On this date in 2002, the Mariners’ Mike Cameron delivered a historic performance, with one of the 18 four-homer games in Major League history.
"Today was pretty groovy,” he said at the time. “I wasn't thinking about anything up there. It was just one of those days. It was like when M.J. [Michael Jordan] hit those six three-pointers [in the NBA Finals] against Portland and just shrugged his shoulders.”
Just how groovy was it? At the time, it was only the 13th game in which a player hit four homers -- and it hadn’t happened since 1993. That’s two years after Cameron’s professional baseball story begins.
Setting the scene
Cameron’s route to Seattle was anything but a straight line. The White Sox -- the team he’d later hit four home runs against on May 2, 2002 -- selected him in the 18th round of the 1991 Draft, at 488th overall. His 46.7 career WAR is the most of any player taken in the 18th round in the history of the Draft.
Cameron made it to the Majors in 1995, and he played parts of four seasons with the White Sox. On November 11, 1998, the Sox sent Cameron to the Reds for a player by the name of Paul Konerko -- who’d go on to become one of the franchise’s most iconic players.
In 2015, Cameron reflected on his four-homer performance and noted that he found out about the trade in a unique way.
"I was in winter ball. And no one ever let me know. I learned I was traded when it came across the bottom of the TV screen. I still haven't heard from the White Sox. I wasn't mad, I was just confused. A little hurt, maybe. But I thought I should have heard from somebody,” he told the late Marty Noble of MLB.com.
After playing the 1999 season in Cincinnati, Cameron again found himself involved in a trade for a franchise player. This time, it was Ken Griffey Jr., as Cameron headed to the Mariners on Feb. 10, 2000, and Griffey went to the Reds and signed an extension.
According to Tom Verducci's 2000 Sports Illustrated deep dive into the transaction, trade talks between the Reds and Mariners had been prolonged, and Cameron was part of one of the Reds’ initial packages, but the Mariners did not want him. Their focus had been on Pokey Reese -- whom the team saw as a potential successor to Alex Rodriguez if he were to leave in free agency or be traded in a similar situation. Ultimately, the Mariners took the deal, which included a replacement center fielder in Cameron, instead of the shortstop-in-waiting.
Cameron’s 610 games and 18.4 WAR with the Mariners were easily his most with any of his eight teams. His lone All-Star season was in 2001 for Seattle, which was when he had a career-high 5.9 WAR, too.
By 2002, Cameron had cemented himself as an everyday player. He’d notched 600-plus plate appearances in each of the three prior seasons and would go on to do the same in 2002 and ‘03. So naturally, he was the Mariners’ starting center fielder on May 2 of ‘02, despite being 2-for-19 in his prior six games. The lineup was a bit of a change -- manager Lou Piniella moved Cameron up to third in the order and hit Bret Boone second to try to get both of them out of early-season slumps.
It was clear early on at then-Comiskey Park that this might not be just an ordinary game. White Sox starter Jon Rauch hit Ichiro Suzuki with the first pitch of the game. Boone hit the next pitch over the fence for a homer, and the Mariners were up, 2-0. Four pitches later, Cameron joined the party -- going back to back with Boone and extending the lead to 3-0.
Jim Parque replaced Rauch with one out and six runs across for the Mariners -- in time to face Ichiro, for his second plate appearance of the inning. He grounded out, but then Boone went yard again -- another first-pitch two-run homer. Then it was Cameron’s turn, and yet again, he went back-to-back with Boone, extending the score to 10-0 Mariners on the seventh pitch of the at-bat.
They’re still the only pair of teammates to go back-to-back twice in the same inning. But Cameron was just getting started. He came up again in the third, still against Parque, and knocked a solo homer to put the Mariners up, 11-0. Then, in the fifth, he added another solo homer, again off Parque, to make it 13-1 Mariners.
It had been a while. His four-homer game was the first in the Majors since Mark Whiten’s on Sept. 7, 1993. And in addition to being part of the rare duo with Boone, Cameron is also the only player in Major League history to notch four homers within the first five innings of a game.
Cameron’s four-homer game is one of just two to feature a multi-homer inning. Bobby Lowe had two homers in the third inning on May 30, 1894, when he had the first four-homer game in Major League history.
Of course, that begs the question -- how good of a chance did he have at setting a record with five? Cameron’s next plate appearance came in the seventh, when he was hit by the third pitch he saw. He came up again in the ninth, seeing five pitches before lining out to deep right.
"I tried to go for it because I don't think the guys would have been happy if I didn't try," Cameron said at the time. "I hit it well enough but not high enough to go over the fence. [Right fielder Jeff] Liefer made a nice play out there. I really wanted to make it happen, but I didn't want to swing at that 3-0 pitch, because I didn't want to make my team look bad. But I think if I did swing at it, it would have been gone. I just know it."
As if the record-tying offensive feat wasn’t enough, the reigning AL Gold Glove Award winner also made a spectacular play in the field, taking away what would’ve been a Magglio Ordóñez grand slam in the third.
"It's very special. I'm still living the moment. I feel like the king of the hill today. ... And it couldn't have happened at a better place,” Cameron said after the game, acknowledging the fact that the game was in the home ballpark of the team that traded him in 1998.
That wasn’t Cameron’s only poignant line about the two trades he’d been part of at that point. "I guess there's another asterisk that goes by my name now. Being traded for Junior [Ken Griffey] and now this,” he said.
What came next
“The crazy thing is, I tried to duplicate it the next day in New York. That didn’t work,” Cameron said years later, with a laugh.
Instead, Cameron went 0-for-4 in that next game, at Yankee Stadium.
He didn’t hit another homer until May 16 that season and didn’t hit multiple homers in any subsequent game in 2002. He played another season for the Mariners, winning another Gold Glove in 2003.
After 2003, Cameron signed a deal with the Mets as a free agent and went on to play another eight seasons, also suiting up for the Padres, Brewers, Red Sox and Marlins.
Cameron’s awareness of his link to Griffey’s career never faded, and they developed a friendship, too. In 2010 when Griffey announced his retirement, Cameron, then playing for the Red Sox, told the Boston Herald that he’d had Griffey sign the lineup card from the four-homer game a few years later.
“I figured that, since I said I’m always going to be known as one of the guys that got traded for Ken Griffey, I made sure he signed it. I knew what kind of impact he had on that city. You just don’t really know how a player affected the city until you saw a guy like Griffey come back to the place. He’s been a gift to the game of baseball for a lot of fans for a long time,” he said. “I’m proud to say I’m a little part of his history."
Cameron finished his career with a respectable 46.7 career WAR, 229th among all position players in Major League history. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2017, but he did not receive a vote and fell off of it.
He had 11 more multi-homer games after his four-homer feat, but he never again reached three, let alone four. May 2, 2002, would stand as one of the the best performances in Major League history.
Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.