- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Happy Trails, Mike Cameron

A solid, if not a bit underrated career came to an end as Mike Cameron called it quits over the weekend, exactly two months after inking a minor league pact to play in the nation’s capital. Cameron’s career ends after 17 seasons with eight ballclubs, during which time the fleet afoot center fielder nabbed three Gold Gloves, poked 278 homers, swiped 297 bags, collected exactly 1,700 hits, and played in just shy of 2,000 games.

Cameron’s BRef comps list — like any good comps list, really — is riddled with players in that exact same boat. Guys like Ron Gant, Jimmy Wynn, Bobby Bonilla, and Brady Anderson all appear. His WAR ranking company includes more modern company such as Tony Phillips, Moises Alou, Ellis Burks, and former teammate Ichiro Suzuki. He could be a charter member in a newly-formed Hall of Very Good if anyone had an inkling to create one — might I suggest Dyersville, IA — but a tweet from the past few days really got to me, perhaps a bit more than it should have, and really got my wheels turning about Cameron’s place in history.

Now I’m not here to rip on Jon Heyman; he’s good at what his primary objective is. But to love WAR is to know WAR — though not necessarily vice versa — and to take just a brief detour from our Cameron admiration, Heyman’s showing a fundamental misunderstanding here.

Cameron played 17 seasons, and in doing so compiled nearly 8000 plate appearances. Kirby Puckett only garnered about 50 fewer plate appearances, but did so in five fewer seasons. So as a result, Cameron may have gotten more bang for the proverbial buck, but he (a) debuted much earlier than Puckett age-wise and as a result (b) succeeded much earlier in his respective career and (c) was permitted to play out his career by the baseball gods. Another interesting note? They both played in the same number of 100-plus game seasons, at a dozen apiece. In that respect Cameron, who averaged only 115 games per season, sort of suffers from a similar affliction as Larry Walker in that respect and that respect only. In short, Cameron compiled when compared to Puckett, and I have no problem saying it.

To measure Cameron with the three Gold Gloves is folly as well. I’m no baseball historian, but he played in one heck of an era of center fielders, with Jim Edmonds, Torii Hunter, and Andruw Jones all coming into their own in his time frame. Oh, and the man Cameron himself was tasked with replacing in the Emerald City, that Ken Griffey Jr. fellow, too. Kenny Lofton and Darin Erstad made it interesting in there too, and Devon White was nothing short of legendary, either. Regardless, Cameron could have easily pulled a prime-of-his career sweep similar to Brooks Robinson* if he had played in leaner times, though injuries and changing teams certainly didn’t bolster his case, either.

On the all-time leaderboard defensively, Cameron checks in at 112.2, good for eighth all time in front of other greats such as Willie Wilson, Chet Lemon, and Tris Speaker. Obviously, if he isn’t remembered as a defensive great, he’s being done a great disservice.

And while it’s safe to say that most will remember Cameron for his defense, I will always remember him for his special day as a hitter, May 2, 2002. Cameron, batting third that day, popped four home runs and very nearly added a fifth in his final chance, as he flew out to right fielder Jeff Liefer on Comiskey Park’s warning track to end that particular threat. Cameron’s first home run came on the heels of a Bret Boone longball as part of a huge first inning which saw the Mariners chase the White Sox starter after just one out (a sac fly) was recorded. Cameron’s second also came in identical fashion (again back-to-back with Boone), still in the first inning, this time off reliever Jim Parque. By the time the dust had settled in that opening frame, 10 runs had come across and the White Sox were officially buried for the day.

The starter that day? None other than current Mets middle-reliever Jon Rauch.

But that didn’t stop Cameron, as he drilled a solo shot off Parque in the third, and another of the identical ilk in the fifth. Mike Porzio relieved Parque in time to walk Boone and plunk Cameron in the seventh, denying him his first chance at immortality before his second fell just by the wayside in the final frame.

It was a legendary game for a man who played his career with the same smile despite changing teams on a constant basis, along with the added pressure of replacing a legend in Seattle. May the game never forget one if its best center fielders of all time.

*Obviously important to note that 3B and OF Gold Gloves aren’t created equal.