It had all the makings of an emotional moment. Picture it: Sidelined by colon cancer for almost a year,
It’s a triumphant scene, and it still might happen. But Mancini has already eliminated some of the suspense, by arriving in Sarasota, Fla., more than a week before pitchers and catchers report to camp. Orioles position players aren’t required to report until Feb. 21, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Feb. 22.
Mancini is already there.
“I decided to come a little early since I had an extended amount of time off last year and wanted to get the ball rolling a little early,” Mancini said Tuesday, speaking on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio. “I feel great and I’m excited to be back.”
Accompanying those emotions, Mancini said, is a feeling he described as “strange.” The last time he walked the halls of the O’s spring complex, his personal life and the world at large were approaching dual, converging calamities. Diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in the first week of March 2020, Mancini, then 27, had a malignant tumor surgically removed from his colon on the morning of March 13. Only a few hours later, Spring Training was shut down due to the emerging COVID-19 threat. In five days time, Mancini would learn he’d require chemotherapy, receiving the news on his 28th birthday. He spent the ensuing months recovering against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
In the time since, few people outside of cleaning crews have entered the Orioles’ spring complex. Mancini described something akin to returning to a time capsule, where remnants of a past reality remain plain to see. There are whiteboards lining some hallways, for example, still sporting never-erased messages almost a year old.
“Everything is kind of as it was last March,” Mancini said. “So it’s a little eerie.”
The hope now, for the Orioles and for Mancini, is that things will soon return to the way they were before last March. At that point, Mancini had already emerged as the new, homegrown face of the franchise, having broken out to hit .291 with 35 home runs and an .899 OPS for the rebuilding O’s in 2019. He had been thrust into an early leadership position in the clubhouse and taken it in stride, and he was seemingly entering his prime on the field. Then cancer wiped out his entire age-28 season.
“I was able to get started [training this winter] early, which was good, because I definitely had some ground to make up,” Mancini said. “I had to kind of retrain myself in a few of the intricacies of my swing. By the time December rolled around, I was right where I always am and doing my normal offseason progression.”
Recounting that initial session back in the batting cage, Mancini added: “It was definitely the most excited I’ve ever been to hit in the cage. … That first day, I was swinging like my hair was on fire.”
Last week, Mancini took on-field batting practice for the first time since his diagnosis. He said he hasn’t lost his power stroke.
“The wind was blowing out to left,” Mancini said. “I got one pretty early.”
Asked what he missed most about baseball during his time away, Mancini’s answer was simple. He’s making up for lost time already.
“Honestly, just being in a clubhouse with the guys. It was so weird not going to the field every day, being around a team and having the camaraderie,” Mancini said. “I just miss being there every day.”