By Matt Willemain
Trot, Trot, to Boston
Trot, Trot, to Lynn
Trot, Trot, to Salem
Home, home again
– Old New England nursery rhyme
On Friday, hall of fame sportswriter Peter Gammons reported that Trot Nixon signed a one year, three million dollar deal with the Cleveland Indians. A lot of money, but a significant pay cut from his previous contract, which placed him among the ten highest earners at his position. The pay cut probably reflects his age, and injury, related decline in offensive performance. The previous sentence probably reflects my attempt to rationalize his departure from Boston.
Nixon played his entire professional career, from draft, through the minors and then eight years in the major leagues, with the Boston Red Sox and its farm teams. His first full year in the big leagues was 1999. That happened to be the year that I first started following the team regularly, despite my Boston birth and fourth generation Sox fan pedigree. So it’s a little hard for me to picture anybody else patrolling right field in Fenway Park.
Nixon’s best year at the plate was 2003–unsurprising: from 2002-2005 the Red Sox based their game on presenting the best offense in baseball. 2003 was the purest example, the team set records like they were going out of style. Bill Mueller, batting eighth in the lineup, won the league batting title and is the only man in history to hit consecutive grand slams from alternate sides of the plate. Johnny Damon’s 12 homeruns were the fewest of the starting nine–even backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, playing only one game in five, had six dingers. The 2003 Sox topped the infamous "Murderer’s Row" (the 1927 Yankees) to establish the highest team single season slugging percentage in baseball history. And then there was that magnificent game I watched in the guest room over my parent’s garage where the Sox scored ten runs before a single man was out, four more in the first inning (batting around twice) on their way to devastating, by a score of 25-8, the same Florida Marlins who would go on to beat the Yankees (fine ambassadors from the AL) in the World Series. In 2003, nearly every player in the Sox lineup had the best year of their career–excepting the injured Nomar Garciaparra (who was still pretty great) and David Ortiz, who broke out as a superstar but, unbelievably, would go on to get even better in 2004.
Nixon’s regular season numbers in 2003 (his best full year): 28 homeruns, .306 batting average, .396 on base and .578 slugging. But my enduring memory of him came in the postseason. I was living and working in the Boston area at the time, and although I didn’t get into the ballpark, I had the chance to watch most the Sox’s playoff run from various sportsbars in the immediate Fenway vicinity. The ALDS between Boston and Oakland was amazing to watch because it was jammed full of crazy rarities: Jason Varitek beating out the rundown, games won by the suicide squeeze or the hit-by-pitch and Johnny Damon’s brutal concussion–he later said that as they took him off the field in a stretcher he thought he was walking and that he played for Oakland.
Game three was played in Fenway on October 4. The Athletics had just won the first two games in NorCal–in the best three out of five series one more Oaktown victory would eliminate Boston. Ted Lilly and Derek Lowe had started, but were long gone by the 11th inning, with the game tied at one run a piece. In the Boston Beer Works, just across Brookline Avenue from the ballpark, the house was packed. The crowd, following the Sox dance on the verge of elimination, were still fully energized, clapping and chanting and shouting rhythmically with nearly every at bat, in that strange halting way of baseball fans incessantly building to intensity after every dismissal of the game’s many irresolute moments. Every new batter on the television screen was met with murmurs of assurance–this would be the man who would finish this game for us and stave of the death of elimination.
Rich Harden had come to the mound in the bottom of the inning, gotten Kevin Millar to pop out and given up a single to Doug Mirabelli. Gabe Kapler was up, but Nixon came into the game as a pinch hitter.
And he knocked it out of the park.