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Faces change, but hope remains

Confident Nixon appreciates what Sox have going for them

As New England recoiled after a weekend snowstorm, about the only sign of spring yesterday was the Red Sox equipment truck pulling out of Fenway Park for its annual journey to Fort Myers, Fla.
As New England recoiled after a weekend snowstorm, about the only sign of spring yesterday was the Red Sox equipment truck pulling out of Fenway Park for its annual journey to Fort Myers, Fla. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He has been with the organization longer than any other player, entering his 13th year (and perhaps his last), but that's not why Trot Nixon may be the player most affected by all the changes made by the Red Sox this offseason.

Think about it.

He played in the outfield next to Johnny Damon, whom he called the night he saw on television that Damon was going to the Yankees and listened to Damon's lament that the Sox couldn't get a deal done.

He was good friends with Bill Mueller, the only Sox player who might have been whiter than he is. (''I've got more body hair than Billy," he insisted. ''That makes me look a little darker.")

And he had a locker next to Kevin Millar, the Sox player who made it his calling to keep track of such matters, and anything else that was worth an injection of ego-deflating humor.

''No one can pick up that guy's slack," Nixon said of Millar yesterday morning, while sitting on a bench in the Sox' training complex. ''We said [to Doug Mirabelli], 'OK, Doug, you're going to have to pick up the reins,' but now Dougie's gone.

''But we're going to be fine. We got enough guys pulling pranks, Big Papi, other guys. I'll go up to Schill and say, 'Hey, who do you want to dog you, now that Kevin is gone?' "

Seriously, folks, as much as Nixon is going to miss those teammates, he didn't come to camp earlier than any other Sox position player -- Feb. 1, allowing for a side trip to Disney World with his family -- with the idea that he will be surrounded by ghosts.

''You hate to see guys like that leave," he said, ''but all those holes we had I think we filled them very nicely.

''We're going to survive. We're going to be just fine. I don't think it was a real crazy offseason. I think there were quite a few changes, but nothing so drastic that it was, 'What are we going to do?' "

The new third baseman, Mike Lowell, is someone Nixon played against in the minors and became friendly with through Millar, who played with Lowell on the Marlins.

''I think Mike Lowell is going to have a great year," Nixon said. ''He's very comparable to Billy, as far as the person he is."

Coco Crisp, the new center fielder? ''I love Johnny to death," Nixon said. ''But Coco, it's important for these guys, especially Coco above all, not to listen when people try to compare Coco to Johnny.

''I think Coco has an understanding of what kind of ballplayer he is, he knows what he's capable of. Just go out there and do it. He had a great year last year. He's a rising star. He's going to be in a great atmosphere."

Josh Beckett? Nixon was watching when Beckett bodyslammed the Yankees on their own turf in the deciding game of the 2003 World Series.

''I think people are really starting to believe," he said, ''that pitching wins championships."

The trading of Edgar Renteria, now that surprised Nixon. ''I thought Edgar was going to have a monster year for us this year," he said.

The players who have asked to be traded, David Wells and Manny Ramírez, but are still here? ''If Boomer wants to be traded," said Nixon, ''he may come down here and throw five complete games. But Manny?

''He'll be here. I don't think there's any question. I don't know the whole story of why he wants to leave so bad, this, that, and the other, but what it comes down to in the end, he's got a contract, he's going to oblige that contract. I don't think he's going to stop taking a paycheck.

''I think he's going to be fine. I think that shirt, 'Manny being Manny,' is going to be very popular this year. When it comes down to it, he's the best hitter I've ever seen, when you talk about the whole ball of wax -- average, power, driving in runs, driving in runs with two outs. Big Papi is quietly -- no, loudly -- moving up in that echelon, but Manny's been doing it for 10 years."

Because of injuries, Nixon hasn't done anything near what he'd hoped to do the last two years.

Back and quadriceps injuries limited him to 48 games in 2004, and last season Nixon missed 38 games because of a strained rib cage. When the season ended, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, which bothered him all year.

His numbers in 2005 -- .275 average, 13 home runs, and 67 RBIs -- were far below the career numbers he posted in 2003: .306, 28, and 87.

''It was a frustrating year for me," he said. ''It stunk. Like with Kevin, it stunk for him. You fight yourself. 'What can I do to get the ball in the air?' I was still hitting the ball good, hitting it hard, but I couldn't get it in the air."

His subpar performance, coupled with the fact that he is entering his free agent year, made him vulnerable to the possibility of a trade. He heard the rumors swirling about him. When his tax accountant asked him about it, he finally did something about it: He picked up the phone and called ESPN's Peter Gammons, a one-man clearinghouse of rumors real and imagined.

Nixon would love to stay here -- in that respect, he was no different from Mueller and Millar -- but he is aware that his long run here could be coming to an end.

''I'm not worried too much about it," Nixon said. ''Obviously, like any other year, you try to stay healthy the whole year. When you're healthy, you get the opportunity to play. I'll get the at-bats I need and go from there.

''I'm going to go out there until my body shuts down," said Nixon, who will turn 32 on the day of the Sox' home opener (April 11). ''I love this business and I love it in Boston. But I only have control over what I can do in the field. I don't have control over what they want to do."

Nixon said his rib cage injury (strained oblique muscle) did not hamper him upon his return last September, that he was lucky that it was on his left side (away from the pitcher), and that it was not an issue during offseason workouts. He said he weighs about 220 pounds, about 8 pounds heavier than he played at last season. And while he'd like to keep on the extra weight, he figures that won't happen.

He expects to share time in right field, but was surprised to hear that the Sox had signed righthanded-hitting Dustan Mohr, who may be the leading candidate to platoon with Nixon, at least until Gabe Kapler is fully recovered from his torn Achilles' tendon.

But for Nixon, it will all be a matter of staying healthy. ''That's a lot easier said than done," he said. ''I think, just the way I tried to approach the game year in year out, sometimes my body doesn't respond the way you want it to all the time.

''But if I do things I need to do as far as stretching, weight training, rest, nutrition -- all those things -- I'll be OK."

Just like the team.

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