Mancini a full-go: 'I feel just like I did before'

February 22nd, 2021

In 's mind, his comeback won't be truly complete until Opening Day, until he's back on the field again for real, until what he does between the white lines matters. Since beating Stage 3 colon cancer late last year, Mancini has eyed Opening Day 2021 as his intended return date, expressing so repeatedly both privately and publicly. He appears on track to reach that milestone.

There won't be any limitations or restrictions on Mancini once spring games start next week, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said Monday, when Mancini's presence headlined the club's first official full-squad workout. That Mancini fully participated in the workout wasn't surprising; he's been in Sarasota, Fla., for weeks, doing full baseball activity. But it was the clearest signal yet that he'll be full-go once Grapefruit League games begin and beyond.

"Everybody's been asking me a lot, and I'm not lying when I say I feel no different," Mancini said. "From every standpoint of the game, I feel just like I did before."

Different is the reaction Mancini has received from his teammates and coaches, many of whom he's spending time with for the first time in a long while. Though he's been in regular contact via text and group chats, it's been almost a year since Mancini addressed his teammates in person, telling them of his diagnosis in a closed-door meeting before leaving the team last March. He underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his colon March 13, the day baseball shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The O's then spent the summer honoring Mancini from afar, while he underwent chemotherapy treatment against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Reuniting this spring has been a joyous experience for all involved.

"I can't remember a bigger hug I gave somebody than when I saw him for the first time the other day," O's third baseman Rio Ruiz said. "You commend everything he's done. You can't even imagine what he's been through. … He was definitely a presence we missed throughout the clubhouse."

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Said Hyde: "Just to see the smile on his face when I got to the ballpark and everybody else's reaction to him, I think that was a special moment."

In Hyde's view, what Mancini has already accomplished is "bigger than the game," or anything he might achieve on the field. More paramount is his health, and the outsized impact his story has had in inspiring others. Throughout his recovery, Mancini spoke often and candidly of not only his desire to play at a high level again, but about helping those afflicted with colon cancer and advocated for regular screening. It's a mission he's pledged to continue even now that he's cancer free.

"He's somebody that it's such a class act and so professional, I know everybody missed him around here big time last year," Hyde said. "And so to have him on the field, I think it's uplifting for everybody."

It's a platform, however, that's dependent on the baseball. Which is why Monday marked a milestone, why Mancini's first spring game will mark another, why more will be marked in the coming weeks and likely throughout the 2021 season. Before his diagnosis, Mancini had just blossomed into one of the finest sluggers in the American League, hitting 35 homers with a .899 OPS in 2019. He's not just looking to get back to the field; he's looking to get back to that level and beyond.

"I made sure to enjoy it and kind of cherish today because there were times, especially when I got diagnosed early on, where I wasn't totally sure if I'd be playing baseball again," Mancini said. "So just being able to come out here and feel like myself and participate in everything fully, it's something that I'm very appreciative of, and I don't take for granted at all."