With no guarantee of making the big league club, veteran center fielder Mike Cameron has informed the Washington Nationals that he will be retiring rather than reporting to spring training on a minor league contract. Cameron played 17 seasons in a rather nomadic career, winning three Gold Gloves and playing in the 2001 All-Star Game.
Few baseball players have a legacy as diversified as Cameron. Some will remember him as one of the finest defensive outfielders of his generation who also had enough pop to hit four home runs in a single game (and narrowly missing out on a fifth). Others will remember him as a journeyman with strikeout issues who suffered one of the scariest injuries of the past decade, which indirectly resulted in him becoming perhaps the most well-known player to be suspended for amphetamine usage. Still, others will remember him as one of the classiest players of his generation who was perhaps Ichiro’s favorite teammate during his time in America.
Few, however, will remember him for what he really was: a player whose contributions were never properly appreciated until he was on another club.
It was really amazing that so many different teams found a way to underrate Cameron during his career. Cameron played for eight teams in all, including six during what could be considered the 10-year prime of his career. Cameron’s teams won a lot; from 1997-2009, the only team that didn’t win at least 80 games was the 2004 New York Mets. He also went to the playoffs four times with three different teams.
Additionally, any team that employed Cameron seemed to show real improvement on defense from the previous year — and took steps backward the moment he left. Here is a chart of every teams' run and hit differential from the year Cameron joined the team and the year he departed.
Notice anything interesting about these numbers? Every time Cameron joined a new team, they saw a decline in both runs and hits allowed — and an improvement in the win column. At the same time, the teams that let him go tended to give up more runs and hits, which corresponded to more losses on the season.
The only team that managed to win more after getting rid of Cameron was the Mets, and this can partially be explained by the fact that Cameron was playing out of position all season and also missed half of the year following the gruesome collision with Carlos Beltran. The Brewers can also say that they saw little drop-off when Cameron left, but that has more to do with the fact that he was entering his late 30s and was starting to lose a step.
Nobody would dare suggest that Mike Cameron was the sole reason for these improvements or drop-offs — letting Cameron go was one of many atrocious moves by former Seattle GM Bill Bavasi, for example, but at the same time it’s hard not to notice that teams were almost always better with Cameron on the roster than without.
It’s fitting that Cameron’s retirement announcement went largely unnoticed by the baseball community, as it is very representative of his career as a whole. Mike Cameron deserves to go down as one of the great winners of his generation and a front-line center fielder for a variety of teams.