Mancini's 'surreal' return reminiscent of debut

April 2nd, 2021

Throughout his year away from the field battling -- and beating -- Stage 3 colon cancer, Trey Mancini consistently said he wouldn’t consider his comeback complete until Opening Day. It wouldn’t be just the feel of the bat in his hand or the spikes under his feet that made it feel real again, not the hum of a heater sizzling through the zone. For the comeback to count, the games needed to, too. It was why the O’s slugger had Game 1 circled on his calendar for so much of 2020, and throughout his emotional, successful spring.

It was with that as a backdrop that Mancini marked his official return to the field in Friday’s 3-0 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park, reaching base twice in four plate appearances in his first regular-season game since Sept. 29, 2019. Mancini received a warm ovation from the 12 percent capacity Fenway crowd during opening introductions, a hug from Xander Bogaerts at first base, and then he played a key role in two late Orioles rallies as they prevailed behind John Means’ seven shutout innings.

"It was really special," Means said. "He's a great player, a great teammate. And just seeing him back out there after everything he's been through, it's incredible. And he's gonna have a great season. I can't wait."

All told, it was a cathartic, triumphant return Mancini called “surreal.”

“It reminded me a lot of my MLB debut in terms of how the day went,” Mancini said. “There are a lot of nerves and emotions that go along with the day, then once the game started, it all kind of went away.”

Taking his first two at-bats against hard-throwing righty Nathan Eovaldi, Mancini grounded into double plays in both the first and third innings. His fortune changed in the sixth after Eovaldi was pulled for Matt Andriese, against whom Mancini worked a walk and then scored on Ryan Mouncastle’s game-winning double. Mancini singled in his final at-bat, legging out an infield hit against Josh Taylor.

In between, many took a moment or two to acknowledge what Mancini went through to simply get back on the field. Besides the Bogaerts hug, gestures came from Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez when Mancini stepped to the plate, and Rafael Devers on the basepaths.

“It was really classy and really meant a lot to me,” Mancini said. “We all play against each other 19 times a year in this division, but we all have a very high respect for each other and you know we wish the best for everybody playing the game. I played against these guys for years and years and you get to know them … We all have a very high respect for each other.”

Mancini also said he heard from several fans while on the on-deck circle, one of whom told him his sister is battling colon cancer.

“He said it meant a lot for me to be back playing,” Mancini said. “Interactions like that are so cool. Everybody at Fenway was so cool today.”

Those interactions were likely, also, a preview of what’s to come for Mancini throughout the year as he traverses the Major League circuit with a story that’s already inspired so many both inside the game and out. And he’s happy to oblige. Even before completing six months of chemotherapy treatments in September, Mancini spoke often about his desire to boost colon cancer awareness, helping to raise $80,000 for the cause last summer and routinely encouraging others to undergo early screening.

Those efforts are ongoing. Mancini retold his story countless times and in great detail this spring, both to reporters he knows well and national media like NBC’s Today show, which rarely dabbles in baseball coverage. His goal? Outreach and to inspire, knowing the power his perseverance and resilience has to impact others. He also knew it would mean less without getting back to baseball, back to the player he was before cancer forced him to spend a year away beating it.

After a year full of milestones, Friday marked the most important one yet. And another step toward putting 2020 squarely behind him.

“This was the most special Opening Day, even more so than my MLB debut,” Mancini said. “When I found out about the cancer, I thought I’d never play baseball again. I made sure to soak it all in today no matter what happened, and really appreciate doing this for a living. I am never going to take that for granted. The fact I’m a year removed from the diagnosis and went through six months of chemotherapy, a lot of things ran through my mind today: days I couldn’t get out of bed, days I was hunched over the toilet sick, it was all worth it to be back here and out there with the guys. It’s something that I can’t describe.”