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3 San Diego Padres
Phil Taylor
April 03, 2006
Mike Cameron provides a spark, but will that light a fire?
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April 03, 2006

3 San Diego Padres

Mike Cameron provides a spark, but will that light a fire?

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RH Jake Peavy 5 13 7 216 1.04 2.88
RH Chris Young
[New acquisition]
60 12 7 137 1.26 4.26
LH Shawn Estes
[New acquisition]
125 7 8 63 1.43 4.80
RH Dewon Brazelton
[New acquisition]
191 1 8 43 2.07 7.61
RH Chan Ho Park 137 12 8 113 1.67 5.74

Mike Cameron jogged to centerfield for his first exhibition game as a Padre and went through his familiar routine. He checked the wind direction, noticed a slight breeze blowing out to right and made a mental note not to give up too early on balls hit to left-center because the wind would hold them up a bit longer. He checked the warning track to see how many strides he would have before he reached the wall on a deep fly. Finally, he looked to his right and left and saw a wide expanse of green, ground that was his to cover. He was home.

Even though Cameron is with a new team, his fourth in seven years, he feels a sense of comfort now that he's back in his beloved centerfield. Cameron, 33, doesn't just play center, he uses it as his personal canvas. "It's an art," he says. "Centerfield is where my creativity comes out. I think that's where I'm meant to play, and when I'm not there, it just feels unnatural." His two Gold Gloves at the position weren't enough to keep the Mets from shifting him to rightfield last season after signing free-agent centerfielder Carlos Beltran, who's four years younger than Cameron and has a seven-year, $119 million contract.

Cameron's tenure in rightfield came to a painful end on Aug. 11 when he and Beltran--both imbued with the take-charge instincts of a centerfielder--knocked heads in a violent collision while chasing a fly ball in, oddly enough, San Diego. Beltran suffered a broken cheekbone, but he was fortunate compared with Cameron, who suffered multiple facial fractures that required surgery, a concussion, loosened teeth and two split lips. "It was like my face was a dinner plate and somebody hit it with a hammer," Cameron says. "It was just shattered. I can't even describe the pain. For weeks there was no part of my face or head that didn't hurt."

The injuries sidelined Cameron for the rest of the season, and it was while he was lying in a San Diego hospital bed that he vowed to find a way to return to centerfield. "I felt like I had literally sacrificed my body and I deserved to go back and play the position I was best at," he says. Cameron says he didn't demand a trade, but he told Mets G.M. Omar Minaya how badly he wanted to return to center, and the club accommodated him with the Nov. 18 deal that sent him to the Padres for utilityman Xavier Nady.

His face is not only fully healed--"I guess I was lucky it happened in Southern California, the capital of plastic surgery," he says--it has also been sporting a smile since the trade. Cameron has instantly energized the Padres' clubhouse, high-fiving and joking with his new teammates from the moment he walks into the room. " Mike Cameron is Mr. Happy," says lefty reliever Alan Embree.

San Diego is more than happy to have landed a player of Cameron's defensive abilities to patrol Petco Park's spacious centerfield. "We've been looking the last two to three years for an athlete like this to cover the vast expanse of Petco," says G.M. Kevin Towers. "With Mike we have somebody who can do that as well as give us a spark with his personality."

Although he strikes out frequently--more than 130 times in each of his last six full seasons--Cameron also has power. He had hit at least 18 home runs for six straight years before his injury-shortened 2005. Only four teams in the majors hit fewer than the Padres' 130 homers last year, but Cameron and two other off-season acquisitions, catcher Mike Piazza, another former Met, and third baseman Vinny Castilla, late of the Nationals, should help San Diego improve on that total.

Cameron has already cleared the psychological hurdle of having a ball come near his face at the plate. He was brushed back by a high and tight pitch from the Angels' Jered Weaver early in spring training and came back to pull a hard single to left on the next pitch. The big test will come when he takes the field again at Petco. "I've thought about it, going back to the scene of the crime, so to speak," he says. "I think once I get out there the first time and start thinking about where to play the first hitter, I'll be O.K."

He doesn't expect to have any hesitancy the first time he has to converge on a fly ball with a teammate. "It might be similar, but it won't be the same," he says. "I'll be coming from centerfield. To me, that's a big difference."

Ryan Klesko's 18 home runs were the fewest to lead a team in 2005 and the lowest total to top the Padres in a full season since Carmelo Martinez's 18 in 1988.

a modest proposal

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