The little boy loved the way the bat felt in his hands. He liked playing catch, liked running the bases, but nothing in the world made Trey Mancini happier than hitting. Even when he was 3 years old, Mancini would beg his father to pitch to him as long as there was daylight, the hours running together on the white sand beaches of Florida.
By the time he was 5, all those swings had hardened into an obsession: He was going to hit home runs. He hadn't yet graduated T-ball, but he believed in his swing -- the fierce, repeatable pop of it -- and he burned to go deep. Every time he failed to do so, it enraged him. Sometimes, he'd return to the dugout on the verge of tears.
The fences the first time couldn't have been more than 100 feet away, but the distance did not matter. The feeling is what mattered. He belted a ball where no one could touch it, and as he rounded second base, Mancini saw his mom and his sisters out by the concession stand, just beyond the left-field fence where the ball had landed, waving and smiling with pride.
In time, the boy who swung the bat thousands of times grew into an imposing young man who did the same, batting .480 as a senior in high school. But his swing was unorthodox, his hands close to his right shoulder, then dropping down and flying through the zone as if he were cracking a whip. Major League scouts weren't impressed. Neither were his dream schools -- the University of Florida, Florida State and Miami. It infuriated him, but it also hardened his resolve. He knew they had it wrong.
Notre Dame made an offer but wanted him to redshirt. He willed his way into the lineup, one line drive at a time, then led the team in batting average, home runs and RBIs as a freshman. In time, he developed into one of the best hitters in the Big East.
This is what he loved most about hitting: being the captain of his own fate. As long as he hit, the rest would sort itself out.
After his junior year, Mancini thought he might be taken as high as the third round of the MLB draft. His name wasn't called until the eighth. But at every level of the minors, he proved he could rake. The trust he had in his mind and his body was absolute. The Orioles had other first-base prospects rated ahead of him. He leapfrogged them one at a time.
When he got to the majors, he was so nervous, so eager to prove he belonged, that he almost passed out before his first game while warming up on an exercise bike. But when he reached the on-deck circle, the butterflies faded. Believe in the swing. In his second at-bat, Mancini smashed a home run, a majestic blast to left field, and there again was his mom, sitting in the stands of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, leaping and gushing with pride.
He hit seven home runs in his first 12 games in the show, just the third player since 1913 to accomplish that feat. Over the next three years, on a team at the beginning of a painful rebuild, he was the brightest light, hitting 86 home runs through his first four years with the Orioles. After he hit .291 with 35 home runs and 97 RBIs in 2019, Mancini seemed like he was on the verge of becoming one of the best hitters in baseball. The ball exploded off his bat.
The Orioles had tried to lock him up early, offering him a team-friendly extension at the end of his second season worth $23 million. He turned it down. He liked the idea of betting on himself. The strikeouts and popups still enraged him, often sending him into a helmet-slamming funk that would take hours to shake off, but he always figured that fury was part of what made his baseball existence possible. As long as there were more at-bats to anticipate, more fastballs and more tomorrows, he would be fine.
And he was. Right up until the day Trey Mancini stared down something he couldn't hit over the wall.
"CANCER," THE DOCTOR SAID.
Mancini was still groggy, barely awake, as the anesthesia slowly wore off. His girlfriend, Sara Perlman, was holding his hand, and he kept looking at her, trying to make sense of the doctor's statements.
But that word seemed to bring everything into focus at last. There was a mass in his colon, the doctor told them, and there was a 99.9% chance it was cancerous. Mancini looked at Perlman again. "I could tell she was trying to stay strong and positive, but there were tears slowly rolling down her face," he says.
None of this made sense. He was just 27 years old. Less than a month ago, in February 2020, he'd reported to his seventh spring training in Sarasota, Florida, excited to build off the best season of his career. How the hell did he end up with colon cancer?
Yes, he'd been exhausted lately, feeling gassed just taking swings in the cage. But he was coming off a nasty bout with the flu. He told Perlman he figured it was a sign he was getting old. He was here in this room only as a precaution, after the Orioles sent him for a colonoscopy and endoscopy because his iron levels were low. Baltimore's head trainer, Brian Ebel, told Mancini it was most likely an ulcer, brought on by the stress of a new season, or maybe celiac disease.
A few days before his colonoscopy, Mancini had confided in some teammates over pizza and beers that something was off. "He just felt weak," says Austin Wynns, Orioles catcher and one of Mancini's close friends. "He didn't know what was going on. We just thought he was allergic to something."
Perlman had flown down to Florida to celebrate Mancini's 28th birthday a few weeks early, before the season began. Instead, she drove straight to the hospital to pick him up after the procedure. Now a doctor was calmly explaining the diagnosis, and Mancini was beginning to grasp there would be no season at all.
More tests were necessary to help decide which direction to proceed. Surgery to remove the mass seemed likely. They weren't sure yet if he would need chemotherapy. The doctor scheduled a CT scan. Could Perlman drive him there?
The words ran together. None of it felt real. "A 27-year-old [with cancer]?" Perlman says. "It makes no sense. He didn't even have symptoms so it's really just a shock." After the doctor excused himself, she gave Mancini his birthday present, a silver chain that she delicately draped around his neck, then she left the room. She stepped outside, called her mom and started sobbing.
"I was hysterically crying, but I did not want him to see me cry," she says. "I told my mom, 'It looks like there is a tumor in Trey's colon.' It didn't even make sense when I was saying it out loud."
Her next call was to Mancini's parents, Beth and Tony, whom she'd met just once at that point. They immediately jumped in their car, agreeing to meet her as soon as they could make the two-hour drive from their hometown. "I swear I drove 90 miles per hour getting him to the CT scan," Perlman says. "Thank god we didn't get a ticket or get pulled over. He's chugging the drink you have to take before a CT scan [Gastrografin]; I'm zipping through Sarasota.
"And then I think I blacked out for the next seven months."
THEY WEREN'T EVEN thinking about baseball. Mancini just wanted to live. There was no explanation for why he'd contracted colon cancer at such a young age. "I started going through it like: 'What have I done wrong over the years?'" he says.
Mancini's father had colon cancer in his late 50s, so Mancini thought that might provide a clue. He underwent genetic testing and tested negative for Lynch syndrome, which often shows up in young people who have colon cancer. Some nights, he couldn't resist Googling "colon cancer survival rates" only to regret it when the statistics sent him down a dark road.
After the diagnosis, things moved fast. With input from Perlman, his family and the Orioles, Mancini decided to return to Baltimore for the surgery. His teammates, coaches and agent vowed to do anything they could to help him through whatever he was about to face. Before he left Sarasota, he broke the news to his teammates. It felt like half the locker room broke down.
"It was eerily silent," Hyde says. "Everybody was just worried for him."
"I think everyone was scared," Wynns says. "But you don't want to show how scared you are, you know what I mean?"
Six days after his diagnosis, Mancini had surgery at Johns Hopkins to remove the tumor. It was March 12 -- the day everyone's world started to change. Baseball shut down. March Madness was canceled. COVID was spreading throughout the country. His doctors told him he either could stay at the hospital alone, or he could go home and limit his interactions to a tiny bubble. He couldn't have guests, particularly after, a few days later -- on his 28th birthday -- they found the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. He needed chemotherapy.
"I think out of everything, that was the toughest news to receive, because it's scary," Mancini says. "You hear the word chemotherapy and it's just shocking."
He moved into Perlman's D.C. apartment. It seemed sudden, but what choice did they have? He'd live there, and drive up to Baltimore every two weeks for treatments.
On the day Mancini was diagnosed, they'd been together for roughly four months.
"It was kind of wild, because we were just kind of learning about each other, that way you do in a new relationship," Perlman says. "Then you switch gears to a caretaker. ... Our relationship kind of took a turn. It was true fight or flight."
He kept apologizing to her. She was so young, so amazing, and he didn't want to lose her. But they weren't married. She had her own career, her own ambitions and dreams. They were still figuring everything out.
He was a rookie when they first met back in 2017, brimming with talent but yet to prove himself. Perlman was a rookie too, working as a television reporter for MASN, the regional network that covers the Orioles and Nationals. One of Perlman's first assignments was an interview with Mancini. He couldn't tell, but she was flustered and nervous. He was so friendly and personable, her own butterflies soon faded.
"I joke to this day, he was my favorite interview ever," Perlman says. "Magnetic is the perfect word. You meet Trey and you want to sit with him for a while, learn what he's thinking, and pick his brain about everything."
They became friends. A few years later, after Perlman left the beat to host her own gambling show on NBC, Mancini took it as an opportunity to "shoot my shot" and asked her to dinner. They spent the entire date laughing and telling stories. They went on more dates.
"I thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen," Mancini says.
"It was just a lot of early relationship emotions," Perlman says. "Everything was blissful."
And then everything changed.
"It's a lot for somebody else to take on the role as a caretaker," Mancini says. "But she never complained or had any doubts for a second. I have said it a million times and I will always say it, I never, ever would've gotten through last year without her."
THEY BINGE-WATCHED "The Wire." They did crosswords. He read a book about "The Office," his favorite show. Perlman's show was put on hiatus because of COVID, so she would take long walks during the day, listening to the relative silence of the city, to try to keep from breaking down. If Mancini was feeling OK, they would play tennis, a sport they'd both loved as kids. "It's the only thing we fight about," Perlman laughs. "We are so competitive. He has an edge, clearly. But I could hold my own."
They decided to adopt a puppy, a terrier-lab-cocker spaniel mix they got from a D.C. shelter and named Olympia. They talked about the future. A situation that could have driven them apart instead pulled them closer together. "Even on my worst days, I would put on a smile. It was fake it 'til you make it," Perlman says. "That was the key for me and for him I think."
Chemotherapy was brutal. He was anxious before each treatment, knowing he was about to descend into hell for three days after. Mancini's doctors put a port in his chest, then typically attached a grenade-shaped pouch to it that was full of the cancer-killing medicine.
It didn’t make a difference to me if he went back to baseball or not. I didn’t care. I didn’t even think about it.- Sara Perlman
Perlman couldn't enter the hospital because of COVID protocols, and he didn't want her sitting alone in the car outside, so he went to appointments alone. Every two weeks, from April to September, he'd sit in a chair for three hours, then drive himself home before the nausea kicked in.
"I knew the things that were making me feel this way were quite possibly saving my life," Mancini says. "If you think of it that way, it helps you cope. But it was one of the worst feelings in the world."
They learned that anything Mancini would eat prior to chemo was forever ruined as a meal. The association his brain made with the nausea that soon overwhelmed him would linger forever. He'd barely eat for the next three days. "Easter Sunday, the night before I started my chemotherapy treatments, we had chicken pancetta and truffle mac and cheese," Mancini says. "I'll never eat chicken pancetta or truffle ever in my life again."
He didn't think about baseball much at all, at least initially. He wouldn't let his brain go there. And they tried not to talk about cancer. So when actor Chadwick Boseman died in August 2020, his family announcing that he'd undergone treatment for colon cancer in private for several years, Perlman purposefully didn't bring it up. But she saw Mancini, late one night, reading about Boseman on his phone.
He couldn't sleep. A million thoughts were swirling in his head. Boseman played Jackie Robinson in "42," a film Mancini loved. They had the same disease. Boseman had access to the best medical treatment, and he still lived only four years. "I had a really hard time when I saw the news," Mancini says.
The next day, Mancini and Perlman went to play tennis, and she could tell something was off. He seemed negative about everything, which was unlike him. "Sara thought I was mad about the tennis match, how I was playing," Mancini says. "She was like, 'Let's just go home.'"
He didn't know how to explain what was going on. On the court next to them, a man was playing with his two little kids, a son and a daughter. Mancini couldn't stop looking over at them.
"I'm thinking, 'I'm never going to get this. I'm going to die in the next couple years,'" Mancini says. "'I'm here with the girl of my dreams playing tennis. I have everything in life. And I'm going to lose it all here pretty soon.'"
When they got home, they went to the roof of their building and Mancini explained it all. He broke down. He brought up Boseman. He told Perlman he was scared. He wanted to have kids someday, to have a family and live a long life. He wanted what the guy playing tennis next to them had.
Perlman didn't hesitate. "You will," she told him. "We will. We'll be fine. You'll be fine. I know with all my heart that this stuff is helping you. If there's any cancer cells left into you, the chemotherapy is doing its job and you're going to be OK."
The word "we" felt like a salve. Mancini had willed his career into existence with a singular belief in himself. Now, he needed someone else to keep him upright. He'd been wearing the silver chain Perlman gave him as a birthday present every day since his diagnosis, a reminder that, even on the worst days, they had each other.
Most days, that was just enough.
EVENTUALLY, BASEBALL STARTED to reenter his brain. He wasn't allowed to come to the ballpark, due to baseball's COVID protocols and because he was immunocompromised. But some nights, Perlman would walk into the living room and he'd be standing in front of the television, watching an Orioles game, crouched in his stance with a bat in his hands. He hadn't picked one up since he was diagnosed, but now he was taking "dry hacks."
If Gerrit Cole was pitching, then Mancini would imagine he was facing Cole, his heels dug into the dirt, his hands ready to coil. It felt like a hopeful thing. "I loved it because it was important to realize there was a future after this," Perlman says. "You're watching your friends play, and hopefully, if you get back to this, it means you're happy and healthy."
He watched more baseball than ever, even though it was the first summer of his life that he wasn't playing. He'd always been the guy on the Orioles who closely monitored the weather, so his teammates couldn't resist texting him on game days, asking if there was rain in the forecast. Some afternoons, he hopped in on team Zoom sessions, offering tips on how to face a certain pitcher. "I made sure I reached out to him, just keep notes on him, telling him like 'Hey man. I love you,'" Wynns says.
One night, just hours after one of his chemo treatments, he and Perlman were sitting on the couch together. His cancer medicine was still attached to the port in his chest. The Orioles game was on the television, but Perlman wasn't paying attention. She was doing a crossword puzzle on her phone. A comfortable silence hung between them.
"I should have taken that f---ing extension," Mancini blurted out.
She laughed. It surprised her because they'd never talked about it before. "Were you just holding that in your head for a few days before you decided to let it out?" she teased. He tried to explain his rationale. Wouldn't $23 million feel good right now? Wouldn't it feel good to know she'd be taken care of, even if something happened to him?
"I was just kind of feeling sorry for myself," Mancini says. "I thought maybe that would soften the blow of all this going on. But I knew it wouldn't."
His doctors had warned him one potential side effect of his chemotherapy was that he might lose feeling in his fingers and his toes. It might be temporary, or it might be permanent. There was no way to predict how his body would react. "I'd say the feeling in my feet didn't come back until like January," Mancini says. "I had about 50 percent feeling. They were pretty numb for a while after. It was really scary."
The bigger concern, though, was any lingering numbness in his hands. "If I lost feeling in my fingers, I knew I wasn't going to be able to play baseball anymore," he says.
Even before he got approval from his doctors to return to a lifting regimen, he tried to find ways to stay active. "I did 30-minute workouts in the apartment and he would do them with me when he was feeling good," Perlman says. "We would use random things in the house because during COVID, you couldn't even get weights."
One day, he used their dog for squats, a physical and emotional boost. Perlman thought it was so funny, she took a video and tweeted it out to the world. It was a little window into their lives, a sign they were still finding moments when they could laugh, that it wasn't all worry and despair.
By the end of the summer, they were able to think about where they would live once his treatments ended. He already had a house in Nashville. There was a training facility nearby that a lot of professional baseball players used. If he was really going to give this a shot, he needed to go someplace he'd be comfortable. His doctors made him promise he wouldn't touch a weight, or swing a bat, for at least three weeks after the port was out of his chest. He was itching to hit, but he agreed to the restrictions. After so many months, a future -- and not just an imaginary one -- was beginning to take shape.
Mancini was so eager to get there, the name of the training facility -- coincidentally, it was Chadwick's Fitness -- didn't even register with him.
He didn't think about Chadwick Boseman at all.
HE WASN'T ANXIOUS before his final chemotherapy treatment. That was new. Most of the time, he'd be miserable, knowing the chemicals were about to "kick his you-know-what," Perlman says. But not the final time. Perlman says it was like watching the athlete psych himself up for a big game. His ballplayer mentality returned.
Because of COVID, there was no bell to ring, or party to throw, to celebrate the end. But Perlman secretly arranged for George Davis, a 64-year-old two-time cancer survivor who had been mentoring Mancini over the phone throughout his treatments, to meet them in the Johns Hopkins parking lot after Mancini's final treatment. Davis, who'd never met Mancini in person prior to that moment, showed up with balloons and bear-hugged him.
"Trey lit up when he walked out of that building," Perlman says. "It was the best day of my life to this point, no question."
When doctors removed the port from his chest three days later, it felt like another important moment. "The port in my chest really signified what I was going through," Mancini says. "Once that came out, it was kind of a sign, metaphorically and physically, that it was over."
After his scans came back clean and with chemotherapy behind him, Mancini was cleared for workouts and, by November, to resume hitting. Perlman went with him the first time he was allowed to hit balls off a tee. He wasn't sure how his body was going to react. Part of him wondered if six months of injecting himself with life-saving poison might have erased all his muscle memory. But he wasn't so different from the boy who hit his first home run off a tee, all those years ago. He could still shift his weight, load his hands and snap the bat through the zone like he was cracking a whip. His legs felt a little weak, but it was a start.
The numbness in his toes was problematic. He tried doing box jumps to strengthen his legs, but he couldn't feel his feet when they came in contact with the box. He worried he might fall flat on his face.
"It was scary, but I thought, 'At least it's not my fingers. At least I can hit,'" Mancini says. "I can run without a lot of feeling in my feet. I can make that work."
He took comfort in the fact that he knew how to get to the Show. He'd done it once already, even when so many had doubted him. He went to the gym every day, buoyed by the fact there were other major leaguers training, all of them ecstatic to see him. He'd leave at 7 a.m. each morning, work out and hit until 2 p.m., then come home and rest. His strength began to return. One day, he couldn't resist sharing a little optimism with Perlman: I feel good. I feel normal. I feel like I can do this.
MANCINI WAS SO eager to return to a clubhouse and a sense of normalcy that he reported to spring training a full two weeks early, before even pitchers and catchers were due to report. Perlman went with him, knowing how emotional the next few weeks were likely to be. Being back in Sarasota was surreal -- baseball had shut down the day of his surgery, so in a way, it felt like the Orioles' spring training facility had been encased in amber. The travel schedule from the day he broke the news to the team was still on the wall when he entered the clubhouse.
But as his teammates began to arrive for camp, it felt like another barrier had crumbled. "He was so excited," Perlman says. "This is something he was born to do, play baseball and be a teammate and be around the guys. He came home [that day] just elated. Not being around them was really tough. He loves them. He loves Baltimore. He wanted to be here."
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde couldn't resist feeling overprotective of Mancini. Every day, he'd check in, ask how he was feeling.
"It was probably too much," Hyde says. "But I know his personality. He wants to go, go, go. I was going to manage that as much as I possibly could. He's a warrior, man. He showed in spring training that he was exactly the player he was before, and I don't think any of us knew what to expect."
Mancini tried to think of the first spring training game of 2021 as nothing special -- it felt a little ridiculous to feel nervous about such an inconsequential contest. "It's glorified practice, basically," he says. But he also knew it wasn't meaningless. His family was there -- Perlman, his parents, his aunt and uncle, a gaggle of cousins he was close to. Perlman realized, waiting for the game to start, that it was the first time she was going to watch him play baseball as his girlfriend, as someone who loved him. She started to get emotional, and she couldn't resist texting him to ask how he was feeling.
"I've been holding back tears all day," he wrote back.
He got a standing ovation from the small crowd the first time he came to the plate. It caught him off guard, how grateful he felt. His teammates too. "I remember shedding a tear in the dugout," says Stevie Wilkerson, Mancini's teammate and close friend. "The only two times I cried was when he [initially] addressed the team, and in that moment."
Mancini stepped out of the batter's box, tipped his cap in both directions, then tried to focus on baseball again. Wilkerson couldn't help but feel nervous for him. "He lives and dies with every at-bat," Wilkerson says. "I think he'd be the first one to tell you, it's a blessing and a curse."
He worked the count to 3-2, coiled in anticipation of a fastball, then ripped a single into center field.
Perlman burst into tears.
"I was crying because we didn't know if that day would come," she says. "It didn't make a difference to me if he went back to baseball or not. I didn't care. I didn't even think about it really. But it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It felt like ... what a year."
HE STILL THINKS about cancer. He's had "no evidence of disease" in every scan since ending chemotherapy, but he's still scared -- sometimes -- that it might return. He knows that, unlike baseball, that part of his destiny will always be beyond his control.
"A lot of it is luck of the draw, you know?" Mancini says. "How successful was the surgery? Did they get everything out? Did my body respond to chemotherapy? You don't necessarily know the answer right away. You can believe you're going to be OK, and I do, but you don't know for sure."
It doesn't happen every day, but there are small triggers. In the clubhouse recently, he walked past a tray of Little Bites muffins, one of the foods he had prior to a chemo treatment, and he felt nauseous just looking at them. The worry usually returns whenever he feels a strange ache or a stiffness. "The first thing that goes through your mind is, 'Is that another tumor?'" Mancini says. "You can go down a rabbit hole pretty quickly, thinking something is wrong when it's really just a normal ache or pain."
Whenever that happens, it's always Perlman who drags him back to the surface.
"Back in January, I was convinced something was wrong," Mancini says. "She was like, 'You are fine. You just had scans a month ago. Everything, by all accounts, looks good. Let's move forward and be positive.' Every time, she snaps me out of it."
Maybe he and Perlman would have ended up here without Mancini's diagnosis. They like to think so. There is no sense in imagining a different path other than the one that got them here. They still dream about having kids, about traveling, about growing old and sitting by the water somewhere, a drink in hand, with no nausea or blood tests or doctors appointments on the horizon.
They have not hesitated when asked to share their story. Mancini volunteered to be a spokesperson for the Colorectal Cancer Alliance's "Never Too Young" campaign and helped raise $80,000 in 2020. Perlman has spoken to support groups for partners who suddenly find themselves thrust into the role of caretaker. Public advocacy feels like a small tax to pay when you've been gifted with survival.
"A lot of people can be a little wary of talking about colon cancer," Mancini says. "Some people still see it as being like a taboo. I don't at all. I want to raise awareness. It's a very common cancer, the No. 3 most fatal cancer. I've got a platform and I feel like I've got a job to do, which is to educate everybody."
"We don't feel sorry he had cancer," Perlman says. "He plays professional baseball and without it, he might've not caught cancer because most males do not get physicals once a year or every six months and test their iron and have the best doctors at hand. So now, it's our duty to make sure we raise awareness that people can get colonoscopies, they can get regular blood work."
He’s a warrior, man. He showed in spring training that he was exactly the player he was before.- Orioles manager Brandon Hyde
Mancini's 2021 season started slow. He hit just .237 in the month of April. But a few weeks in, Hyde sat him down and implored him to relax, not to try make up for a lost season with every at bat. Since then, the old Mancini has begun to return. For a stretch in mid-May, he led the American League in RBIs. In a June 20 game against the Blue Jays, he crushed a pair of home runs. That gave him 100 for his career. He's the fastest Oriole to reach the century mark after starting his career with the team.
"There was a lot of times last year I thought I'd always be stuck on 86," Mancini says.
Mancini promised Perlman that he would let go of bad at-bats after he returned to baseball, that the 0-4 nights wouldn't bug him the way they once did. He was done slamming his helmet and stewing for hours after a bad game.
It would make for a touching lesson on perspective, had that turned out to be true. Mancini's reality is more honest, and perhaps, more interesting. He has not changed much.
"I'm hard on myself," Mancini says. "I thought after last year and everything, maybe I'd be just happy to be here, and I'd be waking up smelling the roses on the field every day. But I can't necessarily say that's the case."
There is a good chance he will feel awash with gratitude this Monday, when he participates in the Home Run Derby as part of the MLB All-Star Game in Colorado. Mancini wants to show people that colon cancer isn't a death sentence. He will try to bask in the warmth of the crowd and all the people who feel inspired by his return to the game.
But inevitably, his vision will narrow, and he'll dig his cleats into the dirt. He'll be out to prove, once again, that he belongs. He plans to rake. The hunger inside him to hit is a part of who he is and it always will be. There is no turning it off.
Perspective is admirable. But you know what's another great way to feel happy and healthy and alive? Mashing a pitch to a place where no one can touch it.
Wardrobe styling by Raven Roberts; grooming by Anita Bahramy/T-H-E Artist Agency. Style credits: plaid shirt, Billy Reid; t-shirt: Billy Reid; jeans, Trey's own.