Nixon was a quintessential leadoff hitter, sporting a high on-base percentage combined with little power and blazing speed — he claimed to be faster than his brother, Mariners and Giants outfielder Donnell. But despite his promise with the Indians and Expos, Nixon didn’t get the opportunity to play everyday until the 1990s, ironically, when the power game greatly outweighed the need for speed. However, the fleet-footed outfielder did make his presence known, swiping 620 bags during his 17-year career, not to mention more in the 1990s than any other ballplayer, beating Rickey Henderson by 15.
Originally in the New York Yankees‘ system, Nixon was involved in a trade to the Cleveland Indians for Toby Harrah in February 1984. With the Tribe, Nixon became manager Pat Corrales‘s “secret weapon,” used as a switch-hitting bunter or pinch runner late in close games. When the Indians failed to live up to expectations in 1987, Nixon became a luxury and was sent down to the minors. The outfielder was also found to have a penchant for another speed — cocaine — and he underwent drug rehabilitation later that year. The Montreal Expos gave him a chance in 1988, and he stole 46 bases in 271 at-bats while providing late-inning defense in centerfield.
Hoping to replace the awkward Lonnie Smith in left field, the Atlanta Braves traded three players to the Expos for Nixon during spring training of 1991. The acquisition proved worthwhile, as Nixon set career highs that year in both batting average (.297) and stolen bases (72), in his first season of regular playing time. On June 16, 1991, Nixon tied a major-league record when he stole six bases in a game against his old Montreal teammates. As his shoes were sent for by the Hall of Fame, Nixon was informed of the old Philadelphia Athletics second baseman Eddie Collins, whose feat his feet had tied; he responded, “I don’t even know who that guy is.”
Unfortunately, though Nixon helped the Braves to their first postseason since 1982, he was not allowed to play that October, nor until late April of the following year. On September 16, 1991, the speedy outfielder tested positive for cocaine, violating his agreement to the aftercare treatment program he was on since ’87. The Braves took him back in 1992, and he contributed 88 stolen bases towards the team’s pennant-winning campaign. During the World Series, Nixon drove home the tying run in the bottom of the ninth of Game Six, but then recorded the final out of the Series in the 11th.
In December 1993, Nixon left the Braves to sign a two-year $7 million deal with the Boston Red Sox. After a prototypical Nixon leadoff year (.360 on-base percentage with 42 steals), the Sox shipped him with prospect Luis Ortiz to the Texas Rangers for the powerful Jose Canseco, who averaged more home runs per year than the entire Boston outfield hit in 1994. From the Rangers, Nixon jumped ship to the Toronto Blue Jays in December 1995, and then was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in August 1997, as LA made their final push to get the NL West crown — they ended up finishing two games behind the San Francisco Giants.
The Minnesota Twins, looking to replace the leadoff spot in the order, which would soon be left vacant by second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, signed the 39-year-old Nixon to a one-year deal. Despite missing a month with a broken jaw sustained at the cleat of Royals rookie Felix Martinez, the veteran stole 37 bags that year, good enough for eighth in the American League.
That December, Nixon signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves to be their fourth outfielder and backup leadoff hitter while he chased some milestones of his own. On April 23, 1999, Nixon stole second base against the Florida Marlins‘ battery of Livan Hernandez and Mike Redmond for his 600th career stolen base. He ended up compiling 26 steals that year, and probably would have added more to his total, but missed a month and a half with a neck sprain sustained in a late July brawl with the Philadelphia Phillies. That postseason, his final hurrah in the majors, Nixon went 2-for-3 with three stolen bases in limited time.