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Tuesday, March 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Larry Stone / Baseball reporter
Cameron centers on making Mets contender


RICHARD DREW / AP
Center fielder Mike Cameron said he initially had reservations about going to the Mets and playing in the New York environment.
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — After the pleasantries are exchanged, the jokes about the New York Mets' bright orange jerseys looking like prison uniforms, and his efforts to stay out of the tabloid gossip columns, Mike Cameron has a few things to get off his chest.

One, it tore him apart to leave Seattle, a point that was driven home on his first, disorienting day in New York's camp.

"I found out how important your buddies and your comfort level was," he said. "Seattle became my home. Seattle held everything for me."

Two, he wasn't as psyched out about Safeco Field as people thought, despite his admitted problem with the sight lines (at least until the midseason improvement of the hitting background), and the glaring home-road differentials in his batting average.

"Nah. I mean, I wasn't crazy, deranged, like (Jeff) Cirillo. I can play at Safeco. I had some very good days there. But whenever I went back there from having a nice road trip or something, I would always feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable calls for change, and sometimes that's mental."

Three, Randy Winn is going to do just fine in his place, if people give Seattle's new center fielder the same fair shake Cameron got replacing Ken Griffey Jr. in 2000. Of course, if Winn could find it within himself to rob Derek Jeter of a home run in his first month, so much the better.

"I was judged up to Ken Griffey Jr.'s standards, and I kind of made my own little thing," he said. "The same is going to happen to him, because I played so well in center field. Defensively, are they going to be hurt a little bit? Have they lost a little? Yeah. When you take away what I did in center and what Randy did in left, along with Ichiro ... but it won't take him long to adjust."

Already, Cameron is making his presence felt in New York, just as the Mets hoped when they gave him a three-year, $19.5 million contract in December. He is the centerpiece of management's plan to end their three-year skid since winning the National League championship in 2000, by tightening what had become debilitating up-the-middle defense.

"I'm trying to keep pounding every day that it starts right now," he said. "You have to start believing right now. I'll be quick to bring up what we did over in Seattle, because of how we were so successful."

The biggest initial challenge for Cameron in Seattle was following a legend. Considering that Roger Cedeno was the Mets' Opening Day center fielder last year, that won't be an issue.
 
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Now, with Cameron in center, and Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui and impressive sophomore Jose Reyes making a dynamic double-play combination, the Mets have a glossy new look. And Cameron takes his responsibility seriously.

"When you go to spring training in Seattle, you know the only thing we're going to have to overcome is how we're going to get past those last two months to get where we need to be," he said.

"Here, they haven't had the experience of winning in a long time. I'm going to be a very big reason why we're supposed to win. I know that. I took on that responsibility. I know it's a much greater challenge than I had in Seattle."

Cameron had hoped to re-sign with the Mariners this winter, but he said that even some bargaining concessions on his part left them too far apart for that to be a legitimate expectation. Then it narrowed to Oakland, San Diego and the Mets, an agonizing choice for him.

Oakland was the first eliminated, even though the Athletics went hard after him. General manager Billy Beane crunched the numbers and determined that Cameron was close to having more impact on defense than any player in baseball. But in the end, Cameron couldn't bring it upon himself to go against the Mariners in heated divisional play, wearing the uniform of their intense rival.

"Oakland was fiery about it," he said. "But I couldn't do that. I mean, it crossed my mind, but I said, 'You know what? I never would have felt as comfortable as possible doing that.' We love to play baseball, but some things are close to the heart."

So it came down to San Diego and the Mets, the latter slowly emerging as his choice, except for one nagging concern: The Big Apple, and all it entails. Coming from rural Georgia, Cameron wasn't quite sure he was ready for the headaches and hassles.

"The only reason it took me a little while to convince me to go to New York was, it's New York," he said. "Was I ready to go to play there? Ready for that, 'Knock 'em in the face, you're up, you're down' mentality?' There's no middle ground. Are you ready to take on a new challenge that's maybe too big to become a part of?"

The answer eventually was yes, but Cameron was wondering about his sanity last week when his arrival in camp was greeted by a phalanx of photographers.

"I felt like I was coming in with J-Lo or something — click, click, cameras everywhere. I'm like, 'This is big!' I went home that first day and I was, like, 'Lord, what have I got myself into?' "

The answer will emerge over the upcoming months, but not surprisingly, Cameron has already emerged as a media favorite. It shouldn't be long before his enthusiasm and sincerity wins over even the most jaded Mets fans, as well.

Meanwhile, Cameron has one last word for the Seattle fans he left behind, even the jaded ones who moaned and groaned about last year's difficult season that produced a .253 average and 137 strikeouts in 534 at-bats.

"I'll always look back and say, 'I don't have any regrets.' Because I know I did the most, the best, I could possibly do. Maybe it didn't show up number-wise for everyone, but I don't have any regrets in my heart."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Stone in Florida

Larry Stone reports from Grapefruit League camps the next five days. Tomorrow he's in Winter Haven with the Cleveland Indians.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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