January 13, 2013

Steve Solloway: Coming clean on a man called Dirt Dog

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?

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Trot Nixon carried so many memories with him into retirement after a career with the Red Sox and Indians, from a World Series title to teammates who made him smile.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Trot Nixon says he appreciated the Fenway Park fans and if he has one regret, it’s that he didn’t interact with them as much as he could have while playing right field.

GabeSouza/Staff Photographer

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.

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