One of the ugly truths of baseball is the uncertainty and desperation that can overcome a minor leaguer who is approaching the end of the line. Mike Nixon knows.
“It’s not a real glamorous picture,” the Arizona State linebacker said.
Nixon has shared clubhouses with players who, in their late 20s or early 30s, had never enjoyed the security of a regular major-league paycheck, and likely never would. Players on the verge of losing baseball — all they know — and with no idea of what to do next.
That reality has made more than a few grown men cry.
“In the minors, if you are not playing every day, the chances that you are going to make it are slim,” Nixon said. “In Triple-A, I had teammates who had never been to the big leagues with no college degree that had no fallback plan if they didn’t make it.
“I felt myself going down that same path; happy to be playing baseball for a living, but the living isn’t all that great unless you make it to the majors. I had a safety net.”
Just before Christmas 2005, Nixon, then a catcher-infielder facing the probability of another season on the bench in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system, decided to jump into it, exercising a provision in his contract requiring the team to finance his college education.
Twenty-three months later, he has a big role in ASU’s linebacker rotation. On Saturday, Nixon’s athletic life comes full circle when the Sun Devils play UCLA, the school he committed to play football for out of Phoenix Sunnyslope.
“He’s mature. He’s been around,” ASU coach Dennis Erickson said of Nixon, a 24-year-old sophomore. “He brings a real quiet leadership to our football team. He’s smart, understands what’s going on and plays at all three linebacker spots.
“Also, he’s happy we fly (to road games). Anyone who has played baseball in the minors is going to enjoy flying more than buses.”
Nixon — the team’s second-oldest player, a year younger than defensive tackle Michael Marquardt — was quickly given the nickname “Uncle Mike” upon his arrival in Tempe.
“This year, some of the freshmen have turned it into ‘Grandpa Mike,’ ” Nixon said. “It’s only going to get worse from here on out. Last year, I was as old as a lot of the seniors. Now, they’ve left, and I’m just getting older.”
He expected to play college football after his senior year at Sunnyslope, where he was a three-sport star. But his baseball draft stock rose after a big season, and he opted to sign with the Dodgers.
His host-family roommate during his rookie-ball year in Great Falls, Mont., was outfielder Delwyn Young, who has since reached the majors. As he progressed to the Triple-A level, Nixon experienced all of the minor-league life that is often romanticized.
“The brawls you see in the majors? They’re nothing compared to what happens in the minors,” Nixon said. “It’s 25 guys on 25, just going crazy.”
Nixon was always confident of making the bigs, but as time went on, he felt his window of opportunity closing. Had he returned to baseball in 2006, he likely would have backed up Russell Martin at catcher in Las Vegas.
Martin, an All-Star this season with the Dodgers, would have been an imposing barricade in Nixon’s road to the majors.
“I think he looked at the situation realistically,” said Nixon’s father, Jim. “He had been around the old-timers in the minors who were trying to push for one more year because baseball was all they had. He didn’t want to spend five or six more years in the minors, waiting for a shot that might not come.
“I don’t think he felt like he failed. It was just a new opportunity for him.”
Nixon — who batted .267 with 11 home runs and 147 RBIs in 322 minor-league games — joined ASU for spring practice in 2006 as a safety. However, squatting and catching for four years, then gaining about 30 pounds for football, sapped some of his speed, so he moved to linebacker.
In 13 games (four starts) last season, he had 32 tackles and three sacks.
“At the end of last year, I felt 100 times more comfortable,” Nixon said. “The games slowed down, and I got back the instincts I had in high school.
“I might not be the most athletic linebacker we have, but I feel like if I can trust my eyes and be where I’m supposed to be, I can play quicker.”
This year, Nixon is fourth on the Sun Devils with 40 tackles, including a team-high 12 against Oregon on Saturday. He has started the past two games at middle linebacker with Morris Wooten limited by a thumb injury.
“On the field, he’s a guy who knows what everyone’s job is, and he’s going to get involved in the play almost every time,” safety Josh Barrett said.
He is considering attending law school, but for now, Nixon is enjoying the life of a college undergraduate. Among his nonacademic pursuits are video games, relaxing by the pool and hanging out at a bar with friends.
Oh, and trying to help lead ASU to a Bowl Championship Series game.
“My favorite sport has always been whatever sport I’m playing,” Nixon said.
“Baseball was a great opportunity for me, one that I don’t regret for a minute.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.
“Or, I guess you could say, fortunately, because look where I am now.”
No. 9 Arizona State at UCLA
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
TV: Ch. 15
Records: Arizona State (8-1, 5-1 Pac-10), UCLA (5-4, 4-2)