First-time All-Stars, cherish the moment

“When I walked into the clubhouse and saw my All-Star jersey hanging there, it was like a little kid getting his first bicycle on Christmas morning. I had to put it on, and I couldn’t take it off.” — Mike Cameron, as told to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 10, 2001

It marks time in our summers, like a local festival or fireworks display. It determines home-field advantage in the World Series. It is a showcase and a celebration and a sticky-aired slice of Americana.

Sometimes, though, we forget how much the All-Star Game means to the players.

The story of Cameron, 38 years wise, is there to remind us.

Cameron, a reserve outfielder with the Boston Red Sox before being cut on Thursday, has had an exemplary major league career. He broke in with the Chicago White Sox in 1995 and has been among the game’s elite defensive center fielders in just about every season since. He has three Gold Gloves. He has reached the postseason four times. He has eight seasons of at least 20 home runs — a rarity at his position — to go along with eight seasons of 20 or more stolen bases.

But take one last look at his résumé, under the heading of “All-Star Games.” There is only one — 2001, in Seattle, representing Seattle, one of the finest nights of his professional life.

“It’s special, man — special,” he told me in Boston last week. “You know how difficult it is to make an All-Star Game? As good as Tim Salmon was, he never made an All-Star Game, and he always ended up at .280 with 30 home runs. It goes to show you that some guys are very fortunate to have great first halves. You could have a great second half, then a good first half, and you wouldn’t be recognized. You just never know how it’s going to turn out.”

For all the big money and big egos in baseball, there is something pure about the All-Star Game. Superstars may take their selections for granted, but the Mike Camerons do not. For them, hearing Joe Buck announce their name elicits the same I belong feeling that went along with making their hometown’s 12-year-old All-Star team.

Baseball players are, in that respect, just like the rest of us. They enjoy the recognition. They want to be known as being among the best. Sometimes, the validation comes only once in a career. And when it does, the emotion can overwhelm.

“He was like a kid in a candy store, seeing his name on that BP jersey,” recalled former Mariners reliever Jeff Nelson, who likewise made his only All-Star appearance in 2001.

Ask Cameron if there was any year in which he believes he was robbed of a rightful All-Star spot, and he will answer no. He is too much of a stand-up guy to say otherwise. But he offers a wry smile while mentioning that he had the misfortune of opposing Bernie Williams — with his perennial .300 seasons and legions of New York fans — in the fan balloting every year.

“It’s hard, you know?” Cameron said. “Some guys get left out.”

Fortunately for Cameron, he had the awareness to cherish the one opportunity that came. He even remembers exactly where he was when he learned that he had made the team — in the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, during the last game before the All-Star break.

Despite a strong first half, Cameron figured that his All-Star experience would consist of taking his son to the Home Run Derby on that Monday evening. He asked the Mariners to help him secure tickets for the event. So, he wasn’t surprised when then-assistant general manager Lee Pelekoudas approached him during the game.

Only, Pelekoudas didn’t say anything about will call.

“He told me, ‘You won’t need those tickets. You’re going to play in the All-Star Game,’ ” Cameron recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. Are you serious?’ ”

Tampa Bay representative Greg Vaughn had suffered an injury, and American League manager Joe Torre picked Cameron as his replacement. Cameron, still in shock, responded to the news by tripling against the Dodgers.

In many ways, Cameron’s selection was the final flourish in the local public-relations bonanza leading up to the game. He became Seattle’s eighth All-Star. Ichiro Suzuki was an international sensation in his rookie year; Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez and John Olerud joined the Japanese star in the starting lineup. The Mariners were on their way to winning an AL-record 116 games, in a season that still stands as the franchise’s zenith. They were hosting the event at still-new, state-of-the-art Safeco Field.

Even the weather was perfect.

“There were so many good things happening,” said Randy Adamack, the Mariners’ vice president of communications. “It’s almost hard to believe that combination of circumstances.”

Cameron savored the experience, absorbing all the history associated with the final All-Star appearances for Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. Before the game, Cameron asked Williams if he could try on his Yankees jersey — just to see how he looked in the famous pinstripes. (“It’s like the essential business suit,” Cameron said.) And he still remembers the ovation he received from Seattle fans when his name was announced.

To this day, Cameron is grateful that Torre inserted him as a defensive replacement in the fourth inning — and left him in for the rest of the game. Cameron batted three times and has a career All-Star batting average of .333, thanks to his sixth-inning hit off Jon Lieber.

“I remember it was a hustle double,” Cameron said.

The AL won, 4-1, with a Seattle pitcher getting the victory (Freddy Garcia) and save (Kaz Sasaki). All eight Mariners appeared in the game, which was historic in its own right. According to research by Michael Teevan of Major League Baseball, the ’01 Mariners are the only team since the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates to have eight players appear in an All-Star Game.

A decade has passed without Cameron seeing his name on another All-Star jersey. With Cameron batting .149 in a reserve role this year, one wonders if it will ever happen again. But I mentioned to Cameron that, when he’s introduced at a charity dinner 30 years from now, the emcee is going to say, “All-Star outfielder Mike Cameron.”

He thought for a moment and smiled.

“I’d rather them say, ‘2011 world champion Mike Cameron,’” he said. “That sounds good to me.”