Trey Mancini was two weeks into a dream comeback from colon cancer when hitting coach Don Long finally coaxed it out of him.
“What is making you so tight and pressing so much right now?” Long asked on the field during some early batting practice in Arlington, Texas, on the Orioles’ second road trip.
“He makes you think deeply about what the real cause of it is,” said Mancini, who had just eight hits in his first 55 plate appearances heading into that series against the Rangers in mid-April. “I said, ‘Looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a .150 batting average next to my name. I see that, I go up there and try to hit three home runs in an at-bat and try to raise my average and all this stuff.’ He’s good about kind of getting that out of you and getting to the root of your problem, which usually is going to be on the mental side of the game.”
Just making this comeback at all would have been a success for Mancini after his stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis last spring. But once the goal posts shifted to returning to be a productive force at the top of the Orioles’ lineup, that’s where Long came in — the ideal match of a gifted hitter who has grown to know his troubles at the plate are mental and a hitting coach who is particularly attuned to helping his charges overcome that.
“Earlier in my career, I would always blame things on something mechanical, my hands weren’t where they needed to be, or I wasn’t getting my back hip through the ball, things like that,” Mancini said. “Now, I realize 99% of the time, if I’m not feeling good at the plate, it’s because of my approach. It’s because my mind’s clouded up there and my total focus isn’t on the pitcher.
“I think now I realize that and I didn’t know that when I was 25, 26. I thought it was always something mechanical and now, I know that my approach at the plate is the most important thing and it’s the key to my success. Don has always known that.”
Long, in his third season as the Orioles hitting coach and 11th in the majors after decades as a minor league coach, manager and coordinator, has worked with thousands of hitters in his career. None ever had to return after a year away from baseball from such a trying experience.
Looking back, Mancini believes Long knew “it was going to be a pretty overwhelming for me in a lot of ways, and I thought I was going to come in and have like a seamless transition back.” Long said it was obvious that Mancini was thankful and excited to be back, but the competitor in him didn’t allow the perspective required to realize things would develop slowly.
He already liked working with Mancini because of his honesty with himself and how caring he is for those around him. But if working with a player who had recently beaten cancer was new, Long didn’t have to look far to know how to help someone who could be his own worst enemy in a batter’s box, where facing the pitcher was hard enough.
Mancini has always been hard on himself after making an out, even if he knows he shouldn’t be like that. As a player, Long said he was “constantly criticizing myself, judging everything I did, to the point where I just drove myself crazy.”
“My focus became less about just playing the game and more about trying to survive the game,” Long said. “It was no way to be, so I understand the importance of the mental component of the game and how that either frees you up and allows you the best opportunity to be your best or it doesn’t. There’s really not a lot of middle ground.”
Mancini will still have his moments of frustration, but Long had a solution for that. He recommended Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis,” a 1974 reflection on the mental side of sports and what allows an athlete to be at their best.
Long said he recommended it not only because Mancini grew up playing tennis, but because he believed he’d actually read it. Mancini said he hadn’t read a book cover-to-cover since the last “Harry Potter”; he was more of a skimmer in college, and a self-described procrastinator. But the result is a player who is learning not to “ride the roller coaster” and, as Long described it, “taking the risk” to detach yourself from the results and from one at-bat to the next.
“Because many guys are super competitive, it’s almost like they don’t necessarily want to let go because they have a tendency to equate being able to let go and get ready for the next pitch as not caring,” Long said. “It’s really quite the opposite. It’s really that the ability to let go and get ready for the next pitch is really the thing that ultimately allows you the perform better.
“It’s not a matter of not caring — it’s having the wisdom and presence of mind to go, ‘Hang on a minute. If I get angry, and I stay angry, is that really going to help me do what I want to do in the end?’ I figured that would make a connection with him.”
Mancini said he had a two or three week stretch where he took the mindset, “and the results spoke for themselves.” At the end of April, he and Long also watched a highlight compilation of all of Mancini’s 35 home runs from 2019. They noticed a little tweak he needed to make in his stride length, but the good feeling of seeing those blasts resonated more.
“I think it’s really easy for a hitter to really look short-term, which has happened most recently,” Long said. “And oftentimes, we forget to replay our successes. I think it was kind of twofold, to show there was a bit of a difference in how he was getting ready to hit and the position he was getting into to hit, that was one part of it. The other part of it was just, you know, allowing him to watch himself be successful.”
Mancini saw a much simpler, smoother swing, one in which he wasn’t concerned about where his hands were or loading hard on his back leg. He needed to simply lock in on if it was his pitch or not.
His resurgence started at the end of April before the Orioles’ West Coast road trip, and ensured that Mancini’s difficult stretch was far shorter than his 2018 swoon. From around Mother’s Day until the All-Star break that year, he was in such a tailspin at the plate that he “had a hard time getting out of bed” and going to the field every day, praying for a hit.
This time, instead of months, it was a few weeks. Mancini hit .320 with a .993 OPS and six home runs in May, and while he’s struggled a little again in June, his two-hit day in Tuesday night’s 10-3 win over the New York Mets shows how equipped he is to pull out of it — again.
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“Having gone through that helped in a sense that I knew I needed to talk to somebody every day about how I was feeling, and Don was there for me, especially those first few weeks of the season,” Mancini said. “He kind of stayed with me and helped me really get through it. He just helped me with my approach a lot.”