Toronto — Austin Wynns’ voice lowered as he said the word, the one that summarized Trey Mancini’s 2020, that hovered over his 2021 return, that in some ways will accompany him the rest of his life.
“I don’t even want to say it,” the Orioles’ catcher murmured.
But as much as that word has encircled Mancini since a malignant tumor was discovered in his colon almost 19 months ago, Wynns is among those who are adamant: Cancer does not, and will not, define Trey Mancini.
The Orioles will play their 162nd and final game Sunday, and Mancini has played in almost 150 of them as a first baseman or designated hitter after missing last season undergoing chemotherapy for stage 3 colon cancer. He marked the one-year anniversary of his final treatment last month, unceremoniously celebrating by playing in a baseball game.
Since he was 8 years old, that is largely all Mancini has wanted to do. He admittedly hasn’t performed to the level he established he was capable of in a terrific 2019 campaign, with the physical, mental and emotional tolls of 2020 catching up to him. He understands that what he endured will be part of the narrative around him for his career and life.
But as this comeback season reaches its end, he finds himself appreciative of how far he’s come and that he’s proven to himself he still has further he can go.
“Instead of, ‘Oh, he’s doing really well for somebody who had cancer and went through chemo last year,’” Mancini said, “I want it to be, ‘Damn, that guy is really good.’”
‘What makes you happy’
After the Orioles’ final home game of July, Mancini went to bed proud. Earlier that night, he had homered on the first anniversary of the death of Mo Gaba, a teenage Baltimore superfan whose approach to his lifelong battle with cancer influenced how Mancini took on his own. Returning to the dugout, he found Gaba’s mother, Sonsy, in the stands and waved to her.
The home run was his 19th, with his OPS at .827 after that late July game.
“That was a night where I just really appreciated where I was,” Mancini said, leaning back in the visiting dugout at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m doing maybe even better than I thought I would.’ It kind of set in to me at that moment.
“And then I woke up the next day, and I’m like, ‘I have [freaking] two more months of this, and I’m tired.’”
It’s shown in his play since. Mancini has two home runs in 49 games after that night, batting .224. Overall, he enters the season’s final day with 21 home runs and a batting line of .254/.324/.431.
Despite advanced metrics still rating Mancini as an above-average major league hitter, his tendency to wear tough games on his sleeve has been more prevalent this year, bats slammed and helmets tossed after poor outcomes.
“I think sometimes he handled cancer better than he handles bad games,” girlfriend Sara Perlman said.
They had been dating for only a few months when Mancini’s March 2020 diagnosis came. She helped care for him after each of his 12 rounds of biweekly chemotherapy treatments, which caused him to go pale and not eat for days at a time. Yet despite the physical impact, Mancini believes he’s felt emotions typically experienced in the wake of a cancer diagnosis more this year than last, with one exception.
As part of his efforts to stay active during his battle, Mancini and Perlman played tennis. One day, a court over, a father played with his two young children. Mancini eventually broke down crying.
“Sara didn’t really know what was wrong,” Mancini said. “I was like, ‘We’re never going to get to have that.’ That’s all I wanted, to have kids one day and see them grow up and everything like that, and there were a lot of times where I didn’t think I was gonna get that chance.
“You really realize what you want in life and what makes you happy.”
Learning to appreciate
That’s part of why, as Mancini ends his final season in his 20s, he’s started to work to improve his mental health, seeing a professional to talk through the “anger and bitterness” he feels as a result of what he went through.
“I was 27 years old two years ago and had a season that I didn’t really think that I could most of my life,” he said. “I had a great year, and I was really entering my prime. I had a lot of confidence. And I think, a lot of the time this year, I felt like I got that stripped away from me.”
As the most experienced Orioles position player, he wants to set an example for the others, and although helmet slams have often helped him refocus throughout his career, he’s finding that deep breaths can have the same approach.
It’s among the lessons he’ll take away from this year, many of which involve simply learning how to be a professional athlete returning after a lost season spent facing cancer. He’s noticed that many of the stretches in which he’s struggled the most this year have coincided with the weeks surrounding his three-month checkups to ensure the disease hasn’t returned, a product of what’s known as scanxiety.
“This is kind of a new me,” Mancini said. “This is my new reality, and this is my first year of learning how to deal with it. I do have some regrets that it could have bled into my performance sometimes, but when I go for scans, I’m waiting to make sure that I’m not gonna die.”
He’s able now to apply that context to his numbers in 2021, his first season after hitting 35 home runs with a nearly .900 OPS in 2019. He entered this year expecting to be the same player. As he reflects, he recognizes how unfair that expectation was for himself, but he struggled to accept that for much of the season.
“There was no way to really prepare for this,” Mancini said. “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.”
Sitting in her normal spot in the Camden Yards stands — the one Mancini looked up to and waved toward before each trip to the on-deck circle — Perlman marveled at the fact he stood there at all. It’s part of the perspective she’s tried delivering to him throughout the season.
“If you saw someone get chemotherapy for six months and then you saw them here, you’d be like, ‘Holy [crap],’” she said. “It’s gonna be one of those things we look back and say, ‘Wow, I cannot believe you had a season like you did in 2021 after all you went through in 2020.’”
Stretches of play this season showed Mancini he can be the same player. He had an OPS of .993 in May, leading all major leaguers in RBIs late in that month.
He did so having spent the offseason playing catch-up. The chemotherapy treatments had caused his weight to fluctuate in a nearly 20-pound range as he starved then binged around them. The treatments ended in September 2020, but as he worked on his flexibility, mobility and other aspects of his game at Chadwick’s Fitness in Nashville, he felt lingering effects. He didn’t gain full feeling in his feet until January, but whenever he tilted his head downward, they vibrated. He experienced “chemo brain,” a state of daze that didn’t completely fade until he arrived for spring training. Even the side effects he didn’t have haunted his mind; the loss of feeling in his fingers would’ve made a comeback doubtful.
So when he made it to Sarasota, Florida, for spring training and singled in his first at-bat around a pair of standing ovations, that provided immediate assurance he remained capable. But looking back, he believes he spent the spring striking out too much, with most of his contact finding holes for hits and giving him a false sense of how successful he was. In the first two weeks of the regular season, he hit .151, culminating in a four-strikeout game in the opener of a road series against the Texas Rangers.
He spent hours after in the batting cage that night, hitting a large trash can’s worth of balls and FaceTiming Perlman during the session.
“Is this gonna be my new reality?” Mancini thought. “I cannot keep playing this game if I’m going to hit .170 all year.”
It was one of many late-night talks the two have shared this year, with Perlman often using them to remind Mancini the importance of positivity.
“Slumps happen to the best players in the world. Slumps happen after coming off cancer,” she said. “I think a lot of people would have said, ‘Yeah, I hit 20-plus bombs after six months of chemo.’ I think a lot of people would think that, but not Trey. He really was like, ‘I need to be better, finish strong, do better, put up better numbers,’ everything, because he just cares so much. He just cares almost too much, honestly.
“I think he’s finally really proud of himself, but it took almost all season to get that way.”
Much-needed time off
This offseason, Mancini just wants a break.
He and Perlman will spend it in Laguna Beach, California, with Mancini planning to spend time oceanside, hiking and doing yoga. At the end of this month, they’ll visit Amsterdam and Ireland; in the wake of his battle, Mancini reserves beer for special occasions, which the trip will certainly qualify as.
He only occasionally eats red meat simply for the iron, a deficiency of which first raised concerns that led to his diagnosis. He enjoys sparkling water but believes the carbonation was troubling his digestive system, so he’s forfeited that, as well.
More than a year after his last treatment, Mancini is still adjusting to his new life and the attention that’s come with it. On off days he isn’t going in for a checkup, he’s doing work with his nascent foundation or privately meeting with young children facing illnesses. He’s navigated a bevy of requests this year, a slate he admits tired him before the end of spring training. He participated in the All-Star week’s Home Run Derby, finishing in second as he shared his story of what can be achieved after a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy with a national audience.
“It’s tough to go from kind of under-the-radar, really good player, and then being almost the face of cancer for the league,” Perlman said. “I think he appreciated everything. I think he was just exhausted.”
Mancini has all intentions of using his platform to continue his advocacy; he partnered with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance not long after his diagnosis. But both he and Perlman hope the years to come are focused more on baseball.
“I don’t want to say this is all gonna be behind me,” Mancini said. “It will always be a huge part of my identity from here on out, for the rest of my career and life, but I do think it will take a little bit more of a backseat after a year’s passed, and I’m looking forward to that.”
‘Be who I was’
Asked for their view of what defines Trey Mancini, others largely centered on his status as an athlete and a cancer survivor, describing his defining traits as his abilities to overcome, to compete, to persevere.
Mancini chose “the way I treat people.” He recalled how Cleveland’s spring training complex was once in his hometown of Winter Haven, Florida, allowing him to meet some of the players. They made an impression with their kindness.
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“That’s something that sticks with you, and that’s something I want to do now,” Mancini said. “If there’s kids at our game that might be major leaguers one day, I hope that they can look back and say, ‘Well, Trey was really nice to me.’ Maybe they’ll remember that and pass it on.
“That’s what I’d like to define me, more than baseball or anything else that’s gone on.”
That mindset aligns with Perlman’s signal for when Mancini has appreciated the good days throughout this season.
“We talk about baseball less,” she said. “He had a great day at work, I had a great day at work and life moves on.”
Those types of conversations have become more frequent over the season’s final month and a half. Despite his growing acceptance, Mancini isn’t pleased with his play but also knows it does himself a disservice to remove the context of what he endured. He’s grateful to be able to look ahead, hoping he doesn’t need to spend much longer looking back.
“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. “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.”