We don’t have to mince words. The irony of a celebratory “Best Of” issue might have felt strange to you when you saw it from the corner of your eye as you were getting your breakfast sandwich at Royal Farms.
As someone who has been heavily involved with this project since we introduced it in 2017, I will admit that for much of the year I struggled with the concept, too. This, of course, has been a truly horrendous year, with sports being riddled by cancellations and general awkwardness and the world in general being rocked by disease, injustice and death.
The words “bigger than sports” have been tossed around so frequently they perhaps have become numbing at this point. Some of us claimed we wanted sports back this summer because of the “escape” they could provide. Thankfully, there was no “escaping” reality this year. And yes, I mean “thankfully.” We needed to acknowledge how real COVID-19 was, not allow ourselves to pretend it was going away. We needed to better understand how unrelenting the fight for racial justice must be, not comfortably disassociate ourselves because we’re uncomfortable.
As truly terrible as this year was, it did give us the far overdue death of the asinine “stick to sports” concept that never deserved any place in a functional society to begin with. I cover sports for a living, and I can say definitively that no single human being — no athlete, no coach, no reporter, NO ONE — should value sports over the issues in life that actually matter.
I am so grateful the current and former athletes we recognized in our “Best Of” section — the fighters — did not ever consider “sticking to sports” instead of working in the medical field, pursuing avenues for helping the most vulnerable in our community and/or providing the leadership necessary to help sports fans understand that the fight for racial equality is FAR from over. These things matter far more than sports, even though sports can certainly play a role — even a significant role — within society.
And that’s where Trey Mancini comes in. I am so grateful for Trey Mancini.
This might sound strange. Stay with me. Not every Baltimore athlete would have been named our “Mo Gaba Sportsperson of the Year” had they fought and won a battle against stage 3 colon cancer this year. I don’t want that to sound dismissive. No matter who it might be, any individual who battles such a heinous disease so courageously deserves our support and love, be they an athlete or not. But a recently-acquired free agent or a player with lesser standing probably wouldn’t end up being featured on the cover of our “Best Of” issue.
I’m grateful for Mancini because he represents the role sports should play in a community. He’s a damn good baseball player who came to a community he wasn’t native to and immediately embraced his role within his community. Mancini befriended and cared for Mo deeply and went out of his way to make himself available to the city. He’s a star athlete but has continuously prioritized his role as a representative of the community and the fan base, and he has constantly made us proud at every turn.
And as he battled colon cancer this year, Mancini too knew that he could not simply “stick to sports.” As badly as he wanted to get back on the field and support his teammates, he realized he had a new role that was just as important as “teammate” — the role of “advocate.” Mancini’s words now carried the weight of a cancer survivor. He needed to prioritize speaking up about his experience (and I assure you, he’d rather be talking about baseball) in order to try to boost early detection and to offer hope and advice to others battling the disease.
Our “Best Of” honorees this year didn’t do all that much in competition. Yet they’re unquestionably the most impactful overall group we’ve ever recognized. And they’re what I will attempt to remember most about this otherwise awful year. I’ll attempt to reflect on the kindness, concern and overall selflessness we saw from many. I’ll attempt to do the same for those who cared for Mo — the greatest Baltimore sports fan ever — in his final days.
And for everything myself and my family went through, I’ll still try to remember how much more time I was able to spend my two sons, who were the perfect ages (5 and 3) to actually want to spend that time with their dad.
Happy New Year, Baltimore. Here’s to a better 2021.
Illustration by John Pennisi