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BOB RYAN

Tip of the (dirty) cap to a returning favorite

No one ever is going to suggest he was a great ballplayer, but around here we loved our Trot.

People here loved his dirty Pigpen hat, his all-out effort, and his general spunk. No Lou Grants around here. In these here parts, spunk is good.

"He's a good player," Terry Francona was saying before last night's game. "I liked the way he approached the game, his willingness to run into the wall. He played hard. He got down and dirty.

"He had that wrinkled hat in his back pocket. He's a throwback. I'm sure he's going to get a great ovation -- as he should."

Last night, Trot Nixon got four ovations, actually. There was one when PA man Carl Beane announced the Cleveland starting lineup, standing ovations both when he took the field in the bottom of the first and when he came to bat in the top of the second, and yet another ovation earlier when he and wife Kathryn were given a plaque honoring their Jimmy Fund service in a pregame ceremony at home plate.

"Everyone was mentioning to me all week about what would happen," Nixon mused during a pregame interview. "I didn't know what to expect."

Aw, we Knights of the Keyboard did. It was pretty evident over the years that Trot Nixon was a fan fave.

From the minute he signed with the Red Sox as the seventh pick of the 1993 draft, Trot came to play, and people love guys who come to play. He made it through the organization in very orderly fashion, going through Lynchburg, Sarasota, and Trenton before making his major league debut at the tail end of the 1996 season.

He was sent to Pawtucket for some good old-fashioned Mondorization in 1997 and 1998 before making it to stay in 1999.

Not really a big guy (the books laughably put him over 6 feet, but don't buy it), he is sturdy, and there always has been some pop in his bat. Truth be told, Fenway was probably not the best place for him. He was not a guy to make much use of The Wall, and he's not Big Papi, so there were a lot of mighty "9's" and "8's" on the scorecard over the years.

But there were a lot of big hits, too. Never forget that it was Trot Nixon who decided the classic Pedro-Roger duel in 2000 with that home run, or that it was his dramatic Labor Day grand slam in Philadelphia that triggered the September stretch run in 2003, or that Trot saved the 2003 postseason from ending prematurely with his 11th-inning pinch-hit homer off Rich Harden when the Sox were down two games to the A's or that Trot had three doubles and a pair of RBIs in the game that officially made the Red Sox world champions after that much-discussed 86-year hiatus.

A few of you might also recall that on July 24, 1999, Trot Nixon became the last man to hit three home runs in a game at Tiger Stadium. I just happened to be there, so I'm not likely to forget any time soon.

It's funny how things just kind of happen. You're Trot Nixon and you're busting your butt every day just to stay in the big leagues, never thinking you're any more than what you are, and then one day you look up and you're the senior member of the organization. And this gives you real cachet with the fans and the media.

"I didn't think about it too much," he said, "only when someone would bring it up. But when I thought about senior status in this organization I thought about [Tim] Wakefield. He was here before they had dirt on the field."

For those of you keeping score, Wakefield already was with the big club when Nixon came along. But Wakefield had been signed as a free agent after beginning his career in Pittsburgh. Nixon predated him in the Red Sox organization by close to two years.

As the years mounted, Nixon said he couldn't help but think at least a little bit about being a Red Sox lifer.

"I respect guys like Robin Yount and Cal Ripken, who played their entire careers with one team," Nixon declared. "So it would have been very nice to do that. But I was very fortunate to be here as long as I was."

It's no shock to Nixon or anyone else that he's no longer in a Boston uniform. After a nice three-year run from 2001-03 in which he averaged 26 homers and 90 runs batted in, Trot became -- there is no other way to put it -- injury-prone. Injuries limited him to 48 games in '04, 124 games in '05, and 114 games last season. With his contract expiring at the end of 2006, he played the season with very little expectation that the Red Sox would make a strong move to re-sign him. And they didn't.

He needed back surgery last winter, which refocused him from reflecting on the end of his career in Boston in favor of trying to reestablish a career, period.

"It opened my eyes to just how much I love this game," he explained. "When you're younger, you're thinking about how much money you can make" -- Trot's earned an estimated $27 million. "As you get older, you just want to stay at this level. It's something I love and treasure deeply."

He knows how lucky he was to be playing in Boston all those years.

"I was spoiled my entire career," he acknowledged. "To play in this atmosphere, with sellout crowds every single night, not many guys are able to say that."

It has not escaped anyone's notice around here that the man who has replaced him for more than four times the money has inferior stats at this stage of the season. But Trot said all the right and proper things, labeling J.D. Drew a "five-tool player" while declaring he was not in any way angry with the way his 13-year career as a member of the Red Sox organization came to an end.

"Not at all," he said. "That stuff happens. It can be a crazy business out there. I'm not hurt at all."

The summary of last night's return: 1 for 3, with a second-inning single off Curt Schilling and an eighth-inning sacrifice fly off Javier Lopez. It was not an easy night for him.

"It was weird playing against some people you've spent 8, 9, 10 years with," he said. "[Jason] Varitek's family and mine are very close. I told him the last time up, 'Tek, you can tell Lopez to start throwing overhand now.' I'm sure if I were batting against Wake, there'd be a few giggles."

He and the fans have had their reunion, so he now can become an official enemy Indian. But the point was made.

"I think I earned the respect of the fans in this city," he said, "even though I didn't put up big numbers."

He didn't have to. Trot Nixon was never a star, but good teams need more than stars to be successful. Every good team has a place for a guy with a dirty hat.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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