Cameron’s Speed, Glove Will Provide Defensive Growth

By Off the BASN Sports Wire
Updated: March 2, 2006

Mike Cameron

Mike Cameron

ARIZONA – The Padres’ long search for a center fielder has been dominated by dead ends. Ken Griffey Jr.’s arrival was prevented by Phil Nevin’s trade veto. The Steve Finley deal was undone by a competing offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When the Padres first approached Mike Cameron two years ago, the African-American free agent inquired about the team’s racial composition.

“Where,” he asked, “are the brothers?”

Cameron’s concern was stated comically, but his point was sharp enough to make men squirm. The Padres were then overwhelmingly white and, coincidentally or not, strikingly slow.

“I was kind of using it as a joke,” Cameron said yesterday. “But I wanted a team with a little bit of character to it, some diversity. I wanted (the Padres) to get some young, talented athletes.”

This wasn’t simply about politics, but pragmatism. The Padres made their transition into spacious Petco Park with too many one-dimensional sluggers and too little foot speed. This posed a considerable home-field disadvantage and called for a comprehensive organizational makeover currently in progress.

General Manager Kevin Towers was sensitive to the club’s monochromatic look and acutely aware that too many balls were falling beyond the reach of his outfielders. Though he jokingly referred to himself and manager Bruce Bochy as “Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis,” Towers was enlightened enough to make a priority of finding faster feet.

He continued to chase Mike Cameron until he caught him.

Twice a Gold Glove recipient and once an American League All-Star, Cameron will make the Padres more diverse and, potentially, more dangerous. He was acquired from the New York Mets last November, 99 days after sustaining multiple facial fractures in a catastrophic outfield collision at Petco, and could prove a huge bargain so long as his vision isn’t blurred.

If he has healed, Cameron will surely improve Bochy’s perimeter defense and bring his running game a new gear. Cameron is one of those rare outfielders whose glove routinely turns woe into “Wow.”

“I could be one of the really interesting stories about this baseball season,” Cameron said yesterday afternoon at the Padres’ spring training complex. “I’m not proclaiming to be the best player or one of the top 10 players to ever play the game. But every team I’ve been on, I’ve been like, ‘If this guy does well, we’re going to be pretty good.’ ”

Cameron expressed confidence that his vision is restored and his recovery is complete. When he resumed swinging the bat in January, he was not sure how well he would be able to handle major league pitching – how well he would see the ball – but his postoperative apprehensions have been dispelled.

Bochy’s, too.

“For him to get back on the field, to me that’s pretty remarkable because that was the ugliest collision I’ve ever seen,” Bochy said, referring to the Aug. 11 Petco pileup with Carlos Beltran. “(But) you wouldn’t know that anything happened from the way he’s been getting after it here. It seems like it’s behind him, both mentally and physically.

“I’m sure on the first in-betweener, he may have a flashback or something. But I think that’s going to go away with time. This spring will be a big spring for him to get over all that he went through.”

At 33, Cameron should be close to a performance peak. Though he continues to strike out with staggering frequency – his 1,198 whiffs exceed his 1,080 big-league hits – Cameron struck a career-high 30 homers in his last full season (2004).

Having spent his last six years in Seattle’s hitter-unfriendly Safeco Field and New York’s expansive Shea Stadium, Cameron is well equipped for the exasperation of Petco Park. He remembers Dave Roberts running down some of his best bolts last season, and resolves to adapt to his new park rather than resist it.

“I don’t want to get into a position where I feel if I hit the ball to right field, I’m going to be out,” he said. “If you hit the ball well enough, and you drive it, it’s going to get between somebody regardless of (how the ball carries) out there.

“It’s a big place. But it’s beautiful, man. I’m excited about the opportunity that I have to go out and just roam again. Just roam.”

Cameron’s acquisition frees Roberts to play left field and allows Padres pitchers the luxury of knowing more of their mistakes are likely to find leather. Presumably, whatever power Petco costs Cameron will be offset by his compensating catches.

“When I first came up, I worked hard to try to make a name for myself at this position,” Cameron said. “I want to do things that are not just spectacular, but things that help a team win ballgames every day.

“I try to hone my craft in center field to where it’s so natural that when people say, ‘How do you do that?’ I’m just playing.”

If the Padres were conscious of color in pursuing Mike Cameron, it was mainly because his glove is gold.