By In Stuff

Ballot 21: Mike Cameron

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Mike Cameron

Played 17 years for eight different teams

All-Star won three Gold Gloves, hit 278 home runs. 46.5 WAR, 20.8 WAA

Pro argument: Played spectacular center field, ran bases well and hit a lot of home runs (four in one game!)

Con argument: Couldn’t quite make enough contact to hit for average or get on base at a Hall of Fame level.

Deserves to be in Hall?: No

Will get elected this year?: No

Will ever get elected?: No.

* * *

I am exactly six years older than Mike Cameron. Have you noticed that when you look at someone’s baseball card — or facts about them on Wikipedia — if they share your birthday that just jumps out at you as if the letters are in bold or a different color? Mike Cameron was born on January 8, 1973, six years after I was born.

I fear that I have already bored you on that subject.

Mike Cameron did not play baseball his junior year at LaGrange High School in Georgia. His grandmother, Fannie Mae, made him sit out because he failed chemistry. There’s something so warm about that story, something so touching; Cameron had moved in to live with grandmother when he 7, not because his parents could not care for him (they lived right down the street) but because her husband died, and he did not want her to be alone. She, in turn, insisted that he become a certain kind of man.

Because he did not play at all as a junior, scouts were only vaguely aware of Cameron when he played ball his senior year. The Chicago White Sox took in him the 18th round between a junior college player named Brian Pelka and a Kentucky senior named Rick Noton. Cameron was sent to the South Bend where he hit .228. He was sent back to South Bend, and he hit .238. He was moved up to high-A Ball in Prince William. He hit .248. Yes, improvement came slowly, by tenths of a point.

Then he went to Birmingham in Class AA and hit .249 — an improvement of one hundredth of a point.

 His breakout year was the next year, 1996 in Birmingham. He was on a team with Hall of Fame ballot-mate Magglio Ordonez and the irrepressible Pete Rose Jr. Cameron hit an even .300, walked 71 times and slugged .600 — 34 doubles, 12 triples and 28 homers. He also stole 39 bases and played a rangy centerfield. The White Sox had not thought much of his baseball future … but they were impressed enough by that season to give him the starting centerfield job in 1997, when he was 24 years old.

And so began the turbulent baseball life of Mike Cameron. Frank Sinatra once said of himself, “I’m an 18-karat manic-depressive … with an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as happiness.” Cameron’s game had an over-acute capacity for happiness and sadness too. He did not do anything just OK. He was a great outfielder. He couldn’t make consistent contact. He was a fantastic baserunner. He  would go into death-defying slumps when it seemed anyone could get him out. He could hit with massive power. He never hit .275 for a season in his career. And so on.

And then, as you probably remember, Cameron moved around a lot. A lot. He was traded to Cincinnati for Paul Konerko. He was traded to Seattle for Ken Griffey. He signed with the Mets and was traded to San Diego for Xavier Nady. He signed with Milwaukee. He signed with Boston. He was bought by Florida.* He signed one last time with Washington but retired before the season began.

*Rick: I don’t buy or sell human beings.

Ferrari: That’s too bad. That’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.

Cameron never played more than four seasons with any team. He got almost 8,000 plate appearances in the big leagues and the break down like so:

Seattle: 32%

San Diego: 16%

Milwaukee: 15%

White Sox: 12%

Mets: 11%

Cincinnati: 8%

Boston: 4%

Cameron is probably one of the five best players to play for eight different teams in his career. The best is obviously Rickey Henderson, who played for 11 teams. Then you have Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton and Bobby Bonds. Cameron is probably next after that.

When you have so many talents and so many flaws and your career is so divided among so many teams, well, it’s all but impossible to come up with a clear picture. Cameron never had a season as good as J.D. Drew’s 2004 … or Derrek Lee’s 2005 … or, probably, Melvin Mora’s 2004. But year after year, season after season, fly ball after ball ball, he was the better player than any of them.

One thing that was clear was how much fun it was to watch Cameron play the outfield. He had this joy about him, this magical talent for transmitting that joy through his play. Lots of Major Leaguers love playing baseball — the vast majority of them do — but it’s a whole other thing to LOOK like you love playing baseball. There’s so much pressure. There’s so much tension. Plus, it’s work — it’s serious business. I love writing, but I know that I do not look like I love writing while I do it.

Cameron LOOKED like he was having the best time more or less every moment of every game.

This gift made him a fan favorite in Japan for a time. Cameron played next to the young Ichiro Suzuki, and of course in those days everyone in Japan was watching Seattle games. And they so loved watching Cameron in Japan that, at one point, they invited him to take part in the nation’s most popular television competition.

And then, yes, there was Cameron’s four-homer game. The date was May 2, 2002, it was at what was then called New Comiskey Park, and the ball was flying out. I mean the ball was FLYING out. That’s a home run ballpark anyway, but on that day it was ridiculous.

Jon Rauch started for the White Sox — he lasted one-third of an inning. It was about as bad an outing as any pitcher has had. He started by hitting Ichiro with a pitch. Then he gave up a home run to Bret Boone. Then he gave up home run No. 1 to Cameron — straightaway center field.

John Olerud doubled. Ruben Sierra reached on an error by White Sox second baseman Ray Durham (“A little help here, Ray!”). Carlos Guillen lined a single. Mark McLemore reached on a bunt single (Come on Mark!). Ben Davis lined a single. And finally, finally, Jeff Cirillo hit a long sacrifice fly ball for the first out of the inning.

It was after that fly ball that Rauch was pulled from the game. Weird.

In came Jim Parque. He got Ichiro to ground out … and then he gave up a second homer to Bret Boone and a second homer to Mike Cameron. Cameron’s blast was to almost the exact same spot as the first one. Remember, this was just the first inning.

Cameron homered again in the third off Parque (after Boone went down swinging — no doubt swinging about as hard as he ever had in his life). Cameron yanked this one to left, a no-doubter. So that’s the third homer in just the third inning.

Cameron homered the fourth time in the fifth off Parque (after Boone AGAIN went down swinging — no doubt swinging as hard as he ever had in his life). This one was to straightaway center again, a little bit longer than the first two.

Four homers in five innings; Mike Cameron had a very real chance to become the first player and still only to hit five home runs in a Major League game.

He came up twice more. In the seventh, Mike Porzio plunked him with a pitch because of course he did. And then in the ninth, Cameron launched a line drive to right that pushed Jeff Leifer back toward the wall, but the ball did not quite carry out.

That was probably the most famous moment of Cameron’s sprawling career — well that and the time when he crashed into Carlos Beltran when they were both diving for a ball in the outfield — but there were dozens and dozens of small moments, home runs he brought back in, big looping strikeouts with two on and two out, gorgeous sprints home from second on singles. And he exuded happiness all the while. Mike Cameron was not quite a Hall of Famer but he made baseball more fun to watch, and that’s a pretty good way to be remembered.

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26 Responses to Ballot 21: Mike Cameron

  1. Aaron Ross says:

    Joe, this HOF series is simply a joy to read. Thank you.

  2. McKingford says:

    I think it’s worth noting that trading Griffey turned out to be a great move by Seattle. Mike Cameron put up more WAR in the 4 seasons he spent in CF for the Mariners than Junior did his entire rest of his career.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Yeah, Griffey had 3 mostly uninjured seasons in Cincy. Unfortunately he played 8 seasons there. Two of those seasons were almost 10 WAR. The rest didn’t add much. It’s kind of amazing that Griffey was so awesome up to Age 30, and then wasn’t really any good anymore. Yeah, he hit some HRs and he was better than the average player, but the dropoff was steep. Of course players decline all the time at that age, but superstars are supposed to have a little more in the tank. He really didn’t. Couldn’t stay healthy.

    • frightwig says:

      The Griffey trade also included Brett Tomko, a back-end starting pitcher later packaged in a trade to San Diego for Ben Davis (which began an interesting series of deals that brought Mike Morse, Miguel Olivo, Jeremy Reed, Aaron Heilman, Ronny Cedeno, Ian Snell, Jack Wilson, Jason Vargas, Kendrys Morales, Mike Carp, Endy Chavez, and Franklin Gutierrez), and prospect Antonio Perez, later packaged with manager Lou Piniella in the deal that brought Randy Winn to Seattle.

      I was really broken up about it at the time, and I’ll never forget Jim Bowden and the Reds fans crowing over the deal, but it worked out well for Seattle. Pat Gillick had no leverage, since Griffey wanted out but would only accept a trade to Cincinnati, yet he got the better end of it.

  3. Jamie says:

    I am pretty disappointed here. Mike Cameron was a decidedly better player than Magglio Ordonez, and Joe even pointed that out. And yet the appeal of Ordonez’s offense trumps the way, way better defense that Cameron brought. I always thought of Cameron who was a near HoFer, Ordonez doesn’t come anywhere close.

    • invitro says:

      It is strange that Joe is putting Ordonez ahead of Cameron (and Drew). I’m pretty sure that Joe has soured on bb-ref’s dWAR enough that he’s mentally discounting it… maybe halving it or something like that. Cameron is a whopping 21.5 dWAR ahead of Ordonez, so if Joe turns that into, say, 10 dWAR ahead, maybe just maybe Ordonez passes Cameron. Maybe Joe will say something in the Magglio article.

  4. John Autin says:

    Mike Cameron nailed every step in the “How to Be Underappreciated” manual.

    During his 13 years as a regular (1997-2009), he was worse than a typical non-pitcher in batting average (.251-.270), which is still the first stat you see next to a player’s name.
    But he was better than average in everything else you can measure.
    Defense and baserunning, obviously; but also OBP (due to higher walk and HBP rates); slugging (not just HRs, but doubles and triples too) and thus OPS; scoring and driving in runs; avoiding double plays; reaching base on errors; hitting sac flies … you name it.

    Among all players since 1901 with career BA under .250, Cameron ranks 4th with 46.5 bWAR, a whisker behind Gene Tenace. (As an aside, the top 31 players on that list include 10 shortstops, 9 catchers, 6 third basemen, and just 3 outfielders — including Dwayne Murphy, a very similar player who didn’t last as long as Cameron.)

    The rest of the formula for being underrated: Be consistently good, never great; split your time almost evenly between the leagues; get 600 PAs with 6 different teams, but not one-third of your total with any team; get traded twice for guys who had been or would be franchise icons; and play a position that has lots of stars at the same time. (5 of the top 20 in total bWAR from 1997-2009 were CFs.)

    • Mike123 says:

      Great comment. I always loved Cameron. Had him on my fantasy team many years. He filled up HR, SB, R, and RBI. His low BA meant I could draft him long after players that produced less (but hit .280)

    • William Keane (@largebill68) says:

      You’re exactly right. Being great every other year is better than being good to very good every year.

  5. Mark says:

    Transplanted Royals fan here in Seattle. Mike Cameron is one of my all time favorite ball players. Joe, this is greatest Mike Cameron moment, first Mariners homestand after Griffey left the M’s….we knew it was going to be OK. http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/6479266/v20100695/nyysea-mike-cameron-robs-derek-jeter-of-a-home-run

    Boy I miss Dave Niehaus!

  6. jroth95 says:

    As a Mets fan, born and raised, and a Pirates fan, developed over the last 22 years, I had a mild resentment for Mike Cameron. Why? Because I was so proud of the Mets of being smart enough to let Cameron go when he was entering his age-32 season, clearly headed for decline. They were contenders, of course, but they didn’t fall for the mistake of hanging on too long to the guys who got you there. Good thing they had Nady’s 0.1 fWAR instead of Mike’s 4.5 in ’06, and I don’t think that the nearly 2 wins he had over Shawn Green in 2007 would have made a difference either (weeps).

    And THEN he ends up with the hated Brewers when they were just smacking the Pirates around, putting up eight wins as a 35- and 36-y.o. CF with top 5 defensive numbers in the league. You’re killing me, buddy.

    • Stephen says:

      And then Boston signed him, expecting that the great defense of this 37-year-old would take care of their CF hole. I’m rarely right about these things, but I remember saying that relying on a CF who’s 37 is a bad idea, even if he IS Mike Cameron, and I fully expected him to fall off a cliff…which he did. Proving that there are limits, even for *really good* defensive CFs.

  7. Norm DePloom says:

    May I nominate Gaylord Perry for the list of best players to play with at least 8 teams? Thanks Joe, these are fun.

  8. Mike says:

    God, that Padres/Mets trade was heaven. I so loved getting him. I was sad to see him go. Stupid cheapskate Padres…

  9. invitro says:

    Wikipad sez: “On October 31, 2007, it was announced that he had failed a test for banned stimulants for a second time and would miss the first 25 games of the 2008 season. Cameron has said he believes that a supplement he took was “tainted.” However, given the requirement of two failed drug tests before an announcement is made, this explanation is questionable. He was just the second major leaguer to be suspended for a second positive test for stimulants, following Neifi Pérez.” Well, I don’t care if players take amphetamine. I don’t think MLB should care about players taking amphetamine. I take amphetamine myself. It’s been a wonder drug. Many people think steroids and amphetamine are equally bad. I think that’s bollocks. But I’ve never taken steroids…

    Wikipad also sez: “Cincinnati Reds announcer Marty Brennaman once said Cameron is one of his top 10 favorite players he has ever been around.” Brennaman has been around a lot of players, so this is something.

  10. birtelcom says:

    Most career baseball-reference WAR by an outfielder with a career batting average under .250:
    Mike Cameron 46.5,WAR, .249 BA
    Dwayne Murphy 33.2 WAR, .246 BA
    Greg Vaughn 30.7 WAR, .242 BA
    Gary Pettis 22.0 WAR, .236 BA and Tom Tresh 22.0 WAR, .245 WAR

    Jim Wynn had two hits too many to top this list. His career numbers were 55.6 baseball-reference WAR and a .25026 batting average.

  11. Black Diamond says:

    Mike Cameron was a cheater and deserves to be remembered as such.

    Next!

  12. Darrel says:

    I know I’m jumping ahead here but I just read Jay Jaffe’s piece on Larry Walker. I have always thought he belongs in the Hall and his case is a souped up version of Cameron’s. Obviously Walker had some unbelievable numbers, Coors aided, but in some ways the Cameron theory here holds in that all around abilities often take a back seat to being great at one thing. Walker was a great defensive RF and a fantastic baserunner in addition to the offense and these things kind of get lost in the discussion all too often.

    Jaffe sealed it for me on Walker when he pointed out that Walker’s lifetime ops+, which accounts for the Coors effect, is exactly the same as presumed no doubt HoF’r David Ortiz. Most commenters seem to have Ortiz in despite the failed test for PED’s. That Walker matched him on offense and had the added D and baserunning advantages either speaks poorly of Ortiz’s chances or makes us think that Walker is due for a large jump from the 15% or so of the votes he got last year.

  13. jpdg says:

    A couple of cool but forgotten facts from Cameron’s four HR game:

    1) Cameron and Brett Boone went back twice in the first inning. That was, and still is, the only time in history two guys hit two home runs each in the same inning.

    2) Cameron actually had two shots to hit a fifth home run. In his fifth at-bat Cameron was hit by pitch and the home fans in Chicago booed pitcher Mike Porzio mercilessly. Cameron would get another shot at Porzio in his sixth at-bat and crushed a 3-2 pitched that was caught on the track.

    • Brett Alan says:

      Um, both of those facts are in Joe’s article (although he doesn’t mention that this was the only time number 1 happened).

  14. nightfly says:

    Man, that crash with Beltran… that was really scary. I recall thinking (and I still think) that it was the result of having two (superb) center fielders out there at once, and both instinctively thinking that they had to make that play, that there was no way anyone else was going to get there – so why bother even calling it?

  15. Bookbook says:

    My recollection is that Cameron’s teams outperformed their expected win-loss records pretty consistently. That great defense was real, maybe undercounted.

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