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Home Runner CENTERFIELDER MIKE CAMERON IS A STAR IN SEATTLE BUT LOVES BEING WITH THE FOLKS BACK HOME IN GEORGIA

Jan. 14, 2002
Jan. 14, 2002

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Jan. 14, 2002

Home Runner CENTERFIELDER MIKE CAMERON IS A STAR IN SEATTLE BUT LOVES BEING WITH THE FOLKS BACK HOME IN GEORGIA

It's an unseasonably warm December afternoon in western Georgia,
and Donnie Branch, the defensive coordinator at LaGrange High,
considers his options as he tries to keep his players motivated
through a late-season practice. He can threaten those who forget
assignments or miss tackles with having to run laps around the
track that rings the practice field. He can remind the Grangers
that if they win their next game, against Hart County High,
they'll advance to the state Class AAA semifinals and play at the
Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Or he can point to the gleaming silver
Mercedes CL55 AMG parked near the blocking sleds just beyond the
end zone.

This is an article from the Jan. 14, 2002 issue

The luxurious ride belongs to Seattle Mariners centerfielder Mike
Cameron, a former LaGrange defensive back and wide receiver who
grunted through Branch's practices on this same gridiron. Any
questions, boys, about what a little hard work on this field can
lead to? "I tell Mike all the time that he has no idea what it
does for these kids when he drives up," Branch says.

Inspirational as it may be to have the player who has ably filled
the shoes of Ken Griffey Jr. descend on your high school football
practice, the visits might be even more compelling if they didn't
occur so often. Cameron, 28, was born and raised in La Grange, a
working-class town of 26,000 nestled near the Georgia-Alabama
border, and during the off-season he makes the 40-minute drive
from his new house in suburban Atlanta once a week. He visits his
grandmother's house on Render Street, the house in which he grew
up. He takes in Grangers football games on some Friday nights.
This month he started prepping for spring training by working out
with the LaGrange High baseball team at the Mike Cameron Indoor
Hitting Facility, a state-of-the-art batting cage and practice
space that, thanks to Cameron's $45,000 donation, was built on
the school grounds last year.

Cameron playfully talks smack with several football players as he
mills around the practice field on this December day. The kids
aren't afraid to return the barbs. Cameron gushes to Branch, whom
he still addresses as Coach, about quarterback Blake Mitchell's
passing in the Grangers' win over Appling County the previous
week. He's so familiar with the Grangers that it seems as if he
spends as much time on campus as the students.

Thanks to his outstanding play over the last two years, Cameron's
shiny shaved head, megawatt smile and diamond-stud earrings are
recognized in places far beyond La Grange. Since his arrival in
Seattle before the 2000 season in the trade that sent Griffey to
the Cincinnati Reds, Cameron has become a fan favorite at Safeco
Field. Last year he was named to his first All-Star team,
finished sixth in the American League in stolen bases (34) and
reached career highs in home runs (25) and RBIs (110). He also
won his first Gold Glove, thereby proving himself Griffey's peer
in center. "The thing about him is that he's getting better and
better," says a scout for another American League West team.
"He's a top-shelf defender, and he's made a significant
improvement in his overall game. And Seattle is a perfect fit for
him."

Still, there's room for improvement. For example, Cameron's .267
batting average and .353 on-base percentage last season surely
would have been higher had he not struck out 155 times, fourth
most in the league. He compensates with a flair for the
dramatic--he ignited the Mariners' comeback from a
one-game-to-none deficit in the Division Series by clubbing a
home run off the Cleveland Indians' Chuck Finley early in Game
2--and with a bubbly personality and joyful approach to the game.
His demeanor made him a clubhouse leader on a team that won 116
games, tying the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most victories in a
season. "Mike sort of has the pulse of our team," says Seattle
catcher Dan Wilson.

Cameron's perma-grin conveys the same youthful enthusiasm that
Seattle fans saw in Griffey. "I get a thrill out of going to that
ballpark every day and trying to create excitement," Cameron
says. "Not everyone can say that. Not everybody can say that he
goes to the ballpark to work and has fun."

That attitude has made Cameron popular on both sides of the
Pacific. At Safeco he can often be spotted standing atop the
Mariners' dugout after batting practice signing autographs and
mingling with fans, a scene that was captured in one of last
season's ubiquitous MasterCard commercials. In Japan, where every
Mariners game is broadcast live so fans can follow the exploits
of Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki, Cameron has become such a
celebrity that he was invited to appear on The Sportsman's
Challenge, a game show that looks like a cross between the
World's Strongest Man competition and the old Superstars show.

Cameron, who is exceptionally strong and fast, arrived in Tokyo
on Dec. 12 for the competition the next day, in events like
Monster Box (hurdling stacks of wooden planks), Shot Gun Touch
(dashing across an indoor mat to keep a ball dropped from the
ceiling from hitting a target on the floor) and Work Out Guys (an
obstacle course in which contestants carry heavy jugs and drag a
tractor-trailer cab). The show, in which Cameron placed fourth,
was broadcast in Japan on New Year's night.

Cameron hardly seemed destined for prime time when he left
LaGrange High 10 years ago. He wasn't considered a blue-chip
prospect because of his skinny 6'1" frame and his questionable
hitting. It didn't help that his grandmother, Fannie Mae, with
whom Mike lived from age seven--he moved into her house, with his
parents' consent, after her husband died--kept him from playing
his junior season as punishment for failing chemistry. "There
wasn't exactly a mob of scouts here to see him," says Branch, who
was also Cameron's baseball coach at LaGrange. "He was a
sleeper."

A few teams, including the Mariners and the Houston Astros,
showed interest, and the Chicago White Sox, who liked Cameron's
speed and defense, took a flier on him in the 18th round of the
1991 draft. After he spent six seasons in the minor leagues, the
Sox installed Cameron as their centerfielder of the future, in
1997. He batted .259 with 23 steals and 14 homers in 116 games,
and finished sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year
voting. The next season, however, he crashed, hitting .210 with
101 strikeouts in 396 at bats. "That's when I cut all my hair
off," Cameron says. "I needed a new me, a fresh start."

Chicago sent him to the Reds for first baseman Paul Konerko in
November 1998. Cameron found out about the trade while folding
laundry in his room in the Dominican Republic, where he was
playing winter ball. "A couple of us were watching CNN and
talking about trades," he says, still perturbed at the way
Chicago treated him. "I saw my name going across the bottom of
the screen: MIKE CAMERON TRADED FROM CHICAGO WHITE SOX. I didn't
get a call from anybody."

"Leaving the Chicago organization was probably the best thing
that ever happened to him," says free-agent righthander James
Baldwin, who became a close friend of Cameron's as they rose
through the minors with the White Sox. "In Cincinnati, he became
much more aware of what it takes to win."

The Reds made Cameron their full-time centerfielder, and he had a
breakout season, stealing a career-high 38 bases and smacking 21
homers. The Reds won 96 games and almost made the postseason,
losing to the New York Mets in a one-game playoff for the
National League wild card. Cameron still raves about the tutelage
he received that year from veterans such as Barry Larkin and Greg
Vaughn. "I learned so much about the hard work it takes to be
good, about how to be a major leaguer," he says. "That year was
the first fun I had in baseball since I was really young."

Having thrived with a new team, he was better prepared for the
trade to Seattle, which was consummated in February 2000 as he
was packing for the trip to Reds camp. He was apprehensive,
though, about taking over the hallowed spot that Griffey had
occupied for 11 years. "I didn't know how people there would
react to me," Cameron says. "I mean, Ken Griffey Jr. played some
unbelievable baseball there."

Mariners manager Lou Piniella called Cameron the night of the
deal and said, "Son, just come here and be yourself, and we'll
help you get better." Cameron knew his new teammates had accepted
him after he smoked a ball off the top of the centerfield wall in
his first spring training at bat. As he returned to the dugout,
several Mariners jokingly said Griffey would have hit the ball
over the fence.

Seattle fans gave Cameron their own warm welcome four games into
the season, after he robbed Derek Jeter of a home run with an
acrobatic catch above Safeco's right centerfield wall. The crowd
stood and gave Cameron a long ovation as he jogged off the field
with an enormous grin and Jeter stood open-mouthed at second
base. Cameron keeps a framed photo of the catch hanging in his
locker. "I think after that a lot of people realized, O.K., we've
got a player here," he says. "That standing ovation was
unbelievable."

Cameron capped his first year in Seattle by signing a three-year,
$15.5 million contract extension that will pay him $4.2 million
next season and $7 million in 2003. Last year he was a versatile
weapon in Piniella's lineup--he had at least 110 at bats in three
spots in the order--and his increased run production replaced some
of the offense lost by the off-season departure of free agent
Alex Rodriguez.

Cameron also assumed some of A-Rod's clubhouse leadership. He's
in charge of the stereo and keeps the room loose with a stream of
jokes from his locker. Utilityman Mark McLemore calls Cameron "a
clown, in a good way." On the team bus during road trips he led
the Mariners in singing their current theme song, Michael
Jackson's Off the Wall. As occupant of the locker next to
Ichiro's, Cameron became one of the Japanese newcomer's closest
friends on the team and the one unofficially designated to keep
him loose and relaxed. "I try to play him as much music as I can,
because he can't dance," Cameron says. "I don't understand how
someone with so many skills can have so little rhythm."

As for himself, Cameron says, "I try to be the same guy every
day. I'm not going to be one of those guys who talks when things
are going well and sits in the corner when they're not."

He's so relentlessly upbeat that he refuses to let the Mariners'
loss to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship
Series cast a shadow over Seattle's record-setting season. When a
visitor asks if not having won the World Series is a black mark
against the Mariners, Cameron pulls out his cell phone, which has
been programmed to flash the number 116 on the display screen.
"We'd all love to win the World Series, but I don't care," he
says. "Out of all the things people have done in this game, only
two teams did what we did. Winning 116 games is unheard of."

As soon as the Mariners were eliminated, Mike and his family--wife
JaBreka; sons Dazmon, 4, and Mehki, four months; and daughter
T'aja, 2--moved into their new house in McDonough, Ga., and he
settled into what he calls his couch-potato lifestyle. Mike and
JaBreka, who went to high school together, have been married
three years.

Mike devotes much of his off-season time to community work. His
foundation, Cam4Kids, distributes money to several children's
charities in Seattle. He has also cowritten, with noted
children's book author Greg Brown, a book for kids titled It
Takes a Team. It will come out this month, and proceeds from its
sale will benefit Cameron's foundation. Cameron also has plans to
restore the community recreation center in La Grange that he went
to as a youth and to create a baseball camp there. "I want to get
something going for these kids here to help keep them out of
trouble," he says.

His project in the days before he left for Japan? Lining up a
shipment of 98 pairs of Nike turf shoes in case the Grangers
played that semifinal in the Georgia Dome. (They played and won,
and went on to take the state title a week later.) Branch says,
"Mike told me years ago, 'When I really make it, I want to do
something for this school and this town.' He's never really left
here."

COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER (CAMERON) (PAGE 58) [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG FOSTERCOLOR PHOTO: NIKKAN SPORTS Keep on truckin' Cameron pulled a tractor-trailer cab in a strength competition for a TV show in Japan, where he is a star.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Global reach With his speed and acrobatics in the field, Cameron matched Griffey Gold Glove for Gold Glove.
"HE'S GETTING BETTER AND BETTER," ONE SCOUT SAYS OF CAMERON.
"SEATTLE IS A PERFECT FIT FOR HIM."