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The future can wait for Mike Cameron

03.12.11 at 7:04 am ET

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Decision can wait.

Since he signed his two-year, $15.5 million deal with the Red Sox in Dec. 2009, Mike Cameron has dropped hints that this could be the final contract of his career. The 38-year-old, who is now 20 years into his professional career and who will enter his 17th major league season, makes no secret of the fact that he has had a long career that is closer to its end than its beginning.

Coming off a 2010 season in which he was limited by the brutal pain of a sports hernia that would not let him have a normal life (he could not sleep through the night because of the excruciating pain), he suggested at the end of last year that he would let his physical condition this season dictate his thoughts on whether the 2011 campaign would be his last. On that front, Cameron has been quite pleased with the early returns this spring. Following surgery to repair his abdominal wall at the end of last season and an offseason of rigorous rehab, he has been moving freely in a way that was never possible in the 2010 campaign in which he played 48 games while hitting .259 with a .328 OBP, .401 slugging mark and .729 OPS.

That being the case, it seemed fair to wonder whether he has drawn any conclusions about his playing future beyond 2011.

“Not this spring,” Cameron said. “I won’t make that read in the spring.”

It will take more time, he said, for him to get a read on his physical condition, and whether that will have him wanting to play in 2012. Still, early returns have been positive.

Though he sat out a few games this week with what was described as mild tendinitis in his left knee, he returned on Thursday and went 1-for-4 against the Rays (a performance that could have yielded three hits but for a pair of spectacular defensive plays by shortstop Reid Brignac) and felt good on the field. Overall, it is difficult to understate how much better he feels now than he did last year.

“Everyone knows what I went through last year. Actually, they don’€™t, but they seem to want to think they do know,” said Cameron. “There was a lot of stuff I couldn’€™t do that I wanted to do. … There were times I couldn’€™t even get out of bed, let alone play a baseball game. At least it felt like that. But you know, everything is better now.”

Yet he is mindful that, as good as he feels now, that could change at some point during the year. Moreover, he is also aware of the idea that he is entering a different phase of his career, and he does not yet know how he will handle the transition.

For the first time, the outfielder is preparing for what will be (barring injury to Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury or J.D. Drew) a reduced role. After spending his entire career as an everyday player, he is positioned to be a valued reserve for the Sox in 2011, getting at-bats against left-handed pitchers and spelling the Sox’ three starting outfielders when they are either injured or need rest.

Cameron, who is 6-for-15 (.400) this spring with a double and a stolen base, has bought into that job description. He has taken a team-first approach to the idea of diminished playing time, something that is all the more noteworthy since, if Cameron does want to return for the 2012 season, this year is a contract year that will serve as a platform that helps dictate his earnings as a free-agent after the year.

The veteran shrugs off such concerns, suggesting that he is motivated by the chance of a ring rather than his future income.

“To look at it as a contract year, maybe five years ago, four years ago, [that would be a concern]. Right now, it’€™s not time for that for me. I don’€™t look at it like that,” said Cameron. “I don’€™t worry about stuff like that. That’€™s No. 1. You start worrying about stuff like that, and I won’€™t be able to focus on whatever I need to focus on.

“If the situation calls for me to do what I’€™m doing now, I need to do it the best damn way possible I can do it and not be so concerned about contracts or anything else. First and foremost, I want to be part of a really good baseball team and do the part that was designed for myself. … If I was playing for [an uncompetitive team], nothing against them, but it’€™s totally different.”

That being the case, Cameron is focused this spring not on issues of playing time or his future, but instead on understanding what it will take to be an effective contributor as a part-timer.

“Now is the time for me to get ready and be the best I can possibly be to help this team and understand what’€™s going to take place over the course of the season,” said Cameron. “Everything [from a health standpoint] is good. As of right now, other than just trying to get through this little nagging [knee] thing right here, this spring training, I’€™m looking at this for me to get an understanding of how to approach this.

“It’€™s really uncharted for me. I really don’€™t know what’€™s expected or how my position is going to fill out on a baseball team. how will I perform? I have a lot of optimism about sitting three, four days and playing, knowing that day when I do play, I have a lot of energy. I need to learn how to maintain and control that type of stuff. That’€™s why when I play these games, I’€™m trying to get a real good working feel for what’€™s going on.”

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