Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2006 | So many players performed so many roles so well. That’s the simplest way to explain the Padres, retooled from their 2005 National League West title, winning a second straight crown and opening the Division Series playoffs today against the St. Louis Cardinals at Petco Park.

But among a long list of names, Mike Cameron performed more times in more fundamental ways than any player on the roster dating from May – when he was healthy from a spring training injury and the Padres got hot – until the division-clinching win Sunday at Arizona.

That’s Mike Cameron, spelled “a-t-h-l-e-t-e.”

Cameron ran down balls that saved games in center field. He hit for power. He stole bases and moved runners along. He can bat anywhere in the lineup, some games providing bat skills at the top of the order and power in the middle of the lineup.

He’s the best athlete on the team, but don’t tell the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder that’s why he’s a good baseball player. Good athletes – such as Cameron and Padres vice president and Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield – will remind you that not all all-around athletes are good baseball players.

“Baseball is hard – it’s a game of failure,” Cameron said. “You have to be mentally stronger to play this game than other sports to deal with the fear of failure. In baseball, you can have a bad day but still contribute to the team by moving a runner along or making a play in the field. There is skill to this game. Of all the different sports, this is the game that guys who are just good athletes can’t all play.”

In high school in Georgia, Cameron loved baseball first “because I was good at it.” That didn’t stop the football and basketball coaches from spotting his all-around athleticism and convincing him to come out for their sport, but football and basketball couldn’t steal his heart.

“Athletic ability helps me compete when things don’t feel right, because this game is a grind,” he said. “It helps me catch a ball or steal a base. Baseball is a long season with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This is a man’s game. It’s a kid’s game with a man’s mentality.”

Winfield, drafted out of the University of Minnesota in football, basketball and baseball before he signed with the Padres in1973, says baseball needs more Mike Camerons.

“I don’t want to hear how good he might be in another sport,” Winfield said. “He’s a great athlete who plays baseball. I want to see more athleticism in baseball with players like him.”

Cameron, with the skill to hit a curveball many all-around athletes lack, ranks among the Padres’ leaders across the board in more categories than any other player.

He was first in runs (88), first in extra base hits (65), tied for first in RBIs (83), second in triples (9), second in stolen bases (25), tied for second in home runs (22), second in total bases (266), second in walks (71) and third in doubles (34). Among Padres regulars, he was third in on-base percentage (.355) and third in slugging percentage (.482). There is not stat for hits and runs saved by running down balls in center field, but he’s worthy of a Gold Glove.

“I came up with the White Sox learning the game from great veterans – Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, Harold Baines, Darren Lewis and Tim Raines,” Cameron said. “Those are guys who played a long time. I played my game in batting practice. I tried to jump over the wall and catch a ball or when I was batting see if I could make somebody miss a ball. Then I’d take a shower, but I might pinch run or play a little defense later.”

Cameron didn’t put up career numbers in 2006, but collectively they’re so well rounded and when added to his defense, that should make him the team’s MVP. His acquisition in a trade with the New York Mets also is a reason general manager Kevin Towers – among Towers’ other acts of larceny in one-sided trades this season – should be the Executive of the Year.

Don’t forget that when Cameron was acquired, there was no guarantee he would continue to be the player he has been in the past. His 2005 season ended in a collision with a New York Mets teammate on Aug. 11 at Petco Park, resulting in facial fractures that required surgery.

“Just being able to play baseball this year is an accomplishment,” Cameron said. “I didn’t know how I would play before the season. But once I started playing in spring training, I knew I’d be OK.”

He’s been more than OK. He’s an all-around athlete with baseball skills, and those are harder to find than all-around athletes.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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