SOUTH PORTLAND – Trot Nixon didn’t understand when he first heard the phrase used to describe him and some Red Sox teammates. Dirt Dog? What did that mean?
Sounded like fighting words.
No, no, no, said a Red Sox media rep that day in 2001, anxious to calm the right fielder with the nickname Volcano above his clubhouse locker. Most in the Red Sox family knew Nixon could erupt at any time.
Friday night, Nixon’s audience at the annual Portland Sea Dogs Hot Stove Banquet at the Sable Oaks Marriott laughed with him as he told the story. He was never a royal when he played. The Red Sox paid him more than $7 million in 2006 in his last season in Boston, but he didn’t play the role of king or duke.
He was a Dirt Dog. He’d eat dirt and roll in it if it meant winning a baseball game. He and Jason Varitek and Brian Daubach and Lou Merloni and Chris Stynes were Dirt Dogs, a label slapped on them by Paul Quantrill, then with the Toronto Blue Jays but a former Red Sox pitcher.
The context was the American League East pennant race in August. Nomar Garciaparra was hurt. Pedro Martinez was hurt. Nicks and bruises everywhere else. “If they can keep it close, this pack of Dirt Dogs will find a way to win,” said Quantrill. “They don’t quit.”
Nixon got a standing ovation from some in the crowded ballroom Friday night. Everyone got an autographed photo of Nixon at the plate beforehand but in the end they wanted more. After the good-night, drive-home-safely, a line formed at Nixon’s table. He signed autographs, posed for cellphone cameras and chatted.
“He’s so down to earth,” said Kristin White, the pastor of a church in Wayne, a small town west of Augusta. She had joined the line, caught up in the positive I-want-to-meet-this-guy vibes.
Maybe it was a reaction to the disgust of the diva-like Red Sox teams of the past two seasons. “Trot is so approachable,” said Rich Gedman, the former Red Sox catcher. “He’s just an average guy.”
Yes, the stars can dazzle and blind, but it’s the Dirt Dogs who tug at your emotions. Gedman, one of the night’s speakers, was a Dirt Dog before the phrase was uttered. Josh Reddick, also in town, is a Dirt Dog. Doesn’t matter that the former Red Sox-Sea Dogs outfielder now plays for the Oakland A’s.
For Nixon, playing right field at Fenway meant the fans always had his back. He could feel them. Their passion and knowledge of the game humbled him.
“Sometimes I wish I had interacted with them more,” he said to me before heading to the ballroom. “I was so focused on playing. And the times I could have turned around, I was afraid the next play would be to me. I didn’t want to see my picture in the newspaper the next day (misplaying the ball.)”
His 10 years with the Red Sox went from Mo Vaughn to David Ortiz, Nomar to Orlando Cabrera, Troy O’Leary and Darren Lewis to Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. From Jimy Williams to Terry Francona.
“Jimy saw something in me. I was struggling and he could have gave up on me. He took me and Brian Daubach out for extra batting practice, five or six days in a week. He was trying to simplify everything for me. Bunting, hitting to the opposite field, everything. I loved all my managers.”
His given name was Christopher Trotman Nixon. His middle name belonged to a grandfather. In high school in North Carolina, Trot Nixon was named the state’s best high school player in football and baseball. The gurus at “Baseball America” named him the best high school player in the country. In 1993 the Red Sox picked him in the first round of the amateur draft.
He was the go-fer to his veteran teammates when he first arrived in the Fenway Park clubhouse. He admits he was in awe and sometimes clueless. Nixon was on the bench that night in 1996 when Roger Clemens went through the Detroit lineup, striking out batter after batter, finishing with 20.
“I said something like, Roger’s got a lot of punchouts. I was told to shut up. At the end of the game everyone’s out of the dugout, hugging Roger. I’m running around and didn’t know what was going on.”
He was hurt for much of 2004, but not for the playoffs. The Dirt Dog became one of the self-styled Idiots. “We weren’t smart enough to understand we had to win four (consecutive) games,” said Nixon, referring to the American League Championship Series with the Yankees. New York had won the first three games of the best-of-seven series.
The Red Sox beat St. Louis in four straight games to win the World Series. Nixon’s two-out, two-run double produced the only runs Boston would need. Three years later he was with the Cleveland Indians, the veteran presence helping a young team reach the 2007 playoffs. He didn’t play much but his voice was everywhere.
That’s where I saw him last, leaving the Indians’ locker room alone after Game 5 of the ALCS in Cleveland. Josh Beckett had just shut down the Indians’ lineup for the 7-1 victory. I was rushing to join the line of media waiting to get into the Red Sox locker room when Nixon walked by in old jeans, a flannel shirt and a worn leather jacket
He still looked every bit the Dirt Dog.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: