Cedric Mullins only reached the door of his hospital room before sound drained from the world and his vision blurred. Without hearing himself speak, Mullins informed the nurse something was wrong. He was helped back to his hospital bed, where he immediately went back to sleep.
Hours prior, Mullins underwent a procedure in which doctors removed 15 centimeters of his intestines. The surgery — the first of the 27-year-old Mullins’ life — was the result of months of uncertainty in which Mullins unknowingly played through the 2020 MLB season while experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
“It was crazy just how weak I felt,” Mullins told Yahoo Sports.
Roughly 780,000 Americans are estimated to have Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. There is no cure for Crohn’s disease, though symptoms can go into remission with the right treatment.
Mullins got the treatment he needed, and it led to a breakout season in 2021. Mullins emerged as a centerpiece for the Baltimore Orioles, earning a trip to the All-Star Game and down-ballot MVP votes. His performance was sterling on the field months after a life-altering surgery, but the road back was tough.
Diagnosing and battling Crohn's disease
During spring training of 2020, Mullins thought he had food poisoning. He experienced stomach cramps and vomiting, but figured those symptoms would pass. Once they did, Mullins noticed his urine was cloudy. When those symptoms returned, Mullins told the Orioles something was up.
Mullins was initially diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. He was prescribed antibiotics. After a few weeks, his symptoms would return. Eventually, he underwent a colonoscopy, where it was discovered Mullins had a fistula — a small, abnormal tunnel that connects two body parts — leading out of his intestines. He eventually started seeing small blood clots in his urine. At that point, Mullins was informed he needed surgery. He decided to play through the rest of the 2020 MLB season while experiencing symptoms and underwent surgery in November.
When Mullins woke up after his procedure, he was asked if he wanted to take a few steps. Patients are encouraged to walk shortly after surgery to promote healing. Gripping his hospital table with wheels, Mullins managed to reach the door of his room before things got fuzzy. At that moment, Mullins knew his recovery was going to take time.
“After that moment, I kinda knew, [this] is definitely not something that I’ll be able to rush in any kinda way,” Mullins said.
Mullins’ first barrier came a week after surgery. Despite taking his pain medication regularly, Mullins couldn’t find relief. He went back to the hospital, where he was told he had an infection at the surgery site. Doctors put a temporary drain in Mullins to get rid of the infection. It worked. Two to three weeks later, the infection was gone and the drain was removed.
With that out of the way, Mullins could focus on making a full recovery. The process was slow. At first, short walks around the house made Mullins exhausted. Going up and down the stairs — something Mullins took for granted before surgery — took time and effort. Mullins also needed to put on weight after losing 20 pounds after the procedure.
The slow nature of recovery weighed on Mullins mentally.
“I was all over the place,” Mullins said. “I started off optimistic before the surgery and then that kinda led into, ‘Oh boy, what did I just get myself into?’”
The buildup was slow, but Mullins eventually made it back to the gym around mid-January, less than a month before he had to report to camp with the Orioles. That first workout was light. Mullins was careful not to overdo it.
Cedric Mullins finds success on the field after surgery
In addition to coming back from a major surgery, Mullins was preparing to make another significant change on the field. After being a switch-hitter his entire career, Mullins decided he would only hit from the left side in 2021.
In preparation for the change, Mullins stepped into the left-handed batter’s box and faced left-handed pitchers immediately after the 2020 MLB season ended. He only got a few days of practice against lefties, but it gave him enough confidence to feel like he wasn’t starting from scratch when he began to prep for the 2021 season.
Dropping switch-hitting — an enormous task for most players — wound up being beneficial in the short period Mullins had before the start of spring training.
"I didn’t have to focus on anything else,” Mullins said. “I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to just solely focus and throw all of my energy into one swing and that was it.”
By the time spring training rolled around, Mullins felt good about his preparation, but there were also concerns. Would Mullins’ newly repaired body hold up when stealing bases or diving for balls in the outfield? He felt ready, but wasn’t sure if he was truly prepared for the rigors of a full season.
Mullins answered those questions immediately. By the end of April, he was hitting .337/.387/.545. He didn’t slow down much from there, finishing the season with a .291/.360/.518 slash line and 30 home runs. The performance earned Mullins his first All-Star game appearance, a Silver Slugger award and a ninth-place finish in American League MVP voting.
It was a tremendous accomplishment, one Mullins attributes to being fully healthy.
“I feel like the health aspect of it was the most important,” Mullins said. "Being able to feel in peak condition on a day-to-day basis definitely helped.”
Following his breakout season, Mullins decided to go public about his diagnosis with Crohn’s. He realized he could use his platform to help others. He was also inspired by his teammate Trey Mancini, who returned from colon cancer in 2021. Mancini was diagnosed right around the time Mullins started experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s in 2020.
The 2021 offseason has brought a new challenge for Mullins. MLB owners locked out the players after the collective-bargaining agreement expired in December. Negotiations have not been productive. The start of spring training will almost certainly be delayed, and the start of the regular season is also in jeopardy.
Mullins sees the daily updates from the MLBPA reps on social media and is supportive of their messages. He’s willing to wait as long as it takes for the players to get a fair deal.
“I’ve always been a patient person to get the results — or at least close to the results — that I want in life and I think this situation is kinda no different,” Mullins said.
When the call from the union comes, Mullins will be ready. He's already proved he can handle new challenges. It's all about taking those first steps.