Donell Nixon says he never met a wiser man than Dusty Baker in his 13 years of professional baseball. So, when Baker spoke, Nixon listened. Intently.
"I learned so much from him, baseball and life lessons," Nixon said of his two seasons playing for San Francisco when Baker was the club's first-base coach. "He always told me to pass that knowledge down to the kids."
Nixon, 55, is doing just that these days. He teaches the game and, in turn, imparts Baker's wisdom to 16-and-under and 14-and-under travel teams year-round in the Sandy Plains area of Atlanta.
Nixon can instruct with great aplomb on the finer points of hitting, playing outfield and stealing bases. His overriding message to every youngster, he says, has much more to do with putting academics ahead of the game at every turn.
Nixon never got the chance to attend college, opting instead to sign with the Seattle Mariners as a 10th-round draft selection in 1980 out of West Columbus High School in tiny Cerro Gordo, N.C. A year earlier, Donell's older brother, Otis, signed with the Yankees after being a first-round pick in the secondary phase of the June draft out of Louisburg (N.C.) Junior College.
The two were discovered quite by accident in high school. A Mariners scout, believed to be Bill Kearns, was lost driving in the Whiteville area of eastern North Carolina. So, he gravitated to the lights of a nearby ballfield where he was mesmerized by the electrifying speed of the Nixon brothers.
That blinding speed led Otis to a 17-season major-league career with nine teams, and Donell to four seasons with Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore.
Donell made his way to the cover of Baseball America's September 1983 issue by ultimately stealing 144 bases for Bakersfield in the California League. On the final day of that regular season, Vince Coleman set what then was the single-season pro ball record by swiping his 145th base for Macon in the South Atlantic League.
"I wasn't thinking about the numbers, I was just playing the game. I wasn't competing against anybody except Otis," Donell said. Otis stole 94 bases at Triple-A that season.
Donell then stole another 94 bases in 1982 for Double-A Chattanooga, and had established himself as one of the minor league's top prospects. BA ranked him seventh among Seattle prospects prior to the 1983 season and eighth in 1984.
Then disaster struck.
During the final game of 1985 spring training, Nixon broke his leg crashing into an outfield wall. He was out of baseball for almost all of the next two seasons. Even though he returned to bat .275 in the major leagues, and played for the Giants in the 1989 World Series, the question long swirled around Nixon about what might have been.
Nixon does not see it that way.
"Think about it," Nixon said. "I was just a country boy from a small town in North Carolina who got to play in the World Series. Baseball gave me a chance to deliver a dream