My favorite players: Mike Cameron

Note: on Monday the Athletic began sharing favorite players by all the columnists.  I thought it was a super idea and no way better to write something about baseball than talking about the guys you love.  I started writing this on Tuesday.  But I’m not a fast writer, and damned if Corey Brock didn’t post his favorite player, Mike Cameron on Wednesday.  So here is mine on Thursday. 

As the 1999 season wrapped up with the M’s out of the playoffs, the Mariner brass did what any major league front office would do, and that’s open negotiations with it’s franchise-best-ever-player for a contract extension.  But Ken Griffey, Jr. was having none of it.  After a year in which he hit 48 homers and slashed .285/.384/.576, good enough to place him 10th in MVP voting, Junior wanted out of Seattle.  He wanted to be closer to his home in Cincinnati.  When the M’s thought they had a deal with the Mets for the future Hall of Famer, Griffey, a 10-5 player,  nixed the idea, and demanded a trade to the Reds.

I was a Ken Griffey, Jr. fan. I saw his first home game, his first home run.  Still have the ticket stubs. I couldn’t believe he’d put my beloved Mariners in this position.  Not only did the best player in the world want to leave town, but he effectively put the M’s in an impossible quandry.  Keep an unhappy Junior until the end of 2000 and let him walk.  An unhappy Junior is definitely not something you want on your team.  Or trade Junior to the Reds, with the Cincinnati manager Jim Bowden holding all the cards. In the end, new general manger Pat Gillick negotiated a trade-and-sign deal that sent Griffey to Cincinnati in return for pitcher Brett Tomko, outfielder Mike Cameron, a highly rated shortstop prospect Antonio, and minor league pitcher Jake Wood.

The trade was widely regarded as a bust for the Mariners, forced on them by their departing superstar.  In reality, Junior’s departure to the Reds signaled a precipitous decline, his eight years in the Blue Chip City littered with injury and disappointment. By shedding his salary, Gillick was able to add free-agent talent to the team that shaped the 2001 Mariners including Brett Boone, Jeff Nelson, and Ichiro Suzuki.

Mike Cameron was the player who staked out Griffey’s center field pasture for his own room to roam for four years in Seattle. Cammie couldn’t be Junior, among the most popular athletes in the world. Jim Bowden called him “The Michael Jordan of baseball.”  Cameron never hit more than 30 home runs in a season.  He didn’t wear his hat backwards, though it always seemed curiously askew.  He didn’t have Junior’s movie star good-looks or his quick sense of humor.  And he didn’t have that swing, that beautiful swing, that rivals only Ted Williams as an icon of baseball at its most basic.

Though Cameron said he never felt the pressure to “be” Ken Griffey, Jr., one way to win a crowd over (remember, the Mariners were drawing nearly 3 million fans a year in 1999) is to give them something to talk about.  On April 7th, his fourth game at Safeco field, Cameron went over the center field wall to rob Derek Jeter of a home run, He had me at hello.

Cameron was a great center fielder, by the numbers, one of the best of all time. While Griffey, received the plaudits with winning ten Gold Gloves, the numbers suggest he was an average center fielder. In his 2011 book Wizardry on the best fielders of all time, Michael Humphries ranks Cameron second behind Andruw Jones from the contemporary era (note: pre-Mike Trout.) Brandon Warne in his 2012 farewell article for FanGraphs ranked Cameron as the eighth best defensive centerfielder of all time. What is clear from watching him play a shallow center field, is that he could take away a lot of base hits, while still making the big plays over his head.

While he couldn’t be a Ken Griffey, Jr. at the plate, Cameron was no slouch.  His OPS+ for his four years in Seattle was 108, 123, 109, and 108, with 100 being average. That’s adjusted for park and position. His wRC+ is likewise above average at 110, 120, 113, 110.  Yes, Cameron could absolutely strike out with the best of them, leading the league with 176 in 2002, but he could also hit the ball of the park and steal a base when it was needed.

He had his moments at the plate. Remember his homer off former Mariner Jeff Fassero in the 19th inning to beat the Red Sox 5-4 on August 1, 2000?

What about his four homer game against against the White Sox May 2, 2002?

And maybe the best part is that Cameron enjoyed it all so much.  He always played the game with a ton of energy and a huge smile that endeared him to fans and teammates.

I could never figure out why Bill Bavasi was in such a hurry to usher Cammie out of town after the 2003 season. Of course, I could never understand most of Bavasi’s moves.  He was followed in center field by Randy Winn, the ever injured Jeremy Reed, Willie Bloomquist, nice guys all, but never Cameron’s equal.  Until Franklin Gutierrez’s miracle season of 2009, they struggled to fill that position. It was hard to see him go when it was clear he really wanted to be in Seattle.

Cameron left to play for the Mets, signing a three year $19.5 million deal.  The following year the Mets brought in all-star center fielder Carlos Beltran, and moved Cameron to right. Both players were badly injured on August 11, 2005 when Beltran and Cameron collided while diving for a ball in no-man’s land. Beltran suffered a concussion.  Cameron also was concussed but also had multiple facial fractures.

Mike was traded to the Padres the following November, which meant he’d play the Mariners in interleague games.  Remember, they’re our rivals.  In his first game back during the 2006 season, Mike Cameron received a standing ovation.  I was thrilled to see him sign a minor league contract with the M’s for one day in 2012, so he could retire as a Mariner.  One of my favorites.


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