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Cameron's lonely road back

OMAHA, Neb. -- As he steps into his $100-a-night hotel room just after midnight in this Midwestern city, the 25-gamer looks around his modest surroundings and wonders aloud how it came to this.

"I feel like I'm somewhere I shouldn't be," Mike Cameron says, quietly, pensively. "This right here, this is where it all started … It all just came back to me.

"Lord have mercy, please let me go back to the big leagues."

Two days later, Cameron slides into a booth at a chain restaurant, as gray clouds loom outside. The center fielder exhales; he speaks slowly and thoughtfully as he answers questions about his life since the suspension, and his anticipation about returning to the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday, when they play the Cubs in Chicago.

All Mike Cameron's known for these days is being a 25-gamer, the suspension he was handed as punishment after a second positive test for banned stimulants while with the Padres. Not the 13 seasons he spent showcasing his leadership, Gold Glove defense, energy and love for the game.

"Ain't nothing worse than having your name go across the bottom of the screen with breaking news," Cameron says in his first and only extended interview about the past month, "for something that's not good."

At 35 years old, Cameron's been living in purgatory for the past month. When he parted ways with the team March 30, he went home to his family in Atlanta for four days, then spent the remainder of his time at extended spring training at the Brewers' complex in Maryvale, Ariz.

That is, until he arrived here six days ago, in Omaha, for the first of five games he's able to play with Triple-A Nashville before returning to the big leagues. Cameron was here 11 years ago when he was with the White Sox -- playing in the minors, on the road, in Omaha. Now, he's here for a completely different reason.

Cameron says his time away from the majors has made him humble, reflective and curious. He wonders how he'll adjust to his new team and to major league pitching, saying it looked nasty from his view on the couch. He pledges that his positive test was an anomaly, and that the time away has given him a new respect for his place in the game, and for all the players with whom he came up who no longer play.

"I promise you it won't ever happen again," he says. "That's a promise. And I don't even make promises to my kids. I made that promise to myself."

The downtime -- the early mornings, long afternoons and lonely nights -- has only exacerbated the pain it causes him when he sees his name scroll on TV, or hears an announcer mention the 25 games. He knows all of this is self-inflicted, of course, but for a player who's always been popular, thoughtful and engaging with fans and the media, the hit to his reputation hasn't been easy. It's been even harder to cope with the effect it's had on his wife, JaBreka, and their three children.

Cameron had doubts about speaking about his life over the past month, saying he'd rather not draw any more attention to himself, especially since he's rejoining a team with which he's spent only six weeks. But he also realized his is a largely unprecedented experience, with former Tigers infielder Neifi Perez the only other major leaguer suspended under the stimulant rule. Cameron, by far, is the more prolific of the two.

And never before have we been given a window into what it's like to serve this type of punishment.

"This has been the most humbling experience, the humility of it," Cameron says. "I once took [baseball] for granted. I've been hurt. I know it can be taken away from me that easy. I'm very fortunate."

It was last fall when baseball announced Cameron had tested positive twice and would be suspended for 25 games at the start of this season. At the time, Cameron was entering the offseason as a free agent and he says the suspension definitely affected his ability to get a job. He took a one-year, $7 million deal with the Brewers, came to spring training, addressed his awkward situation and then reprised his role as a clubhouse leader and mentor.

Then, however, in an interview with USA Today, Cameron disclosed that he was applying for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) with baseball. He was concerned about possible neurological issues he was having since a violent face-to-face collision with then-teammate Carlos Beltran in 2005. Cameron regrets the interview, saying it gave the impression that he was trying to skirt the system; he just wanted to know if any post-concussion symptoms could be treated by the approved use of a stimulant.

Cameron says he has not received a TUE, and added he's currently not taking any medication. He says he thinks the positive tests were triggered by an energy powder he purchased over the Internet last season. He also knows the supplement excuse is a common one.

"It would have been much easier for me to say, 'Yeah I took a greenie,'" Cameron says, referring to the slang name for speed pills that were once commonly used in baseball. "I wish I could have said that. But I didn't take any."

Now, he just wants to move on. During his suspension his emotions ranged, as did his activities. When he first went home to Atlanta, he played Mr. Mom for a week. He rose early, made breakfast for his kids and drove them to school. He discovered a newfound interest in gardening and helping the landscaper. He took the cover off the pool, cleaned out the garage and fixed his kids' bikes. He went to his daughter's softball games and he also watched major league games on TV; Opening Day was difficult.

He soon realized everything was altered.

"Your body, your mind-set changes," Cameron says about being home in April, as opposed to January. "My mind is in baseball mode. It's not as comfortable as it would be when I'm [home] in the offseason. During the season, your mind is constantly going.

"I couldn't sit still. Around two o'clock, I started feeling hurried. And I was like, I got no reason, I got nowhere to go."

When he went back to Arizona, Cameron lived in the house he had rented for spring training. He woke up every morning around 6 a.m. and joined players who were 16 years his junior, hitting leadoff in games that usually started at 10 a.m. Along the way he encouraged the kids, giving them tips like how to take your eyes off the ball when it's hit, and rewarding them with free iPods or Oakley sunglasses when they responded to his challenges. He knew all eyes were on him, and he saw it as a responsibility to embrace the players and teach them as much as he could.

When he left the field, though, Cameron had plenty of time to kill. Former major leaguer Royce Clayton and his brother both live locally and provided friendship through golf outings and dinner at their houses. But many times, Cameron would find himself at home by 4 p.m., grateful that the East Coast games were getting under way.

"There was always happy hour," he quips.

He perused magazines and leaned on T.D. Jakes, a well-known pastor and author who writes inspirational books. He counted down the days in his head, and tried not to feel depressed, though at times it was hard not to. He knows he won't engender much sympathy, nor is he asking for any. When he's asked if the punishment is a deterrent, he exhaled.

"It's killed me; it's kind of crushed me a little bit," he says. "It sucks to take away something that's so close to you."

On Tuesday, Cameron won't ever have to worry about that happening again. He promises.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.