I Am So Lucky
I’ve always loved spring training.
It’s one of my favorite times of year. It just has a slower pace, a softer edge. It’s friendly. And it’s all about baseball — and I love baseball.
But this year it was a little bit tougher, more of a grind to get through every day. I’ve been to spring training with the Orioles in Sarasota every year since 2014, but I’d never felt like that before. I’d take BP, and I’d just get tired after a few swings. So I knew something was up, but I chalked it up to just getting older.
I didn’t think for even one second that anything was seriously wrong.
When I’d first arrived, I went through the annual team ritual of physicals and blood work with our doctors. They came back to me afterwards and told me that my iron levels looked low and that they needed to do another blood test. I’d just come down with the flu the same day as the blood test, so I thought that maybe that had had something to do with the results. But after the second test, my iron levels were even lower.
The doctors thought that I probably had either celiac disease or a stomach ulcer. Colon cancer was a remote possibility, but it was my last concern. I was only 27. No way I had that. My dad had had Stage II colon cancer in 2011, but he was 58 then. We just thought I was way too young for me to have it.
When I went in for an endoscopy and colonoscopy, the doctors told me that they were really expecting to confirm that I had celiac disease, which is found in your small intestine. When the anesthesia put me under, I believed everything was going to be O.K.
And then I woke up.
Without the Orioles I never would have caught this before it may have been too late.
My girlfriend, Sara, had just flown down that day from Washington, D.C., and she was there at my bedside. She was holding my hand — squeezing it, actually — when I woke up. The doctor was with her, and he very calmly and matter-of-factly began to explain the results of the colonoscopy. He started by eliminating all the possible things it could have been. I was still woozy from the anesthesia, but before he even said the word cancer I was thinking to myself, There’s no way that he’s about to say what I think he’s about to say. And then he said it: They had found a malignant tumor in my colon. My dad’s an ob-gyn. I’m familiar with the way doctors talk. I knew immediately that this was real.
Sara was great. She took care of everything. She called my parents right away. I’m from Winter Haven, Florida, and they got in their car right then and drove two hours down to Sarasota. My doctor was awesome. I was surrounded by people I love.
But that didn’t change the fact that the news was really tough — just shocking, to be honest. I was young. I was coming off the best year of my career. And I’d just reached the point that I’d been working toward my whole life — in January I’d signed a new contract. The Orioles drafted me in the eighth round in 2013, so I didn’t get a whopping signing bonus. After four years of minor league salaries, and three years of making close to the major league minimum, my new contract was a big moment for me, a milestone. But just as important as the money was the fact that I was still an Oriole, that I was going to be staying with the only team I’ve ever played for.
And without the Orioles I never would have caught this before it may have been too late. There was really no indication that anything was wrong other than me just feeling a little more tired than normal. Everything that comes up when you google colon cancer? I didn’t have any of it. And so without that second blood test I probably would not have discovered the tumor until I had a total blockage of my colon. Instead, from the day I was diagnosed to when the tumor was removed was just six days — March 6 to March 12.
I have Stage III colon cancer.
I started chemotherapy on April 13.
And I am so lucky.
I began playing travel baseball when I was eight years old. You name a city in Florida, I’ve probably played there. Our family usually ran the team carpool — my mom would drive everybody, me and my teammates, to and from games and practices. She had a huge, black Chevy Suburban, and back in the day we could fit eight of us in there. Our weekends completely revolved around baseball tournaments. Sometimes I’d have to go to mass on Sunday in my baseball uniform so we could leave after communion to get to a doubleheader.
Winter Haven is a really big baseball town, and a great place to grow up dreaming of playing in the big leagues. The Indians had their spring training there until 2008, so I was really into them. And my dad was one of the team doctors. He was the ob-gyn for a lot of the players’ wives — he actually delivered a few of their babies. I got to meet some of the players that way. I met Karim Garcia. He gave me one of his Akadema gloves. I met Ben Broussard. And I also met Jeremy Guthrie. What’s wild about that was that I introduced myself to him after a game in Houston last year, and he was just blown away that I was Dr. Mancini’s son. That was pretty cool.
I wasn’t drafted out of high school, mostly because I had pretty much let teams know I was going to go to college. I desperately wanted to go to a school in Florida at first. FSU was really where I wanted to go, but then for whatever reason they didn’t really recruit me. Notre Dame did, though. It was pretty much the only school I got an offer from — and everything wound up working out perfectly, because I love Notre Dame more than anything. I couldn’t imagine having gone anywhere else.
In the summer of 2011, after my freshman season in South Bend, I played for the Holyoke Blue Sox of the New England Collegiate Baseball League — and that’s pretty much the only reason I got drafted by the Orioles. The GM of the Blue Sox was a guy named Kirk Fredriksson, and right after that summer he became a scout for the Orioles. He wasn’t even my area scout — he was Baltimore’s northeast scout — but in 2013 he went out of his area and put his neck out and convinced the Orioles to draft me in the eighth round. The tape of me in college was kind of goofy, honestly. It wasn’t great. I was a big, awkward, righthanded hitter, and I didn’t look too refined out in the field. But he really put his reputation on the line for me.
And I’m so appreciative of that.
Kirk and I still keep in touch. He’s with the Braves’ organization now and was one of the first people in baseball to reach out to me after I got sick. I just talked to him the other day, as a matter of fact. So many people in the game have gotten in touch with me to ask me how I’m doing or to express their support. It’s truly humbling.
Man, I love baseball.
I finished third in the voting for Rookie of the Year in 2017. Aaron Judge ran away with it — as he should have. My dad and I joke that I was like the horse that finished third in the Belmont behind Secretariat. Award or not, that year was a great start to my major league career, and I was so excited for my second season.
And then I hurt my knee. I still remember the date: April 20, 2018.
We were playing the Indians at Camden Yards. I had come straight to the park from my grandmother’s funeral, which was in Bowie, Maryland. My mom grew up in Bowie, about 30 minutes from Baltimore. I’d gotten to the field late, probably around six o’clock, only an hour or so before the first pitch.
Things were going great, though. I had doubled to center in the fifth inning to drive in two runs and give us a 3–1 lead. But in the top of the eighth, Yonder Alonso hit a foul ball to left, and I slid into the wall going after it. There was a little part at the bottom of the wall that wasn’t padded — and it just crushed my knee. I had to go to the E.R. that night, and I was out for a few days. In hindsight, I should have gone on the DL. I had never missed time because of an injury, and I wanted to play no matter what. But the truth was I was hurt way worse than I admitted. I couldn’t put much pressure on my right leg. It forced me to change my swing, which created some bad habits that led to failure at the plate … which got into my head. It just spiraled out of control.
I went into a massive, three-month slump. My average fell from .284 to .216. I was sure I was getting sent down to Triple A at that point. I was just totally lost.
And then, right before our first game after the All-Star break, my older sister, Katie, sent me a text message that changed everything. She texted me a picture of me playing baseball when I was eight years old. And she said, “You didn’t come this far to only come this far.”
That really resonated with me. I went 2 for 4 that night. I had been 3 for my last 37. I don’t know what it was, but it was just immediate. I had a good second half after that. So many people had reached out to me before then, but nothing had worked. But Katie’s message … it was perfect. And it set me up to have the best year of my career last season. I still have a picture of that message on my phone — still look at it every now and then.
I have a younger sister, too. Her name is Meredith. She and Katie and I are really, really close. They took the news of my cancer hard. But honestly? I’m more worried about them, and how they’re doing. Seeing somebody you love in pain is honestly tougher than what you are going through personally. I’ve learned that.
My sisters aren’t the only ones I have to worry about. There’s a 13-year-old kid named Mo Gaba, who’s a really big fan of Baltimore sports. He and I have gotten to be friends the last couple of years. He’s had bouts with a few different types of cancer, and he’s blind and has a tough time getting around. But he also just has the best outlook on life that I’ve ever seen. During that tough year in 2018, I stayed back in Baltimore for the All-Star break so I could spend a day with him and his mom — took them to Dave & Buster’s to hang out and just have like a normal day.
Well, in March when I was in the hospital, Mo actually called me to see how I was doing. He told me that he was worried about me and wanted to make sure I was O.K.
The 13-year-old kid with cancer calling me to make sure I’m O.K.? It blew me away.
I told Mo I was going to be fine. And then I told him we’d hang out again soon.
That’s a promise I fully intend to keep.
A few days before I flew up to Baltimore from Florida for surgery, I went in and told my teammates what was going on. They knew something was up because I hadn’t played any games that week. It was really tough, but I told them the truth and I held it together pretty well. I wanted to stay strong and put on the front that I wasn’t afraid, and that I wasn’t too down or upset.
Everything was going fine until one of our clubhouse managers, a guy we call Bunny, took me by the hands and started praying. He was having a really hard time. He was emotional, and it definitely made me emotional. He was the last person who came up to me in the locker room, and that was when I kind of lost it.
Honestly, I love the Orioles. Our team trainers have been so on top of everything. I am so appreciative for them, and also for the Orioles’ front office and ownership. They have treated me like family. Brooks Robinson called me when I was in the hospital to let me know he was thinking of me and to ask if I needed anything. That was incredible — he’s just an absolute legend in Baltimore.
Really, the support I’ve gotten from everyone has just been unbelievable. It’s given me an appreciation for a lot of things that I’ve always had, but that were getting overlooked as I went about my day-to-day life. Going through something like this had really made me understand all my blessings.
Like the text chain that I’m on with my teammates. We actually have a big team group chat. It’s always been going, but it means even more to me now. I’ve been keeping in touch with them and updating them with everything going on. Those exchanges mean so much to me now. I love those guys.
Mo didn’t forget my birthday, either, by the way.
Have I mentioned that I am surrounded by incredible people?
I was really looking forward to this season. Honestly, the biggest concern that I had going through my head when I got to spring training was preparing for Gerrit Cole on Opening Day. I had March 26 circled on my calendar. He’s such a good pitcher and I have not had any success against him at the major league level.
But to have something like cancer suddenly just completely dominating every other thought that was going through my head was … something I never thought I’d ever experience. I’ve just had to quickly accept this as my new reality. And I have a new challenge ahead of me now: Rather than facing Gerrit Cole on Opening Day, I’m going to have to go through chemo.
And chemo in the age of COVID-19 is crazy.
I got my mediport put in on April 6. It’s in my chest, and it’s where they’ll run the drugs into my body during chemotherapy. Sara drove me to the appointment, but, because of the virus, she wasn’t permitted inside. And that’s as it should be, obviously.
Chemo in the age of COVID-19 is crazy.
I’m getting chemo at a hospital in Baltimore, and I have to drive up there alone. Nobody is allowed to come in with me, and that’s completely fine by me. I don’t want anybody else being put at risk — people that are close to me and that I love, and other people in the hospital. You just never know. COVID-19 has spread so quickly. I’m definitely trying to follow all the protocols, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because I don’t want to expose myself to anything, especially before going into chemotherapy.
My treatment will take six months — every two weeks for six months. If baseball returns in 2020, it will probably be without me.
But I want everybody to know that I’m O.K. I know reading everything and seeing that I had a malignant tumor removed from my colon, it’s a lot to absorb — believe me, I know. I’m not really big on social media, but I posted a video on Instagram after my surgery because I wanted people to see that I looked like myself and I was in good spirits.
And I have no doubt that, even when I’m doing chemo, I can work out and do some things. So, whenever the time comes for me to come back to baseball, I’ll be ready. But I just want to make sure that I am physically fine before I go out there and start trying to perform again at a major league level.
Don’t get me wrong — I have bad days. I ask, “Why me? Why now?” And that’s when Sara’s been really good about kicking me in the rear. But she doesn’t have to do that too often, because I truly know how blessed I really am.
It could happen to anybody.
We hear that all the time, but it really is true. I certainly heard it, and I never in a million years thought something like this would happen to me. And a simple blood test was all it took. It expedited everything.
If baseball returns in 2020, it will probably be without me.
I know that this is a terrible time for everybody. So many people have lost jobs, so many people have lost loved ones. After my chemo is done, and when I’m totally cancer-free, I’ve got a few different ideas of what I can do. I’m lucky enough to have a platform that I feel allows me to make a difference for some people — even if it’s just spreading awareness about the importance of getting a physical every year.
On a smaller scale, I’d rather there be a baseball season right now. That way I could go to home games and hang out in the dugout and be with all the guys. So, I really wish there was a season going on and everything was normal. Baseball will be back. I don’t know when, but I’m sure the game will return.
I’ve got other things to worry about right now, though. I know that. But still, every once in a while I catch myself thinking ahead — to when chemo is over, to when they remove my port, to when I can start going full-speed again.
And I already can’t wait for spring training.