Sarasota, Fla. — In his first live at-bat in nearly a year, Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini marked his return to baseball after missing all of 2020 because of stage 3 colon cancer with a base hit in the team’s spring training opener Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
All through the morning to the standing ovation before his first at-bat and his hit to cap it off, Mancini reflected on the moments from this past year that he’s attempted to move past as baseball takes over his life yet again.
“All day, [I’ve] just kind of been running through the last year and everything that me and Sara [Perlman, Mancini’s girlfriend] and my family have been through,” he said. “It’s almost been a year to the day, a couple days off since I was last in a game. It definitely was a moment where it felt like it maybe came full circle a little bit.
“I thought more about everything that happened today than I have in a long time. I’ve mostly tried to in a lot of ways just move on and not think too much about last year, but I ran through all the tough days that we had and I really tried to appreciate and cherish today. I definitely did that.”
Mancini got a smattering of applause as he walked to the dugout from his pregame stretch on the outfield grass and got a nice ovation during the announcement of starting lineups. After outfielder Cedric Mullins singled to open the Orioles’ first inning, Mancini soaked in nearly a minute of applause before he stepped in the batter’s box.
Mancini worked the count full before singling to center field for his first hit of the spring.
“It was amazing,” Mancini said. “I almost teared up a little bit, I’m not going to lie, when I was up there and everybody gave me a standing ovation and I saw all the guys on the field clapping on the Pirates, clapping in the dugout, our team and all our fans.
“It meant the world to me. It was a really, really cool moment and one of the favorite moments of my baseball career. I think it was a huge day for me, personally, getting back in a game. Just another kind of milestone that I can check off here.”
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde called it a “goosebumps moment,” thanking the Pirates players and manager Derek Shelton for allowing Mancini to soak it in.
“I thought it was just a real class act by the Pirates and the fans,” he said.
Mancini, who was voted Most Valuable Oriole in 2019, didn’t get a chance to reprise that honor in 2020. His spring training physical revealed a red flag in his iron levels, and further tests uncovered a malignant tumor in his colon.
He missed the entire season after surgery in mid-March and six months of chemotherapy treatment, but came back for a full schedule of offseason workouts.
With Perlman, his parents, and other family members in attendance, Mancini was surrounded by many from his inner circle, who this time last year flocked to Sarasota to support him as the reality of his diagnosis set in.
For them, too, Mancini’s first spring game carried more emotion than expected.
His first involvement in Sunday’s game, however, wasn’t as memorable. Mancini tried to get a force-out at second base on a grounder to first with the bases loaded in the first inning, but his throw was low and hit the runner for an error. Even in a spring training game, his frustration with himself in the dugout signaled that he was back to his normal self.
Mancini said he felt better being in live game action than he thought he would, noting that not seeing live pitching for six months during the offseason isn’t much different from missing a whole season.
But he also knows these every-other-day starts are going to be valuable to get him back to being his best on the field. He realizes there’s going to be plenty of attention on his attempts to do what he’d normally do in spring training.
“I hope they know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Mancini said of what his comeback can mean to others. “It’s the worst news you can ever get when you get diagnosed with cancer, but there’s a lot of people you’re going to meet along the way and people in your life that help you get through those really tough times.
“I’ve said it a million times but I wouldn’t have gotten through the last year without Sara, my family, my doctors, my surgeon and oncologist at [Johns] Hopkins and all of the nurses. Nobody was able to go to treatments with me so the nurses really helped me get through those treatments. They were amazing. There’s a lot of great people you’re going to meet along the way that help me through it. After you’re done with treatments, you can go on and get back to your normal life.”
Orioles starting pitcher Thomas Eshelman said he was in the dugout unpacking his own first inning when he realized there was a standing ovation for Mancini.
“It’s something that is super special, to happen to a great human being,” Eshelman said. “I’m just excited to have him back there on the field. It’s something that he has beat, so it’s great to see him back in the lineup and obviously get a knock in his first at-bat.”
Mullins and Mancini’s two hits to start the Orioles’ day at the plate were their only ones until the sixth inning, when shortstop Mason McCoy singled and scored on a towering home run by left fielder Yusniel Diaz.
The Orioles (0-1) lost, 6-4, to the Pirates in front of an announced sell-out of 1,705 fans at Ed Smith Stadium.
Two Orioles pitchers in Eshelman and Isaac Mattson benefited from a spring training rule change this year that allows managers to “roll” innings and end them before the third out after a pitcher reaches 20 pitches.
Relievers Marcos Diplán, Conner Greene and Spenser Watkins pitched perfect innings of relief late in the game.
Fans in the stands
Mancini’s first game was also the first for those fans who had been shut out of stadiums for nearly as long. Seeing him mark this step in his comeback was a special moment for them, too.
Bobby Brauer, 12, usually takes a spring training trip with his grandmother but was in Sarasota this week with his father, Ben. The pair from LaVale, Maryland — who were wearing “F16HT” T-shirts the Orioles sold as fundraisers for the Colorectal Cancer Alliance in honor of Mancini’s battle with cancer — missed the opportunity to go to Camden Yards last year.
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Ben Brauer said they were a “nervous wreck” traveling down Saturday, but found their time in Florida to be safe so far with everyone they’ve encountered wearing masks and plenty of space as they entered the ballpark Sunday.
“We kind of keep our space,” he said. “We’re going to wait for the gift shop to clear out before we go in.”
Areas such as the gift shop and concession lines were limited to keep crowds from gathering, and when ushers saw fans without masks on, they were quick to address the matter and tell them to put their masks back on.
It was all in an effort to allow fans to safely enjoy an Orioles game in-person for the first time in nearly a year, since they were playing in Florida last March.
The alternative, as a year of empty stadiums in 2020 showed, was a far worse option.
“It wasn’t the best thing,” Bobby Brauer said.
Around the horn
Hyde said Mullins will abandon switch-hitting and hit exclusively from the left side in 2021. ... Left-hander Alexander Wells has an oblique injury and won’t pitch in games early on this spring, Hyde said.