BALTIMORE -- Even before the 2021 season began, murmurs projecting one of Major League Baseball’s more prestigious offseason awards had already begun to circulate. It was only the season’s first weekend when Red Sox manager Alex Cora took them public, with a proclamation about Orioles slugger Trey Mancini that few disputed neither at the time nor in the months to come.
“He should be the Comeback Player of the Year,” Cora said all the way back on April 4. “He can hit .330 or .180 and he’s the Comeback Player of the Year already. I know there are other guys coming back from injuries, but to come back from [colon cancer] is amazing.”
Flash forward to Monday, when Cora’s prediction turned prophetic. Mancini earned American League Comeback Player of the Year honors, it was revealed on MLB Network, for a 2021 campaign during which he re-established himself as one of the game’s better run producers after a year away battling -- and beating -- Stage 3 colon cancer.
Presented annually to one player in each league since 2005, the Comeback Player of the Year Award aims to honor an individual who re-emerged on the field during each season. The winners are determined by a vote of the 30 club beat reporters from MLB.com. Mancini is the first Orioles player to claim the honor; he also earned the same distinction from his peers in October.
Giants catcher Buster Posey was this year’s National League recipient. Posey, who announced his retirement earlier this month, opted out of the 2020 season for health and safety reasons. Mancini’s absence was far from being his choice.
Coming off a breakout 2019 season, Mancini underwent a colonoscopy in early March 2020 that revealed a malignant tumor. He underwent an operation to remove it on March 12, the day baseball shut down due to COVID-19. The diagnosis came six weeks after that, on his 28th birthday: Stage 3 colon cancer, necessary chemotherapy. He wouldn’t spend ‘20 on the field. He’d spent it fighting for his life.
“There were times early on when I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be playing baseball again,” Mancini said this spring. “I'd be lying if I said that was the first thing that came to mind. The whole time I just wanted to be healthy long-term and live a long life. And baseball definitely was on the back burner when I was going through all that.”
Amid the challenges of a global pandemic, Mancini underwent six months of chemotherapy treatments at John Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. The final treatment came on Sept. 21, 2020. Five months later, he was on the field again, receiving a standing ovation at the Orioles’ Spring Training complex in Sarasota, Fla. He hit .255 with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs in 147 games for the Orioles in ’21, finished second in the Home Run Derby at Coors Field and inspired millions both inside the game and out with his story of resilience and perseverance.
“What I’ll remember most is the Spring Training reaction, the fan reaction in our first home game,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “But along the way, too, just watching opposing players, when he was playing first base, you’d see a guy get to first base and the interaction there, with how much respect Trey has around the league. That’s what I’ll remember the most.”
Along the way, Mancini became the fastest player in Orioles history to amass 100 career home runs, started his own philanthropic foundation and became a spokesperson for colorectal cancer awareness. With Mancini’s help, the Orioles and Colorectal Cancer Alliance raised $80,000 for the cause in 2020. Mancini remains partnered with CCA, as well as cancer-free.
“To make it through the whole season and not go on the injured list, to make it to the end, I’m really happy to be here,” Mancini told MLB.com in October. “It’s been a roller-coaster, a huge wave of emotion all year. I’ve experienced every emotion you can think of, 20 times over, a hundred times over. But I’m really thankful and feeling a lot of gratitude.”