DUNEDIN, Fla. -- When the Blue Jays entered the home stretch last season, baseball was the furthest thing from Melky Cabrera's mind.
It was mid-August and Cabrera had just received the news that a tumor had been discovered in his lower back. All of a sudden, the game that Cabrera had come to love over so many years wasn't all that important.
The first thoughts that went through his head were concern not only for himself, but for his family. It wasn't a question of when Cabrera would return to the field, but whether he'd even be around to see his 30th birthday.
"When they told me that I had a tumor, I thought I was going to pass away, I thought I was going to die," Cabrera said Friday morning through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I thought I was going to leave my kids behind, my family. I know one day I'm going to die, but I'm not ready to do it yet."
The source of Cabrera's constant discomfort had been a mystery to both himself and the Blue Jays organization for several months prior to the frightening discovery. Cabrera was only 29 years old and supposedly in the prime of his career, yet he was moving around like someone who was at least 10 years his senior.
The power in the lower half of his body had completely disappeared. On the rare occasion that Cabrera actually drove the ball with some authority, he often had to stop at first base because he simply wasn't mobile enough to make it to second.
Defensively, the performance was even worse. Opposing teams were turning routine singles into doubles. During one game against the A's, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes made it all the way to third on a ball that some outfielders might have limited to a single.
The initial belief was that the problem could be found in Cabrera's legs, but whenever he was sent for an MRI it always came back clean. Finally, in a game against the Angels on Aug. 1 it became visibly apparent that Cabrera's condition had deteriorated to the point where the Blue Jays could no longer keep him on the field.
Cabrera also finally came clean about just how much pain he was dealing with in his back. There was a point of pride before that, he wanted to play through the discomfort. When he was pulled midway through that game in Los Angeles, there was no sense trying to hide it anymore.
"I was worried because the way I was playing, the pain I was feeling in my legs and my back, I didn't know what was wrong with me until finally they decided to check," Cabrera said. "My family and I were both worried because it was a tumor and nobody knew whether it was benign or cancer."
Cabrera only had to wait a day or two before finding out the tumor wasn't cancerous, but it still must have felt like an eternity. He still wasn't in the clear, though, as the tumor had grown over the course of a year and was approximately the size of a walnut by the time it was discovered.
The location of the tumor also came with its own issues. It was found on the lower part of his spine and that was the main reason there was pain not only in his back, but also throughout his entire body. The issue had to be taken care of right away and a major surgical procedure was scheduled so that Cabrera's life could finally return to normal.
"After surgery I spent 10 days [recovering] and then they took the stitches out," Cabrera said. "The doctor told me I was going to feel a great deal of relief because that was pushing the tendons and the things that are running through my back and was not allowing them to move well. After 10 days, the doctor told me I could lift 15-20 pound dumbbells, but no more than that. So it was awhile before I was ready to play.
"I'm getting better every day. The main thing is that I don't feel any pain in my body. I feel great, my body feels great."
Cabrera stole 20 bases for the Royals in 2011 and while those days are likely a thing of the past, he's getting closer to the player he used to be. Even though Spring Training is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been signs that his mobility has improved.
During the first spring game of the year, Cabrera scored from second on a single to the outfield. Sounds simple enough, but it's also something the former All-Star rarely did last season. In Game 2, Cabrera also beat out a double-play ball and later recorded a two-run double to lead the Blue Jays to a 7-5 victory over the Phillies.
All of those things are encouraging signs. There is more work to be done, but Toronto's hope is that he will get back to his previous form which has seen Cabrera post a career average of .284 with a .337 on-base percentage and .746 OPS over the course of nine years in the big leagues.
"We were waiting to see it," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "In the intrasquad game there wasn't an opportunity to see it, drills it's not game speed but then [Thursday], tagging up from second on a fly ball to right field, then scoring on a base hit. We were waiting to see it and we saw what we wanted."