Trey Mancini badly needed a break. Over the last month of the 2021 season, the magnitude of the past year and a half weighed on the Orioles first baseman — beginning with a cancer diagnosis and concluding with a rapid return to baseball and the rigors that come with a 162-game sprint.
In all of that, the breath inside him was pent up, held in, waiting for a release.
“Trey loves baseball, loves Baltimore, as do I,” Mancini’s fiancée, Sara Perlman, said. “We were so ready for it to end. Because he was so exhausted. He was drained.”
So when Mancini flew from Toronto, where the Orioles finished the season, to meet Perlman at their home in Laguna Beach, California, he finally had a moment to himself. He walked in, set down his bags and let out that breath — what felt like his first real breath since March 6, 2020.
In the time since that day, when he received his cancer diagnosis, Mancini has undergone surgery to remove a tumor from his colon and 12 rounds of biweekly chemotherapy treatments. He experienced the weight loss and illness that coincides with those treatments.
But once he finished those rounds, there was no break. He had looked in the mirror, saw a shell of himself and vowed to get back into playing shape. There was no pause. There was only a swift determination to put everything behind him.
“Part of it was maybe a little bit of denial, and not wanting to fully realize and fully admit what I’d gone through,” Mancini said. “I was coming off a career year in 2019 and had finally gotten to this point I had to really work hard for, and to be 28 and for that to happen to you, there was certainly bitterness and anger there. I kind of pushed that to the side and started working out and tried to act like it didn’t happen.”
And that approach — while it helped him return to the field in 2021 — took its toll. That arduous journey battling stage 3 colon cancer required all of his strength. There was plenty to unpack, and in Laguna Beach, he finally took the time to do so.
“I got to our house there,” Mancini said, “and I just took this huge breath.”
‘An insane year’
Even before Mancini finished his chemotherapy treatments, he wanted to return to working out. He saw the finish line in the distance, and he knew beyond that lay baseball.
The workouts began almost immediately after his chemotherapy concluded in September 2020. He began swinging a bat a month or two earlier than he would’ve in a standard offseason. It was all with the goal in mind to replicate his 2019 campaign, when he hit a career-best .291 with 35 home runs and 97 RBIs.
“He wanted to prove that taking a year off cause of cancer wouldn’t change him or have an impact,” Perlman said, “which would be impossible if it didn’t have an impact on your body, just from the medication standpoint and all that he went through to become healthy again.”
But the early rush to return set up for a whirlwind stretch. For a player who has tended to prefer an under-the-radar approach, Mancini’s return from cancer propelled him into the national spotlight. He received a standing ovation before his first at-bat in Sarasota, Florida, for spring training. And when he singled in that at-bat, another standing ovation followed.
When he got off to a slow start to the season, he answered questions about cancer. When he began to heat up in May, he answered questions about cancer. When he starred in the Home Run Derby, finishing as a runner-up to the New York Mets’ Pete Alonso, he answered questions about cancer.
“I wanted to help educate people — and I still do — on the disease, and I kind of became the face of it,” Mancini said. “But at the same time, it wore me out a little bit. It was hard to miss a season, come back and be the player I was after this massive life event happened to me, and my expectations were possibly a little bit too high for myself after what I went through.”
The pressure on Mancini — much of which was self-imposed — weighed on him. He didn’t meet the lofty standards of 2019, finishing with 21 homers and a .255 batting average. But there was more at play, too, navigating a recovery from cancer, a return to the diamond and a world grappling with the coronavirus.
It combined into “an insane year,” Perlman said.
And Mancini didn’t get a grip on it until it all came to a stop in Laguna Beach.
A new perspective
On one of the first nights in Southern California, Mancini and Perlman went out to dinner. There, they embarked on a serious conversation — the first of many — ranging from Mancini’s season to his health and their relationship.
“Every game I took so seriously,” Mancini said. “So it felt kind of nice to reflect on all of that and not have a game to worry about the next day. It was like, ‘OK, we can relax and I can get my head on straight these next few months.’”
The couple traveled to Europe, where Mancini proposed to Perlman. He still ran and did yoga, but he didn’t pick up a bat until November, offering himself a chance to reset away from baseball.
And Mancini began meditation and breathing exercises, aiming to calm his intense attitude when it comes to baseball. In a conversation toward the end of the season, the realization came to Mancini that the pressure he placed on himself wasn’t sustainable. He needed a release.
“I’ve got to get better with this stuff,” he recalled saying. “I can’t have this new chance at life and still not be appreciative of what I have or act like every game is a life-or-death situation.”
That’s where Mancini feels he’s improved the most, shutting out the noise that follows slumps or trade deadline speculation to focus on the day-to-day activities ahead of him. Overcoming cancer played a role in that mentality, but it didn’t occur overnight, especially because he shuttered many of the emotions that followed his recovery when he rushed back into baseball.
There’s always something to worry about — his and Perlman’s careers, his stats, their health. But much of it isn’t productive.
“I felt like from the time I got the diagnosis through the last game of the season last year, it was just one big blur,” Mancini said. “I don’t even know immediately if what I went through gave me as much perspective as I think it should have. It took until getting away from everything this past offseason to get to that point.”
Now two years removed from his initial cancer diagnosis, there are still the occasional reminders. Every three months, Mancini goes in for bloodwork and tests. Each time there’s a tick of worry, yet it’s replaced with relief once the exam results are encouraging.
He could spend his time dreading the days leading up to those appointments, just as he could dread this summer’s trade deadline, when Mancini could be an attractive asset for a contending club. Perhaps in the past, he would’ve.
But that was before an offseason in Laguna Beach, where he walked through the door after a roller-coaster season and finally let out a deep breath. He had been holding it for far too long.