Mike Cameron used to center stage
New Red Sox outfielder familiar with position -- and with winning
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This was the headline that greeted Mike Cameron upon his arrival in town:
It's Cameron in Center Field -- Get Used to It
Tough way to greet a guy responsible for displacing Jacoby Ellsbury, agreed?
But this has nothing to do with Ellsbury or the Boston Red Sox. This was Cameron's life a full decade ago, but on a scale so vastly greater in controversy -- and pressure on Cameron -- that it's almost silly to compare the two.
Ten years ago, Cameron was a newcomer to the Seattle Mariners, charged with the task of replacing Ken Griffey Jr., merely the man credited with saving baseball in the Pacific Northwest. Cameron's new home was Safeco Field, aka "The House That Junior Built."
Just days before the start of spring training in 2000, the Mariners traded Griffey, who wanted to be closer to home, to the Cincinnati Reds in a multiplayer deal in which Cincy shipped back Cameron.
Cameron's reaction to the deal? "We just went down in history with Griffey,'' he said, "whether we like it or not.''
Cameron's first game as a Mariner came against the Red Sox and Pedro Martinez. He struck out three times. Did anyone mention pressure?
Ten years later, Cameron admitted the Seattle experience crossed his mind as he arrived here in camp with the Red Sox.
"I've been through a lot,'' he said. "We're talking about a guy who was probably, arguably, the best player of the decade at that time, and my little self, just getting my feet on the ground.''
It's true -- the Mariners without Griffey were not the same team. They were better, to the surprise of almost everybody. They improved by a dozen games in the standings in 2000, and they won a record-tying 116 games in 2001, when Cameron became an All-Star for the first time and won the first of three Gold Gloves.
No one, least of all Cameron, would argue he was as good as Griffey. Still, the events speak to a bigger picture -- as a complementary piece, Cameron has proved time and again that he can make a team a winner. That's something his agent, Mike Nicotera, pointed out to the Red Sox during negotiations to sign the free agent, that Cameron's teams had averaged 90 wins a season and gone to the postseason four times, not including the two times his teams participated in a play-in game for the wild-card spot and lost.
And if you think Cameron is the least bit intimidated by the situation he now is facing in Boston, you've got the wrong man. Ask Cameron how long it took him to win acceptance in the Mariners' clubhouse, and he doesn't hesitate.
"The first day,'' he said.
And here is where he sees similarities between his experience in Seattle and the one on which he is embarking with Boston.
"The Mariners had a really good team,'' he said. "It made it easier, having A-Rod there, [John] Olerud, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner. Buhner kind of helped me out because he understood what I was going through, because he was really good friends with Griff.
"This is a similar situation here. The youth and the good baseball players they have here makes it a little easier, and me having been through the experience of going through the [Seattle] situation, I understand it.''
What Cameron is dealing with now, in the Sox's decision to move Ellsbury to left, is less an issue of talent but age. Cameron is 37, Ellsbury 26. When Cameron was Ellsbury's age, he stole a career-best 38 bases; last season, Ellsbury led the American League with a team-record 70 steals. In 2009, Cameron had seven steals, although he said that was due in part to getting the red light from Brewers manager Ken Macha.
Atypical of most players, Cameron acknowledged reading a story on ESPNBoston.com that noted only one team has made a World Series with a regular center fielder age 37 or older and that last season he was the oldest everyday center fielder in the game.
"I didn't know I was the oldest center fielder,'' Cameron said.
"Once you've been playing for so long and people think it's time for you to move, then it's definitely something you have to consider. But it's definitely not a staple in your mindset. I still feel I can play it. I don't know if that will ever leave my mind.
"I saw the stories of the [oldest center fielder] to play in the World Series was Willie Mays and the stories about Mickey Mantle.''
Mays was 42 and a Mets part-timer when he suffered an embarrassing fall while chasing a fly ball in the 1973 Series. And actually, Mantle was 33 when he played in his last World Series, 36 when he retired. But Cameron has never had the leg issues Mantle had. By every meaningful statistical measure, there has been very little slippage in Cameron's game defensively. Last season, Cameron led the National League in total chances, range factor and Ultimate Zone Rating, and was second in UZR/150.
For the Red Sox, making Cameron the man in the middle, with J.D. Drew (who is superb defensively) in right and the swift Ellsbury in left, should represent a dramatic defensive upgrade from last season's alignment of Jason Bay in left, Ellsbury in center and Drew.
And the old man of the three is magnanimous enough to say he can learn as much from Ellsbury as the kid can learn from him.
"Being a center fielder is understanding your personnel, understanding your people, their strengths more than their weaknesses,'' Cameron said. "Your job as center fielder is to make up for the [weaknesses]. Having Jacoby [in left], there's a calm in myself that whenever there may be balls I have a problem getting to, I know he has the legs to get there.''
It's Cameron in center field. Get used to it. He certainly has.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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