Popular former Mariners centerfielder signed a one-day contract to retire as a Mariner, then threw out the first pitch to a rousing ovation at the home opener Friday night.
The sabermetric people will be a little shy on any counterpoints, so we’ll go ahead and risk this assessment: Mike Cameron was the most personally popular Mariner since Edgar Martinez.
Ken Griffey Jr. was more celebrated, Randy Johnson was more accomplished, Jay Buhner was more locally enduring, but no one made teammates, fans and media feel better than Cameron, just by standing there.
Friday night at the home opener, it was the fans who did the standing, offering an ovation that lasted the entire time it look him to jog in from behind the centerfield fence to the mound for the ceremonial opening pitch.
Cameron soft-tossed a throw that bounced once before being caught by Ichiro, the only player remaining from Cameron’s Seattle career (2000-2003). The two embraced, adding some evidence to a pre-game contention offered by the successor to Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle’s center field.
“I brought him out of his little circle,” said Cameron, responding to what kind of a teammate Ichiro was. “He’s got a little regimen that makes him seem like he doesn’t want to be bothered.”
Cameron didn’t care. His charisma, enthusiasm and joy for the game blew down any stoicism by Ichiro or pretense by anyone else. It’s over now, and it’s a shame. At 39, after Cameron 17 major league seasons and eight clubs, he’s called it quits.
His last act as a player was to sign a one-day contract in Seattle so he could retire as a Mariner.
“It’s only fitting to retire as a Mariner,” he said. “This feels like home to me. It’s special.”
For a Georgia native, that’s a generous statement. But Cameron, traded by Cincinnati in 2000 as part of the deal for Griffey, stepped into a dead man’s job and flourished, playing the outfield nearly as well as Griffey did, and without the moodiness and controversy. His numbers weren’t bad either — in four years, a .256 average, .798 OPS, 87 homers, 344 RBIs and 106 stolen bases.
He was also a part of a huge run of success for the Mariners — four winning seasons, including the 116 wins of 2001 as well as two playoff appearances that reached the American League Championship Series.
But after 2003, worried about Cameron’s strikeouts and struggles to hit at Safeco, as well as his cost, the Mariners let him go into free agency, where he signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the New York Mets. The Mariners still haven’t found a durable replacement.
He had a four-homer game, and decided a 19-inning game with another dinger, and made numerous thrilling catches. But his highlight moment came in 2001, when he was a late addition to the All-Star Game in Seattle. It was his one and only All-Star appearance.
“It was one of the great moments of my career,” he said, beaming nearly as much as his trademark diamond-stud earrings. “It was neat to keep my my locker and dress next to Ichiro.”
Given his flair and passion for the game, it was hard to imagine he was driven early on in Seattle by apprehension.
“The thing I was most afraid of was failing,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the guy who failed to live up to the billing.”
Judging by the reception Friday, there was no recollection of any Cameron failure by anyone in the house.