The Orioles were getting ready to play their 17th exhibition game on March 8. Four days before the team bus pulled out of the complex and circled back, confirmation that baseball was shutting down due to COVID-19. Four days before outfielder Trey Mancini would undergo surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his colon.
Alex Cobb can close his eyes and see it all.
He remembers the local media gathering to ask about Mancini's departure from camp. How he described the situation as "heartbreaking," without giving away exact details that were kept private.
It wasn't until March 12 that the team issued a release announcing the cancer diagnosis, updating manager Brandon Hyde's earlier explanation that one of the most popular players and an unquestioned leader would require a "non-baseball medical procedure."
The illness that kept Mancini off the field and out of the daily lineup finally made sense. Except it didn't when considering his age and physical condition. Friends and teammates were floored by it. And panicked.
They knew about it before the media because Mancini stood in the clubhouse and told them, measuring his words in order to control the message and his emotions. Cobb was asked about him the following day, a logical spokesman as one of the few veterans at the complex.
"The only concern is right now for his health and his family. Zero baseball-related concern," Cobb said, offering the first clue that the matter was serious.
"I just know that being around Trey, there's nobody that is a better person in the locker room. He's able to be friends with whatever type of person, background of a teammate he has. He's always there to talk to and always brings such an amazing perspective to everything that you have conversations about.
"He just loves everybody. Whether it's a random fan in the stands or clubhouse staff or the guy hitting behind him, he's got the same relationship with everybody. He treats everybody so well, so to see him have to go through what he's going through, it's heartbreaking, but it gives us all an opportunity to show how much we love him and rally around him and be there for him during this.
"There's no doubt in my mind, the competitor that he is, that he's going to get through this with no problem. It's going to be difficult, but he's going to get through this and he's going to come back stronger and with definitely a new perspective on life and an appreciation of the game that he probably didn't have before. I'm eager to see that take place. I'm eager to see him just power through this and come back, and I don't envision him missing a step on the field, because he's just the most naturally gifted, determined player that I've ever been around."
Mancini finished his last chemotherapy treatment on Sept. 21 and gradually built up his physical activities to increase his strength and the odds of being ready for spring training and opening day. He underwent scans during his three-month checkup on Tuesday that were described as "perfect" by his girlfriend, Sara Perlman, who shared the latest update on social media.
Cobb can finally exhale while closing his eyes.
"It was an absolute gut punch when you heard the news, that word, that he had that," Cobb said this week. "There was just a pit in your stomach for a good while, knowing what he was going through. Being on top of the world where he was coming off the seasons he's had and really looking forward to another breakout season, showing that he's one of the best hitters in the game, to getting that diagnosis, it was difficult to see it, to hear it, to see it on his face, to be in the locker room when he shared the news.
"I think what Trey did was show everybody who he is. He handled it with the most positive outlook, courageous outlook, and made sure everybody else knew that was concerned about him that he was going to be OK. He did it and he fought every day to get better. Even when he was going through it, you could tell how passionate he was to get back. He kept mentioning wanting to come to the locker room or possibly, I think in the beginning, even making it back by the end of the season. It just shows you where his mind is and how competitive he is to not only beat this, but to beat this as quickly as he did."
The greeting is going to interrupt the social distancing that's demanded.
"We're all just so excited to give him a big hug when we get to spring training and tell him how proud we are of him and the way he handled everything," Cobb said. "Just incredibly excited to have him playing behind us and back in that lineup."
The Orioles won't be certain of Mancini's status until he reports, but each day brings a little more encouragement.
Hyde checked on Mancini again a few weeks ago and is convinced that he'll be full-go in spring training.
"He's doing great, feels great, looks great," Hyde said. "I've got video on him hitting at the facility that he works out in and he looks exactly the same, so I'm excited to have Trey be a part of a full spring training in February and can't wait to see him. All signs are great and he looks fantastic."
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has made the same observations about Mancini. A surprisingly identical look despite treatments that can wreck a body.
"It's been quite the road this year and layered on the background of the COVID-19 situation where Trey has been on a lot of medication and chemotherapy and had to worry about contracting the virus, so he really had to stay cooped up all year and was just really strong mentally throughout this as is characteristic of him. But here he is," Elias said Wednesday morning on MLB Network Radio.
"He's almost at the finish line and I can't wait to see him hit in Sarasota. I know he's going to be excited to do that. He's in really great shape. We have tremendous medical care with the Orioles and so he got the best possible treatment in the world and I think it's showing in the results."
Deciding on Mancini's role with the team isn't a simple process, but one that the Orioles are relishing.
Anthony Santander could remain the primary right fielder, but there's first base and the designated hitter slot. What matters is that Mancini can be talked about as part of the active roster.
More important, as a cancer survivor.
Allowing fans back into ballparks would create one of the most emotional scenes in Orioles history. The opening day introduction. The jog down the orange carpet. An ovation that would halt the proceedings and accelerate heart rates.
"It gives me chills thinking about that," Cobb said, happy to be transported into the future rather than reliving the past.
"That will be an incredible sight."
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