The baseball and the two outfielders -- both center fielders by trade -- were airborne when the players' paths intersected, and as their faces collided, the often-unrecognized danger of big-league baseball came to the forefront. The whole ballpark gasped. The occupants of two dugouts inhaled through their teeth as people do in moments or fear.
The Mets reacted as people rather than players. They instantly feared the worst, though they had no real sense of what the worst might mean. No matter, at that moment, as they processed the sickening impact they had witnessed, their day and their perspective had changed.
Within hours Thursday their roster -- and perhaps their season -- had, too.
Cameron was disabled because of multiple injuries and will need surgery to repair facial fractures. Beltran was diagnosed with a concussion and a minimally non-displaced fracture of a facial bone, which will not require surgery. And the rest of the Mets were hurting, too.
Even before their game with the Padres was lost -- largely because of the line drive that went uncaught -- the Mets suspected they had lost Cameron for the season. Their fears were confirmed when they learned the head-to-head collision with Beltran had caused the Mets right fielder to suffer a concussion that was characterized as slight, multiple fractures of both cheekbones and a broken nose. They had also worried about neck and back problems.
And by late Thursday night, they learned Beltran would be hospitalized overnight as well while doctors awaited results of tests.
The 2-1 loss to the Padres and its ramifications mattered little even before the extent of Cameron's injuries was known. Long before the Mets heard the update on Beltran, they had made their way to Los Angeles as a diminished, saddened and shaken team. They would worry about their season some other time.
"From time to time," Tom Glavine had said before leaving the Mets' somber clubhouse, "things happen that put the game in perspective."
Even before official word came, the players envisioned the recall of Victor Diaz and that Cameron would miss significant time. He has not been put on the DL, though it remains a possibility. The full extent of Cameron's injuries was unknown at that point. In fact, before the team buses departed, the club announced the results of Cameron's first CT scan were negative. But a subsequent test detected the structural damage to the popular 32-year-old outfielder's face.
"It's not going to be good," one of the Mets said as he left the clubhouse for a team bus. "They said he was a mess. It might be bad."
Cameron had been removed from the field on a stretcher after lying motionless on the PETCO Park lawn for several minutes. Marlon Anderson, the second player to reach the fallen outfielders, said Cameron was "dazed, not really there" at first.
"His eyes," Anderson said. "He wasn't right."
The only sign of injury Anderson detected was blood -- and a lot of it -- coming from cuts inside Cameron's mouth.
"I can't imagine being a paramedic at the scene of a car wreck," Anderson said. "And that's pretty much what this was -- a car wreck."
Cliff Floyd, Cameron's closest friend, made the sign of the cross and looked away, sickened by the blood as Mets trainer Ray Ramirez tended to Cameron and Beltran, also dazed, crawled away. Beltran eventually left the field under his own power, but he was escorted. At one point, he was seated on a table in the trainers' room, leaning back against the wall, occasionally shaking his head.
Beltran later acknowledged he had little memory of the episode or its immediate aftermath. "After a collision like that," he said, "I feel lucky." He later said, "I'm dizzy," as he walked slowly across the clubhouse.
Beltran and others said the "center fielder's mentality" that the two players share played a part in the collision. "They're trained to want the ball," manager Willie Randolph said.
As it turned out, the ball that neither caught -- Cameron almost did -- was critical to the loss. It became a one-out triple for pinch-hitter David Ross. Pinch-runner Damian Jackson scored the Padres' second run against Glavine moments later, when Joe Randa singled.
Jackson, formerly with the Red Sox, had been involved in a collision with Johnny Damon in the 2003 playoffs against the A's. He could empathize with the Mets outfielders even though Damon had taken the brunt of the hit then.
"Those things happen. It's part of the game," Jackson said. "Unfortunately, I've been through it and know what it's like.
"Hats off to those guys for giving such an effort for Tom Glavine. Baseball takes a beating for not being physical, guys are dogging it. You hear that all the time. But we're out there without protection, and there are times like this when it's dangerous. People will look at it as one of the top 10 all-ugly incidents. Why not one of the top 10 great efforts?
"To me, you had two center fielders going after it with everything they've got, and neither one was letting up or backing off. Cameron has been a center fielder all his life, and he still plays like one. Most right fielders will veer off or give way on a play like that, but he went all out, the way he always has. You have to respect that as a player.
"I just hope they're both OK. They have families just like you do, and we're all playing a game."
As Cameron lay on the field -- first on his back, then on his left side -- Floyd spoke to him. "You'll be all right," Floyd said.
Floyd said Cameron acknowledged his words. "But I'm not sure he really understood me," Floyd said.
Cameron, players said, never lost consciousness. Later, Padres president Sandy Alderson, who had witnessed Cameron's being moved outside the clubhouse, said he had been told Cameron had suffered no type of seizure.
The collision had brought others to mind. Mike Piazza recalled one involving Dodgers teammates Delino DeShields and Raul Mondesi that left DeShields looking in two directions at once. Pedro Martinez recalled Expos teammate Rondell White hitting a wall with his head. And there were thoughts of the time that Dan Norman and Lee Mazzilli collided in right-center in 1979.
But this one was different.
"Most of them you see," Piazza said, "guys are on their feet. This was awful."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.