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Even second chance, pending contract couldn't save Nixon


If you ever had any doubts about the hold drugs can have on a human being, the Otis Nixon case should put them to rest.

Here's a 32-year-old man who was having the baseball season of his life. A .228 lifetime hitter, he was having a career year for the Atlanta Braves, batting .297 and leading the major leagues in stolen bases with 72. He was doing this for a first-place team that had taken the city of Atlanta by storm.

From a purely personal standpoint, the timing of Nixon's fall could not have been worse. His contract expires at the end of the season, and negotiations for a new, long-term deal already had begun.

And now this: a positive drug test, a 60-day suspension, a career in limbo.

The really scary part of it is that Otis Nixon was not caught by surprise. A man who had been through drug rehab, he was subject to frequent random testing and had, in fact, tested positive in July. His season could have ended then, but in the presence of representatives of the players' union, he pleaded his case to baseball commissioner Fay Vincent.

"Nixon said the test could not have been accurate," Vincent said yesterday. "He and the union took the view that a sanction would not be appropriate. So, therefore, the only question was, what would I do?"

Motivated by a sense of compassion and the knowledge that Nixon had tested negative well over 200 consecutive times -- and, no doubt, pressured by the union -- Vincent gave the player another chance.

And the player promptly threw it away.

Nixon knew he was going to be tested and retested. He had just been called on the carpet, his career hanging in the balance, and, still, he couldn't resist.

"The urges are always there," a man who has been through the cocaine wars and has been winning his latest battle once told me. "They never just completely stop. So you have to stay on guard. You can't let yourself get back into those bad old habits again."

The person who said that, seven years ago, was Lonnie Smith, who just happens to be the leftfielder and leadoff man who will replace Nixon for the Braves' stretch drive.

Smith also said something else that bears repeating.

"The thing that people have to realize," he said, "is that alcoholics and drug abusers are the best con men in the world."

So we shouldn't be surprised that Otis Nixon would look anyone -- even the baseball commissioner -- in the eye and say, in a most convincing manner, that he didn't do it.

National League president Bill White put it this way yesterday: "Forget what he means to the Braves. It's a tragedy for the man himself."

The truth is, the Braves are far better equipped to handle the loss of an Otis Nixon than most big-league teams would be. In Smith they have a player who has made a career out of playing on teams that won World Series. As a rookie, he played for the 1979 Phillies. Two years later, he played for the St. Louis Cardinals, and three years after that, he played for the Kansas City Royals. Great players go through long careers without ever getting into a World Series. Smith played on three World Series winners in three different cities in his first six big-league seasons.

"Maybe it's making up for all those years in Little League being on losers," he joked Sunday.

And here he is again, in mid-September, with World Series No. 4 with club No. 4 a possibility.

"We've overcome so many other things this season that we could go ahead and do the job without Otis Nixon right now," Braves manager Bobby Cox said he told the team before Monday night's loss in San Francisco. "You know, we have a real good ballplayer in Lonnie Smith. He's a veteran guy that can hit. His on-base percentage through the years has been one of the higher ones in the National League. I don't think we're going to be hurt that much."

Actually, Smith's on-base percentage this year (.380) is higher than Nixon's (.371). Of course, the Braves will miss Nixon's blinding speed. Smith has knee problems and can't run the way he did.

For the Braves and their fans, riding an emotional high after last weekend's series with Los Angeles, Nixon's fall from grace must have been a terrible blow. But it's the player himself -- not Bobby Cox, not general manager John Schuerholz, not owner Ted Turner, not those exuberant Atlanta fans -- who will suffer most.

On Saturday, Otis Nixon got three hits in the Braves' 11-inning, 3-2 victory over the Dodgers. Two days later, he got suspended. For him, the stretch drive was over. His chance to play in the World Series was destroyed, his contract talks put on hold indefinitely -- "on the back burner now," as Schuerholz put it.

"It's the last thing on my mind," the Baltimore-born general manager said yesterday. "The most important thing for this team now is its next 18 games -- that and Otis' personal well-being."

As the man who is taking over leftfield for the Braves knows only too well, Otis Nixon faces a long, hard, often lonely fight.

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