ANAHEIM, Calif. – Trot Nixon, still wearing those camouflage undershirts and the scowl that conceals his warm-and-fuzzy side, didn't go through back surgery and come to Cleveland just to play it out.
Nixon is part-deity in Boston because of that very trait, playing his spine and knees into goo before surrendering a single breath on that crooked ball field, in front of those people who'd become his friends, beside those teammates who'd become closer than that.
Man, he loved it there.
But, things happen, lumbar discs need shaving, games get missed, birthdays pile up, J.D. Drew becomes available, what are you going to do?
He reaches for a good-bye.
"If I thought about it a lot," he says, "thought about leaving Boston, the fans, the ballpark, the friendships – not just the guys in the clubhouse, but the people my wife and I met …"
But, he won't finish it. He exhales. The man's wearing camouflage and a goatee, for heaven's sake.
Instead, he's back in late summer 1993, having just been drafted by the Red Sox, six years from a regular job at Fenway Park.
"My only goal is the World Series," he says. "I said that the first day I was drafted – go back and see – and a lot of the writers laughed at me."
He lays his hands flat in front of him, palms up.
"I'd like to have two pieces of bread and some mayonnaise," he says, slapping his hands together as if to make lunch, "so they could take those articles and eat them."
Turned out, he had enough left over to make a platter. So he went out to solve the pain that routinely burst into his left leg and had only a single winter to do it, surgery and rehabilitation and, you know, at some point he'd have to start swinging a bat again.
"I wasn't ready to walk away from the game," he says.
Nixon may indeed leave with a limp, but not yet, not at 33.
He's batting .311 for the Cleveland Indians, getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time. He has driven in 15 runs. And, six weeks in, there are only two American League teams with a better record than the Indians, one of them being the Boston Red Sox.
There was this gesture Nixon and the boys used to make in Boston when things weren't going well. They'd dab a forefinger on their tongue and then float that finger over an imaginary book.
Turn the page. Forget it. It's over.
Sometimes, they'd do it for each other.
"Hey, Schill!," he'd shout across the dugout after a long half-inning. "I'm turnin' the page on you."
So, here's Nixon in Cleveland. He'd batted .268 and hit eight home runs in 114 games for Boston last season, then been put out. The Indians had turned 93 wins in 2005 into 78 in 2006, a humiliating relapse to mediocrity in which their bullpen went bad and their gloves went worse.
"That was a lost year," designated hitter Travis Hafner said. "Obviously, you have to take something from it. You can't continue to play like that. You can't help but get better."
Along came Nixon, the dirtman of Boston, to settle in among the talent of Grady Sizemore in center, Victor Martinez at catcher, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, Hafner at DH. The Indians prodded Peralta and Martinez to improve their defense, and added another Nixon type in David Dellucci in left field. General manager Mark Shapiro stoked the bullpen with Joe Borowski, Aaron Fultz and Roberto Hernandez.
Then they all took a breath and took another shot at this AL Central beast, the new guy bringing the fresh attitude and what manager Eric Wedge calls, "about as professional an at-bat as you're going to see."
The Indians still don't catch the ball like a contender – only the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays have worse fielding percentages in the AL – but the errors have been less damaging, so maybe if you can't improve the defense you can at least improve the timing of your errors.
Turn the page.
"What year is it?" Nixon says. "It's '07, brother. We can't go back in time and fix that. Forget it. Who cares? It's gone. That's part of this thing, not worrying about what happened last year."
If it works for a player, maybe it could work for a whole team.
"Just play the game, and play it hard," he says. "Maybe it's a reminder, you guys, we, can bring it with anybody. You don't think about, 'Oh, the Yankees are coming to town. Are they going to pound us?' Uh-uh.
"I'm OK with expectations. We had that about every year I was in Boston. I've lived with those expectations. I think you should have those expectations. I fully expect this team to compete for the division title. I fully expect this team to go to the playoffs. It starts with every single game until then. And those are the things that define you as a player and as a person."