By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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Stuck behind a stacked lineup was bad enough, but it would get worse. Following the championship run, Nixon was asked, for the fourth time, to play in the instructional league, a place for the undeveloped and injured to get up to speed. The Dodgers organization — which returned to family ownership in 2004 after Rupert Murdoch had controlled the franchise for six years — was cryptic about its intentions for Nixon. Plus, it wanted him to try his hand at third base, a position he had never played.
He began to soul-search: "I got to the point that, once I felt I wasn't going to make it, it wasn't worth sticking things out. Would playing in a handful of major-league games be worth 10 years of grinding and being up and down and unhappy? [This] was my breaking point. I was ready to move on. I was frustrated."
Nixon says his aggravation had begun to mount a year earlier in Columbus because his professional-baseball experience wasn't jibing with the team-first approach he was used to from his days at Sunnyslope.
"At first, I would feel good if I went 0-for-4 [and] we still won the game. Then I got older and started to look at the big picture. As selfish as it sounds, it's no longer about the team. It's about you trying to get to the next level. Everybody [wants] those 25 roster spots in the big leagues," Nixon says.
"The minor leagues are the opposite of team sports. You're going from high school — where it's all about representing your school and playing for your best friends — to a situation where, if your best player is playing well and your team is winning, then he's moving on to the next level. You're happy for him, but your team just lost their best player, and now you're getting your face beat in everyday."
Then there's the stuff you don't think about at first, like salary. Nixon was fortunate to get that near-million-dollar bonus because many of his Great Falls teammates were college seniors who signed for just $5,000. Once on the team, they made about $850 per month. ("After rent and food, you're essentially paying to play," Nixon says.) Couple that with half-day bus rides through the boondocks, he says, and it adds up to an inglorious existence.
"I feel like the experience desensitized me to being competitive," Nixon says. "I feel like that's one of my best qualities."
During the off-season, Nixon would come home to Tempe. Because he wasn't immersed in the college experience, like many of his friends, he would try his best to let off steam before going back to the long days on the road and late nights at the ballpark.
"[The baseball experience] definitely hardened him," says high school buddy K.C. Arnold. "He was more cynical. He was surrounded by the hard-ass baseball mentality. He was less carefree than he was before. He had his two to three months of hanging out at home, then he would have to go back to the 10-hour bus rides."
While Nixon felt committed to the Dodgers, something had to change.
Inside the ASU football team's indoor practice bubble on Rural Road in Tempe, the Sun Devils' first-team defense takes the field against the scout offense. Nearby on the sideline, a trainer hammers bolts into a tackling dummy as the drone-like hum of industrial-grade air-conditioning units keep the yard cool from the sunny, 105-degree weather outside.
The right-handed quarterback of the scout team rolls to his left. He spots a receiver 10 yards downfield on a curl pattern and unleashes the ball. Mike Nixon — who sports a dirty, white practice jersey and maroon shorts that hug the tops of his white knee-high socks — kicks up a piece of sand-and-rubber FieldTurf, and then breaks in front of the intended recipient. He intercepts the pass, no problem.
Nixon has arrived at this point thanks to Dirk Koetter, the Sun Devils' former head coach. Koetter was one of Nixon's most persistent recruiters. Even while he played minor-league baseball, Koetter checked in with him three or four times a year.
After leaving the Dodgers system, Nixon decided to take up Koetter on his offer to play for ASU, and he arrived on campus in spring 2006. He was 22.
Koetter wanted Mike to play quarterback. But ASU already had two good QBs in Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter, who would get embroiled in an epic, who's-going-to-start controversy that fall. Nixon wanted to get onto the field right away, so he entered training camp as a safety.
The transition wasn't easy. He had bulked up from 190 to 235 pounds, but his knees had endured four years of squatting in the catching position, so he had lost much of his speed. As a result, he switched to linebacker.
After playing a reserve role during his freshman and sophomore seasons, he started all but one game his junior year. Though considered small for that position, as a junior he tied for the Pac-10 lead in interceptions, led the Sun Devils in tackles, and shared the team's award for Most Valuable Defensive Player of the Year. He was also recognized as a member of the Pac-10 All-Academic First Team.
Who's got the film rights? I am sure someone like Kevin Costner would love to read this Guy's story. It is also good to say the name of Nixon appearing as a good guy instead of tricky Dicky. Well done Steve, it gives a honest impression of sport in the USA from the overpaid to the underdog. It is hard out there, I just wonder what sort of career all these guys will have when their bodies are worn out. I am sure there would be a good article in looking at the fortunes of the players after they retired.