PEORIA, Ariz. — Mitch Haniger isn’t the type to let the emotions of a moment — good or bad, regret or redemption, failure or triumph — overcome him. Mostly stoic, always staid and completely focused whenever he was on a baseball field, Haniger was jokingly referred to as a baseball cyborg — half-human/half-robot — during his first years with the Mariners because everything seemed to be taken with a level of seriousness that didn’t seem completely human.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Kyle Seager said with a knowing nod. “He’s so thorough with everything. Everything he does when it comes to baseball has a purpose. He takes everything so serious. You noticed it right away.”
But these last 20-plus months have proved that Haniger is all too human.
He experienced pain, so much of it physical discomfort. He felt anger and frustration at the unfairness of it all and things out of his control. He maintained faith in himself to overcome everything, except in the rare moments when he couldn’t help but question his reasons for believing it. He lost faith in processes and trust in people and developed a skepticism toward everything about the game. He reveled in the smallest triumphs while forcing himself to temper the joy knowing there needed to be more. And he re-stoked a love for the game and the spirit of competition that can sometimes wane when it is taken from you.
Haniger doesn’t think he’ll be reduced to tears when he jogs onto the emerald turf of T-Mobile Park with the rest of the teammates in the top of the first inning Thursday night, or if he receives a well-deserved standing ovation from the 9,000 fans when he steps into the batter’s box to start the bottom of the first. But he just might feel all of what he felt in the past 665 days build in his stomach and knot in his throat, forcing his stone-faced on-field facade to break with a tear in his eye or a smile on his face.
“It’s going to be exciting and fun,” he said before pausing for a few seconds to visualize the moment. “I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions.”
That’s a lot for Haniger, 30, to admit.
Sure, he’s had a trial run of spring-training games. But, like the results of spring-training games, there’s a difference when you get to the games that count.
“Obviously these (spring-training) games feel like real games, but it’s not the same,” he said.
Haniger, who was seated on the bleachers of the backfields of the Mariners’ complex, had been given a day off from baseball activities but still showed up to do his maintenance workouts, hit in the cage and talk openly about what he’s been through and what he expects from this season and beyond.
It was in the T-Mobile batter’s box on June 6, 2019, when Haniger’s baseball career was sidetracked in the worst way, costing him games, millions in potential earnings and time he won’t get back.
On that sun-soaked Thursday afternoon, Haniger suffered an awful injury few people knew had occurred. Even he didn’t even know the gravity of the situation.
Facing Houston ace Justin Verlander, Haniger fell behind 0-2. Following the scouting report, Verlander tried to bury a fastball inside underneath Haniger’s hands, setting up for a slider away on the next pitch, if needed. The ball started toward the inside half of the plate and continued to ride inside. Haniger committed to swinging early and with the bat head out early, the ball struck just below the barrel, redirecting it on a trajectory straight for his unprotected groin. It dropped him to a knee with a perplexed look of pain on his face.
Did that just really happen?
Because Haniger wasn’t wearing a protective cup, the impact from the baseball put him in immediate misery. Houston catcher Robinson Chirinos saw what occurred, asked for time out and took a courtesy mound visit to allow Haniger to recover — a bit of humanity from an understanding opponent.
What people tend to forget is that Haniger didn’t leave the game after that pitch. He finished the at-bat despite the dull pain filling his stomach. He didn’t chase that expected slider away on the next pitch, but he did swing and miss at a slider in virtually the same spot after that.
He remained in the game, expecting the agony to dissipate. Instead, the dull ache in his groin and stomach lingered. It hurt to run. It was impossible to bend over. After another five-pitch at-bat and the pain growing from tolerable to terrible, he asked to be removed from a 3-3 game in the seventh inning. That’s how you know the difference between Haniger being hurt or injured. If he’s just hurt, he keeps playing. But when the discomfort didn’t subside, he knew he was injured.
Haniger was diagnosed with a ruptured testicle that required emergency surgery and an eventual follow-up procedure, which also wasn’t previously known.
“I’ve seen the video of it a couple of times,” he said. “But I don’t go back and watch it. Why would I want to watch that?”
That fluke play led to career chaos.
Haniger still expected to play in 2019. He made multiple attempts to return only to be stymied. It started with discomfort in his core/groin area in early July the day after on-field workouts that included running and fielding. It wasn’t just weakness from the surgery or a strain; he’d suffered an adductor muscle tear/sports hernia that went undiagnosed and wasn’t confirmed until months later.
After some recovery and rehab time, Haniger tried to come back in late August. This time he felt pain in his lower back that moved down to the back of his leg and sciatic nerve.
It became clear there was no coming back in 2019. The Mariners shut him down to focus on the 2020 season.
There was a perception that Haniger had pushed too hard to get back and that led to the setbacks. It’s something he feels isn’t fair.
“I’ve always just listened to people,” he said. “And a lot of times, I’ve just done what I was told to do. And now I’m labeled as the guy that can’t stay healthy.”
To be fair, his injuries with the Mariners are more fluke than fault. He’s had one soft-tissue injury — an oblique strain in early 2017 that kept him out 42 games — since he was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks after the 2016 season.
“I’ve never been a soft-tissue injury guy,” he said. “I don’t pull hamstrings or quads.”
He suffered a broken finger, which wasn’t revealed, on a failed bunt attempt on July 15, 2017 and missed four games. Nine days after he returned, he took a 95-mph fastball from Jacob deGrom off his face at T-Mobile Park that sent him to the injured list and kept him out 18 games.
Haniger went into that offseason intent on getting healthy for 2020.
“All offseason, they said, ‘strengthen your core, strengthen your core,’ meanwhile my back is just getting worse and worse because this tear is already there,” he said. “That tear was there since late June, early July. And that led to my back getting hurt in August (2019). Your core is like a balloon, if there’s a leak it’s not going to be supportive.”
Haniger went to spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins about the back issues in August without knowing about the damage to his core. Because of that, Watkins thought it was simply core weakness from the testicular surgery.
“He’s not a core guy, so he didn’t take a picture of my pelvis,” Haniger said. “I never had MRIs on my pelvis in June, July or August. And so those just kind of went under the radar.”
By late January 2020, the pain in his abdomen and back became too much after a hitting session.
“I could barely walk,” he said.
The damage in his core area was revealed with an MRI. He had surgery to repair a tear to the sports hernia by Dr. William C. Meyers, a specialist in sports hernias, of the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia. But it became clear that the surgery didn’t fix the issues in his lower back and sciatic pain.
“You recover from that surgery fast, you feel relief,” he said. “Three days into my rehab, I couldn’t do a wall sit. I was like, ‘My leg is (expletive) killing me. You need to MRI my back.’”
A full MRI of his back revealed a herniated disc that looked “like a piece of sashimi.” He underwent an immediate microdiscectomy.
Haniger’s voice and tone take on lament, exasperation and even anger while recounting it all.
There were times when he asked: “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this misfortune?”
“There’s been that at times,” he said. “But am I just gonna beat myself up about the past, or just focus on what can get me back to where I want to be? And that’s back on the field, playing well. You can just run in circles thinking about what could have been done, should have been done, what I could have done differently, what situations could have been done differently. It doesn’t serve me any good.”
He turned to his wife, Amanda, for comfort.
“I don’t know how I could have gone through it without her,” he said.
With only 60 games in 2020, it made it easier for the Mariners and Haniger to scrap a return and focus on 2021.
He grinded through his rehab and recovery during the pandemic shutdown in typical Haniger fashion. He channeled his energy into the grilling and smoking of various forms of meats. He also read books on a variety of subjects, feeding his desire to “stay in a beginner’s mindset and be open to new things. You have to always keep learning.”
“I get all my book recommendations from him,” his agent Adam Karnon said.
Haniger has had no back issues this spring, playing in 17 games and looking similar to the All-Star he was in 2018 when he played 157 games.
“The biggest issue was probably getting used to wearing cleats every day,” he said.
He knows the Mariners will be cautious. But he has his own goals, which include playing 150 to 155 games with his rest days at designated hitter.
“I want to play almost every day,” he said. “I think reasonable having a couple more off days in there just to make sure I get the full season in and I can stay at my best the whole year is good.”
If he’s able to do that, he knows he could be traded. He’s seen teammates reach his current age and arbitration status sent to other teams in exchange for young prospects. He knew the Mariners tried to trade him to the Braves after the 2018 season.
“Nobody is off-limits,” he said. “I’ve been traded twice. I know how it works. I’m just happy to play baseball. That’s what I can control.”
Haniger laughs at the idea of seeming more human and enjoying the game more now.
“I’ve missed it,” he said. “It isn’t the same when you’re in the training room and not on the field.”
Maybe he will choke up on Thursday. Maybe the emotions and knowing what he’s overcome in a long, confusing and complicated return will be too much. But he never doubted it would happen.
“The hardest part was surrendering to the time because I knew I would get back to 100 percent, and I would do whatever it takes to get back to how I was before or even better,” he said. “I just didn’t know how long it would take. But I’m back.”