Red Sox catcher Bob Melvin was a rookie with the Tigers in 1985 when Detroit manager Sparky Anderson went to the mound and made a pitching change in a game against Boston. With a Red Sox runner on, Melvin instinctively told the reliever, "Keep the guy close at first." Anderson, who was on his way back to the dugout, then turned to Melvin and said with a snicker, "These guys don't run."
True enough. The Red Sox haven't burned up the base paths since the days of Tris Speaker, whose last stolen base for Boston came in 1915. Since 1900, in fact, the club has had just 10 players steal 30 bases in a season. The Expos, who began play in 1969, have already had 12 different players swipe at least 30. Since arriving in the big leagues midway through 1979, alltime base thief Rickey Henderson of the A's has had 1,095 steals—311 more than the Red Sox over that same period of time.
All of which brings us to Otis Nixon, the most popular Nixon ever to run in Massachusetts. A 35-year-old free-agent outfielder, he was signed to a two-year contract in December to inject some life into an offense that ran the bases last year like men waiting in line for new license plates. "The most station-to-station offense I've ever seen," says Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn. "All our hitters ever saw were breaking balls because pitchers knew no one would run. Otis will put some pressure on the pitchers and defenses."
Actually, Otis is the first Nixon to run for the Red Sox—though he will not be the first Nixon to figure in Red Sox base-running history. It turns out that Boston catcher Russ Nixon (1960-65 and '68) holds the major league record for most games (906) without a stolen base.
The '94 Red Sox are counting on their new Nixon to play centerfield, hit leadoff and steal 60 bases, which would break Tommy Harper's club record (54, in 1973). Nixon's 47 steals in 134 games for the Braves last year matched the combined steals of Boston's top base thief for each of the last four years.
"People are expecting me to run every time, but I can't do it," says Nixon, who has 352 career steals, including 72 in 1991. "I don't run just to steal bases; I run when we need it. Anyway, the days of the 100-steal man are over, with all the moves pitchers have to first. Sixty or 70 steals will lead the league."
As he did when he was in the National League, Nixon keeps a notebook in which he charts every pitcher, detailing their deliveries, moves to first and other characteristics. He shares that information with teammates, but that doesn't mean that, say, Mike Greenwell is suddenly going to steal 20 bags. "We still have slow guys on this team," says Melvin.
But Nixon does hope to bring a new aggressiveness to the Red Sox, who not only didn't steal bases last year but also seldom went from first to third, or second to home, on singles. "That aggressiveness can mean the difference in winning or losing 10 games," he says.
It's a stretch to think the Red Sox, despite their deep and versatile pitching staff, could win 10 more games than the 80 they won last year. Nixon, who has never driven in more than 26 runs in a season and has had more than one extra-base hit in only one game since July 3, 1988, won't be enough to turn this team into a solid contender in this monster division. What Boston really needs is another big bat to play right held...someone like, say, Babe Ruth.
Nixon adds dash, but for the Bosox, this division is too fast a crowd.