Orioles' Trey Mancini is AL Comeback Player of Year after triumphant return from cancer

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Orioles' Trey Mancini celebrates his home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

From the moment Trey Mancini stepped into the batter’s box at Ed Smith Stadium and received a standing ovation in late February, Monday’s official announcement that the Orioles’ first baseman was named the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year was a formality.

The league’s honor matches the one Mancini, 29, received from his peers after missing the 2020 season undergoing treatment for stage 3 colon cancer. He rejoined the Orioles and was a fixture in the middle of their lineup, appearing in 147 games with 21 home runs and a .758 OPS.

“I’ve gotten my confidence and belief back in myself, at least, because I’m looking at the year and there are some stretches where I felt as good as I ever have in my whole career,” Mancini said ahead of the Orioles’ final series of the season. “I always say, there’s some days where I feel like I never left and some days I feel like I’ve never played, but that’s how it is when you went through what I went through.

“I at least know I still have the ability to be who I was before all this.”

In 2019, Mancini was named Most Valuable Oriole, hitting 35 home runs with an .899 OPS. But in spring 2020, a cancerous tumor was discovered in his colon. He underwent surgery the same day the coronavirus prompted the cancellation of spring training. When Major League Baseball eventually returned in the summer, it did so without Mancini, who had to undergo 12 rounds of biweekly chemotherapy treatments.

Returning to the game: When he returned to baseball this spring, he did so seemingly without missing a beat. He had an OPS of .993 in May, and he was leading the league in RBIs late in that month until an elbow bruised by a hit-by-pitch cost him a handful of games. He continued to play well through July, pushing for what would have his first career All-Star selection. He did, though, participate in the Home Run Derby, finishing as a runner-up while showing a national audience what can still be accomplished after undergoing a cancer battle and chemotherapy.

His glowing performance perhaps culminated July 28, the one-year anniversary of the death of Mo Gaba, a teenage Baltimore sports superfan who spent his life battling cancer. Mancini grew close to Gaba in the early years of his Orioles tenure, and when he was diagnosed with cancer himself, Mancini tried to use Gaba’s vibrant positivity as the approach he took to fighting the disease.

Mancini caught a ceremonial first pitch from Gaba’s mother, Sonsy, and when he homered in the third inning, he found her in the stands and waved upon his return to the dugout.

“I’m so proud of what you were able to accomplish in such a short period of time,” Sonsy Gaba said in a video from the Orioles celebrating Mancini’s recognition, which also featured manager Brandon Hyde, teammates Cedric Mullins and John Means, Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “I know Mo is up there in heaven smiling and giggling like crazy.”

The night represented an emotional and physical high; the home run was his 19th, and he ended the game with his OPS at .827. But he woke up the next morning drained as he realized two months remained in his comeback season.

Not an easy recovery: As Mancini underwent chemotherapy treatments in 2020, his weight fluctuated drastically. When he was cleared to begin preparing for the 2021 season, he endured several early mornings to try to get himself in shape, all while dealing with lingering effects from the treatments. He lacked full feeling in his feet and sensed them vibrate when he tilted his head downward. He feared he might lose feeling in his hands, too, which would’ve made a comeback doubtful.

Reflecting on the 2021 campaign in September, Mancini said that he believes the emotional, mental and physical tolls of what he experienced in 2020 finally caught up with him during the season. He dealt with “scanxiety,” the anxiousness that accompanied his three-month checkups for whether his cancer had returned, and noted how his performance dipped in the weeks around those scans. He was never shy to show his emotions on the field before, but his frustrations with his play were particularly visible in 2021.

“There was no way to really prepare for this,” Mancini said in September. “Ideally, I thought going into this year, I was gonna have this whole new great outlook on baseball and on everything like that and I’d be happy-go-lucky no matter what, but that’s not the reality. That’s not who I am at all. It’s not in my DNA.”

“He’s an incredible competitor,” Hyde said in September. “He expects so much out of himself that him having some struggles this year, it’s been hard on him just because he has such high expectations of what he feels like he should be. Sometimes, you have to remind him it’s not easy taking a full year off and what he went through. But he hasn’t lowered his expectations, which is just the kind of person he is.”

After that home run to celebrate Gaba, Mancini hit only two more, managing an OPS of .622 in that final stretch. He dealt with an oblique issue late in the year but refused to allow it to end his season.

“Cancer is the only thing that’s put me on the IL in my career,” Mancini said. “And I’d like to keep it that way.”

Looking to the future: Mancini understands cancer will always be part of his story, but he hopes there will be much more to it. This offseason, he got engaged to his girlfriend, Sara Perlman, who helped him throughout his battle and frequently reminded him of the value of positivity whenever he doubted himself this season. This comeback season proved what he can still do on the baseball field, and he looks forward to showing how much more he’s capable of.

“Instead of, ‘Oh, he’s doing really well for somebody who had cancer and went through chemo last year,’” Mancini said in September, “I want it to be, ‘Damn, that guy is really good.’”

Posey wins NL honor: San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year.

Posey sat out the 2020 season after twin girls adopted by him and his wife were born prematurely. He announced this month he was retiring after 12 seasons.

The 34-year-old Posey hit .304 with 18 home runs, 56 RBIs and an .889 OPS for the 107-win Giants. The batting average was his highest since 2017 and the homer total his best since 2015.