Cameron takes charge in Padres outfield

New in town, Cameron back where he belongs

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Center fielder Mike Cameron -- he dearly loves how that sounds -- is the player to watch with the Padres in 2006.

And few players in the game are more enjoyable to watch than this guy.

Cameron, back in his natural habitat in the middle of the outfield, is a commanding presence on the field and a joy in the clubhouse with his humor and honesty.

At 33, coming off a serious injury resulting in multiple facial fractures, Cameron looks at the game and his place in it with a renewed gratitude, savoring the offseason move to San Diego from New York in exchange for Xavier Nady.

Acknowledging how strange it is to be traded to the club that plays on the PETCO Park turf that housed his violent collision last Aug. 11 with Mets teammate Carlos Beltran, Cameron is determined to make 2006 memorable.

Embarking on his 12th Major League season, he is determined to regain his standing as a premier center fielder after a season spent in right. He's also eyeing a third Gold Glove to go with ones he captured in 2001 and '03 with Seattle.

"On a personal level," he said, "it's definitely part of my mind-set. I've kind of fallen by the wayside in talks [about great center fielders], but I can still see I'm remembered by a lot of teams who wanted me to play that position for them.

"I work at it, on the craft out there. I want to use my ability to help out the guys on the corners [left fielder Dave Roberts and right fielder Brian Giles] like it's going to help [shortstop] Khalil Greene having Vinny Castilla at third base."

Defense at PETCO Park, with its vast outfield gaps, is a high priority, and Cameron clearly takes it seriously.

He loves hearing tales of great center fielders of the past and has gleaned information from the likes of Eric Davis and Devon White, men he resembles in style.

Cameron, at 6-foot-2 and 200 rock-solid pounds, used his half-season with the Mets last year to find a more effective throwing motion.

"I learned I wasn't closing my shoulder off," he said. "I learned I could get more carry from turning my shoulder."

He's always had good carry with the bat, something he has shown in Cactus League play with power shots to all fields.

This is a man who, on May 2, 2002, matched a Major League record with four homers in a game, playing for the Mariners.

Cameron has produced 173 homers in 1,268 games, with a career-high 30 with the '04 Mets. He had 25 homers and 110 RBIs, scoring 99 runs, with the magical Mariners of '01.

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He can hit anywhere in the lineup, giving manager Bruce Bochy options. He could occupy the No. 2 hole, where Cameron's superior speed and baserunning instincts can be exploited.

He's a .249 career hitter with a .340 on-base average, suggesting he's patient enough to work counts.

With 229 career steals and a superb .792 success rate, he hopes he's turned loose at least 40 times.

"I feel rejuvenated, refreshed," Cameron said. "I've been around some guys who can play this game. I'm a part of this tradition. Baseball's been part of my life since I was 4, 5 years old. I've always tried to model myself after a few guys and see what I'm capable of doing."

His new teammates love what they've seen -- and heard -- from this upbeat gentleman born in LaGrange, Ga., and raised in Braves country.

"I've always admired the way he plays," Giles said. "He'll help us defensively and give us some right-handed power. I'm excited about playing with Mike."

"Cammy's a great center fielder," Roberts said. "I thought I did a pretty decent job out there last year, but he's obviously a quality addition to our ballclub."

The three men have been constant companions, Bochy wanting them to grow comfortable with each other in every way.

Cameron plays an aggressive center field and has communicated with Giles and Roberts his approach.

"If I think I can get to a ball, I go after it," Cameron said. "If it's in the gap and I'm not sure, I'm always going to go behind you, take a deep route. That's for safety's sake."

Bochy knows the center fielder is the captain of the outfield, and he seems delighted to have a former Gold Glover who performed in two postseasons with Seattle (2000 and '01) and played in the All-Star Game in charge.

"Cameron plays both sides of the ball," Bochy said. ""He's been terrific. He's hit with power and I really like the way he runs the bases. He runs down a lot of balls and is a complete player, offensively and defensively."

Calling himself a Swiss Army knife for his variety of tools, Cameron realizes he'll be watched closely after the collision with Beltran ended his '05 season prematurely.

"Always in baseball you feel you have something to prove," he said. "I feel like I do have a little something to prove to myself -- that I'm still capable of being an All-Star-caliber, Gold Glove center fielder able to provide help for my team.

"I want to get back to the playoffs, man. I think we've got a chance."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.