from resurrecting his old days of sniffing and snorting.”

Nixon issued a statement through agent Joe Sroba a few days later, apologizing for letting down teams, fans and “the kids.” He also predicted his teammates would “get the job done” and win the pennant without him.

He was right on that note, as Atlanta went 12-6 down the stretch and won the NL West by a single game. On Oct. 4, the day the Braves clinched the division title with a 5-2 victory over the Houston Astros in Atlanta, it was reported that Nixon had entered a drug treatment facility.

Smith filled in well in Nixon’s stead, posting a .363 OBP, 15 runs scored and eight RBIs in the 18 games after Nixon was suspended. But Nixon’s absence was felt in the postseason, notably when Smith committed his infamous baserunning gaffe in Game 7 of the World Series vs. the Minnesota Twins.

And yet, Nixon’s drug relapse didn’t burn any bridges with the Braves. On Dec. 12, 1991, he agreed to a two-year contract extension with an option for a third season, a deal that would pay him in excess of $5.2 million.

Nixon was good but not as good in 1992, batting .294/.348/.346 with a 41 steals and 79 runs scored in 120 games. On July 25 of that season, he saved a 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates by scaling the wall to rob Andy Van Slyke of a home run.

Here’s video (though if you’re reading this site, I can’t imagine you haven’t seen it):

The catch wiped out what would have been a go-ahead two-run homer, and extended the Braves’ winning streak to 13 games. Atlanta won 98 games in 1992 and took the NL West by a relatively comfortable eight games, beat the Pirates in a memorable seven-game NLCS, but again fell short in the World Series.

Finally able to play in the postseason, Nixon batted a combined .291 with eight runs scored and eight steals between the NLCS victory over the Pirates and the six-game World Series loss to Toronto. He made the final out of the World Series when he tried to bunt his way on in the 11th inning of Game 6, with Blue Jays reliever Mike Timlin scooping up the ball and shoveling it to first baseman Joe Carter for the title-clinching out.

Nixon was back with the Braves in 1993, but his production fell off significantly as offense rose around the league, though he posted a .351 OBP and stole 47 bases. Atlanta won 104 games and the NL West by a single game over the Giants, but lost to Philadelphia in six games in the NLCS despite Nixon’s .348/.464/.435 line (though he was thrown out on both of his steal attempts).

The Braves declined Nixon’s contract option for 1994, electing to give Sanders a full-time shot as center fielder and leadoff man (as it turned out, Atlanta traded “Prime Time” to Cincinnati for Roberto Kelly that June). Nixon signed a two-year deal (plus an option) with the Boston Red Sox in December 1993.

Nixon was traded to the Texas Rangers prior to the 1995 season, then played for the Blue Jays, the Dodgers and the Twins over the next three years. He averaged a .358 OBP and 47 steals per season from 1994-98.

A month before he turned 40, Nixon re-signed with the Braves in December 1998 on a one-year deal. He was a part-time player for Atlanta’s most-recent NL pennant winner in 1999, stealing 26 bases, but batting just .205/.309/.232 in 84 games (he appeared in just four games during the postseason, but went 2-for-3 with two runs scored and three steals).

Otis Nixon stole 620 bases in his career, 16th in major-league history and ninth among post-World War II players. (STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP via Getty Images)

Unable to secure a contract for 2000, Nixon retired after 17 major-league seasons. He totaled 1,379 hits, 878 runs scored and a .343 on-base percentage while playing for nine different teams.

Nixon’s 620 career steals rank 16th all-time, ninth among players whose careers began after World War II. He was worth 16.6 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

Nixon’s post-baseball career has been anything but tranquil, as he’s endured two divorces and several drug-related legal entanglements. He’s spoken and written publicly about his substance abuse issues over the years, including in his 2009 autobiography Keeping It Real.

Whatever his personal failings, there is no denying Nixon’s impact on Atlanta’s ascent to the top of the National League in the early 1990s. Thirty years ago today, the Braves pulled off a stealthy trade that set them and Nixon off and running.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Newspapers.com; SABR Bio Project; Atlanta Braves 1992 Media Guide