Cameron proves adept at the sacrifice

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — When Mike Cameron learned in December that the Red Sox were in pursuit of free agent outfielder Carl Crawford, he volunteered his services to the cause.

Cameron knew the addition of Crawford would knock him out of the lineup. But he got on the telephone and tried to sell Crawford on Boston.

“I was just like a college recruiter,’’ Cameron said. “Just tell him about the positives and let him figure out what he wanted to do.’’

Cameron’s pitch, along with $142 million from the team, helped Crawford decide. Now Crawford is the Sox’ left fielder and Cameron is a bench player for the first time in his career.

But at the age of 38 and coming off extensive abdominal and groin surgery, Cameron is happy with how it worked out. He compared himself to a vintage car that has had some work done. It’s fine for a few spins around the block — just don’t try to drive across the country.

“I don’t have to run around for 150 games. I’ve played 14 years, 145-150 games,’’ Cameron said. “I’m excited about what’s in store for the challenge of the different role I have to take on. I’m for everything, man. I’ve got every tool in the bag.’’

On a team with three lefthanded-hitting outfielders and a lefthanded-hitting DH, the righthanded-hitting Cameron could be a valuable asset to manager Terry Francona. Cameron has a career .373 on-base percentage against lefthanders with a .494 slugging percentage.

In a division that includes lefty aces CC Sabathia, David Price, and Brian Matusz, Cameron could get significant playing time.

“I think he will be a huge part in our success,’’ Francona said. “He swings the bat, especially against lefthanders. He has the ability to play all three outfield positions. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, who gets banged up. He’ll be a big part of what we do, for sure.’’

Despite his being on the team only for a year, the Sox treated Cameron with respect during the process that led up to signing Crawford. General manager Theo Epstein called Cameron with the news shortly after the deal was agreed to, telling him the Sox still had a place for him.

“I appreciate him for that because he really didn’t have to do that,’’ Cameron said. “Out of respect for each other, I think it was pretty cool what he did.’’

Said Epstein, “He’s incredibly professional. His attitude has been unbelievable all winter. He has said this is where he wants to be. I asked him this morning how he was doing and he said, ‘I’m glad I’m in a great place.’ ’’

Finding a talented player willing to take a secondary role can be difficult. The Sox tried that in 2005 with Jay Payton, who balked at the idea and created enough friction to force a trade.

But Cameron is better prepared. He has been an All-Star, won three Gold Gloves, and earned more than $70 million in his career. What he hasn’t done is get to the World Series.

“You have to get guys at the right point in their career when they’re ready to embrace that,’’ Epstein said. “The last thing you want are players on the bench who think they should be playing every day and let that affect their attitude and their behavior. We have team-first guys here who know their roles.’’

But plaudits and mutual admiration will never overshadow pragmatism in Epstein’s mind. Cameron will make $7.25 million this season, a lot for a fourth outfielder. If he shows he is healthy in spring training, Cameron could be an attractive player for teams in need of an outfielder.

The Sox also would value the financial flexibility a trade would provide.

“That’s the last thing on my mind,’’ Cameron said. “I know there’s a possibility of that taking place. As of now, I’m here.’’

The Sox saw only a small percentage of what Cameron is capable of last season. Abdominal tears suffered during spring training limited him to 48 games. He hit .259 with four home runs and 15 RBIs, playing as long as he could to help a lineup missing Jacoby Ellsbury and others.

The injury worsened over the summer, prompting Cameron to go on the disabled list for a second time, then have surgery Aug. 27.

In retrospect, Cameron doesn’t know how he lasted so long. The surgery took 4 1/2 hours.

“I played a hell of a baseball with no guts,’’ he said.

Cameron started physical therapy Sept. 1, a process that continued until the first week of February. He initially needed three hours a day, five days a week. The rest of the time was spent with his four children.

“I’ve been changing diapers and fixing oatmeal,’’ he said, laughing.

In January, when he started his baseball regimen, Cameron knew having surgery was the right decision.

“I feel a lot stronger in the places that I need to be,’’ he said. “So I’m looking forward to a healthy mind and a healthy body. Hopefully, my old man doesn’t kick in for a while.’’

Cameron is confident that Francona will find a way to make it work.

“Tito will figure out how they go about doing it,’’ he said. “I definitely stressed how much I’d like to be here, for the opportunity with all these great players to go out and compete and have a good chance at winning the World Series.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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