Nixon brings culture of '04 Sox to Tribe
Champs' carefree approach translates to younger Indians club
CLEVELAND -- Trot Nixon isn't trying to pretend it's not a big deal, even while he's trying to make sure his teammates enjoy it for the big deal that it is.
He was a Red Sox icon, a face of New England toughness who became one of their own. He wasn't just a folk hero, but a real hero on the Boston team that broke The Curse in 2004. Now, his job is to help the Indians extend the Red Sox's titleless streak to three years and end Cleveland's own prolonged stretch without a World Series championship.
It's an odd position in which Nixon finds himself as he ends his first year in a Major League uniform outside of Beantown, and the fact that his own situation on the team has changed only adds more subplot. Still, his biggest piece of inside information for his teammates is to appreciate what it takes to get here.
"It's kind of hard to really say what it feels like," Nixon said. "I'm happy for those guys to be in this position, and I'm extremely happy for our guys to be in this position. But I want to win."
There are few bigger competitors in baseball than Nixon, who fought through injuries, expectations and whatever else got in his way in nearly a decade manning right field in Boston. And given the pressure that comes with being in the middle of Red Sox Nation, there was plenty of drama mixed in with it.
Nixon went through the euphoria of coming back to beat the Indians in the 1999 American League Division Series, with help from his six RBIs, and the heartbreak of watching Boston play second fiddle to the Yankees' dynasty of the late '90s. He watched Aaron Boone put his name in with Bucky Dent in New England lore, then helped turn the tables in the incredible AL Championship Series comeback of '04. He went 5-for-14 with three doubles and three RBIs in the '04 World Series.
Through it all, he was one of the guys who tried to keep things loose. Now with Cleveland, the 33-year-old is trying to do the same thing with a club whose collective postseason experience is miniscule by comparison.
"I don't know if I've really tried to pass anything along," Nixon said. "I think just being in the dugout, just constantly keeping these guys' spirits up, high-fiving, maybe keeping their mind off [things] -- mostly not to get them thinking about any type of pressure that they may be feeling. They might not be feeling anything, but if it starts to creep on them in any way, that, 'I need to do this' or 'I need to do that,' I just try to stir the pot in the dugout, try to make it loud."
It doesn't sound like much, especially on a team that seems tranquil compared to Nixon's old squad. Yet to those around him, it means plenty. It has helped transform a young club once lacking an identity into one that has become known for, among other things, shaving-cream pies during postgame interviews.
Like Nixon, Kelly Shoppach came up with the Red Sox, though his time in Boston was limited to a brief callup. That loose personality, though, is the same as he remembers from his brief time in Boston. And as he watches the clubhouse, he knows there's a value for it in Cleveland.
"The team we had last year was an internal type of team, a lot of intense players," Shoppach said. "A lot of guys felt like they carried the load. I think Trot's done a job of not only breaking the ice after a tough game or a tough situation, but teaching that you don't have to do it all yourself. This is a team effort. I think that's really been a big part of what we're doing this year."
That's not to say that Nixon isn't intense, obviously. To his current teammates, it's the dichotomy that sums up Nixon's personality.
"There's no one that has more fun than Trot, but there's also no one that's more intense on the field," said first baseman Ryan Garko, enjoying Cleveland's playoff run in his first full big league season.
And whether Nixon tries to pass down any wisdom or not, the younger Indians are feeding off it.
"He's made it very clear to us how important this moment might be in all of our careers," Garko said. "We might never get back, might never have this opportunity again. It's not a thing where you get real tense and put pressure on yourself. It's just a thing where you have a heightened sense of awareness, where you recognize the moment and recognize that this really could be a special season for us."
It's part of the atmosphere that Nixon drew from the Red Sox during his years. Part of what made that 2004 season special, Nixon said, was that players couldn't wait to get to the clubhouse. They enjoyed the atmosphere so much that it was a pleasure to come to work, and that was reflected in their game.
He sees some of that same energy when he looks around the Indians' clubhouse. It's just a younger group of players.
"I don't really like comparing teams about this and about that," Nixon said. "Everybody's got their own little niche. We're a great ballclub. I think we're a lot younger than the teams that I played with in Boston, and that's great, because a lot of this stuff may be new to these guys, but they're not letting it affect them.
"I think that one of the best tasks for any ballclub is to go into Yankee Stadium and play postseason games, not just [one] game, and how difficult it is with the fans being right on top of you, a great ballclub across the field. These guys went in there and did a great job. I was proud of them."
If you can win a postseason game in the Bronx, Nixon believes, you can win in Boston.
"We're going into another difficult place to play in Fenway [Park]," Nixon said, "but I think it might be just a little bit more difficult in New York. That's not to say that the fans are better in New York or anything. It's just that there's probably about 20,000 more fans there."
How much Nixon will get to experience that on the field remains to be seen. The late-season emergence of Franklin Gutierrez as a regular option in right field has put Nixon in more of a support role. He played just one of the four games in the ALDS, going 2-for-4 with a home run, a double and two RBIs during an 8-4 loss in Game 3.
If fighting off team nerves is Nixon's biggest fight, if doling out shaving-cream pies are in his future, he wants to do whatever he can to help. Considering how challenging it was for the Red Sox to break The Curse when he was in Boston, he's going to cherish this, even if the setting is a little deja vu for him.
"Yeah, it's a little weird, but I'm excited," Nixon said. "I'm excited for my teammates. I'm looking forward to it. And, yeah, it would be crazy for me to sit here and say, 'May the best team win.' I want to win. I want these guys to feel what I've been fortunate to feel and maybe a few other ballplayers have been fortunate enough to feel -- to get to the next round. But we've just got to worry about Friday."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.