A speedy outfielder whom manager Jack McKeon once called “simply a delightful young man,” the happy-go-lucky Cameron showed the ability to hit for power, average, and play highlight-worthy defense early on in the minor leagues. Though he may best be known in the long haul as one of the components in the big Ken Griffey Jr. trade before the 2000 season, Cameron was in the midst of blossoming into somewhat of a star himself, and as he went on to flash a little leather and a little wood, was an All-Star a year after the deal.
Cameron was drafted by the Chicago White Sox out of high school in 1991, and after two promising years in Double-A and brief stints in the majors, won a centerfield spot in their 1997 lineup. Fulfilling preliminary expectations of his abilities as a five-tool player, the outfielder powered 14 homers and stole 23 bases, but still struck out 105 times, a problem that had plagued him through the minors.
A horrific 1998 campaign, in which Cameron batted just .210 with a .285 on-base percentage resulted in the White Sox trading him to the Cincinnati Reds for first baseman Paul Konerko. With the Reds, Cameron got his career back on track, despite striking out 145 times. He brought his average back up to .256, slugged 21 homers, and stole 38 bases, along with scoring 93 runs.
By now, Cameron had attracted the attention of front-running clubs looking for speed in the outfield and additional power. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Mariners were being forced to deal Ken Griffey Jr. to the only team he would accept a trade to: the Reds. After a few weeks of wrangling, the Reds shipped Cameron along with pitcher Brett Tomko and two minor leaguers to the M’s for Griffey.
Cameron had large shoes to fill in Safeco Field, but did an admirable job, establishing career highs in batting average, runs, and RBIs. Aware of the imminent comparisons made between him and Griffey, he played as hard as he could, remarking “I never started out trying to replace him, so I never had expectations I couldn’t meet.”
Ironically, as Griffey sat out for almost the entire first half of 2001 with a strained hamstring, Cameron became an essential part of the Mariners’ win machine, batting .277 and on the verge of already reaching the 20-20 barrier at the All-Star break. When Greg Vaughn succumbed to injuries and couldn’t take part in the Midsummer Classic, Cameron was selected by New York Yankees manager Joe Torre as the eighth Mariner to the American League squad.