FORT MYERS, Fla. Life was nothing if not unfair for Mike Cameron during his first year in Boston.
Perhaps it was courting danger when the Red Sox expected a then-37-year-old to slide right in as the starting center fielder a little over a year ago. Cameron began having trouble staying healthy right from the get-go and it was downhill slide all season.
Cameron began experiencing abdominal problems before the season even commenced, and he proceeded to limp, grit and endure his way through 48 games with the help of pain medication and an impressive show of toughness. It was clear Cameron was emotionally spent after playing through the pain, and wringing 50-60 percent of his usual baseball abilities out of his broken-down body.
He couldnt get to fly balls that he normally devoured as a vacuum cleaner in center field, and he wasnt nearly the athletic dynamo capable of combining speed and power into one impressive package.
Cameron spent four weeks on the disabled list between April and May before finally shutting it down for good at the end of July and undergoing sports-hernia surgery on Aug. 27. The .259 batting average, 4 home runs and 11 RBI in 180 at-bats were accumulated purely on the desire to provide his Red Sox teammates with something while Jacoby Ellsbury was shelved due to fractured ribs. It was the fewest games and at-bats Cameron had totaled since 1996, when he was a September call-up by the Chicago White Sox.
Cameron established himself as a big league center fielder the next year on the South Side of Chicago, and then arrived in Seattle during the 2000 season as a large component in the Ken Griffey Jr. deal.
What he felt last season wasnt new to Cameron, however.
He has experienced pain and adversity before.
It was considerably worse when he pulled himself all the way back from a hellacious outfield collision with Carlos Beltran during his 2005 season with the New York Mets, and that gave him perspective.
But now a similar feeling of freedom and rejuvenation for Cameron this spring as hes healthy for the first time in a Red Sox uniform, and not afraid to show it on the baseball diamond.
You saw what I was going through last year, said Cameron. It feels good to be able to make a turn and not have everything aching all the time. Or take a swing and something is hurting. Or make a throw and youre almost ready to fall over. Yeah, it feels good. It feels good to be able to take a solid swing at the plate without anything hurting. Im just trying to figure out things. Im just listening to it, man. Kind of rolling with it and enjoying it. Ill never take it for granted, but I understand. I understand what its like to play hurt. Its a good thing right now.
It's night and day, said Cameron. Ive been able to just worry about playing rather than worrying about getting my body ready to play. Im just trying to play well."
Cameron went 1-for-2 against the Yankees in Bostons 2-1 win over New York at City of Palms Park on Monday night, and pushed his spring batting average to a robust .409. He started in right field against lefty Yankees wunderkind Manny Banuelos, and is still getting used to the move away from center.
Im getting ready to play baseball, and understanding the things I have to work on to keep my body functioning well, said Cameron. Playing the corner outfield spots is always a challenge when given the parameters of being on the corner.
It was the perfect example of what Cameron can provide the Sox with: a defensively viable option any of the three outfield spots that can step in against left-handed pitchers when J.D. Drew or Ellsbury needs a day off. The Sox can tailor Camerons playing time to match up against the finesse lefties that have always given Drew trouble, or a day game after a night game when either of the two needs a little rest.
I think Cameron shows that when hes healthy he can play against anybody, said Terry Francona. But especially on those days when J.D.s knees are a little beat up and you want to give him a break, I think Cam gives us a potent bat. I think were excited about that, and I think Cam is too.
Much like Ellsbury is once again showing the player he should be with good health and skills reaching their prime, Cameron should be the perfect fourth outfielder in Boston, ready to spell Ellsbury, Drew or Carl Crawford. Coming to grips with health limitations and questions about his age have Cameron in a different place mentally than he might have been as a younger man, and Francona thinks hell be the next in a long line of capable reserve players.
They are the kind of big-league ballplayers that have been good enough to be starters in the Majors, but also possess the wisdom to know that swallowing the ego can allow them an opportunity to be part of something special. Just as Alex Cora, Dave McCarty, Bobby Kielty and Eric Hinske won World Series rings with the Red Sox as key depth players behind the starters, Cameron can be an incredibly useful player in the long line of leadership pieces ready to play supporting roles.
I think general manager Theo Epstein did a really good job when he got Crawford to make his very first phone call to Cameron, said Francona. It was handled very well and I think Cam, in turn, handled it very well. Theres less babysitting. You walk a fine line.
Theo and I have had this discussion a lot. You want to have somebody on the bench so if something happens, then you have a guy that can play. But you also need somebody that can handle not playing. Weve run into that from time to time. Weve had a lot of good ones: Cora and Sean Casey. Those guys make my job easier. When you have guys sitting on the bench that are leader-type guys? Man, thats terrific.
Remember Jay Payton, the ornery veteran outfielder who clashed with the Red Sox when he didn't get the playing time he thought he deserved in 2005? There won't be any of those types of episodes with Cameron this season as he provides stability and insurance to an outfield that could use a little of both.