Steve May 27, 2020
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. 

Without the Orioles I never would have caught this before it may have been too late.

And then I woke up.

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.

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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.

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