The days and months tend to blend together in the offseason, an indistinguishable blur of grueling workouts, temporary jobs and mounting anticipation for the start of Spring Training.
But Mark Sobolewski -- a third-base prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization -- will always remember the events of Dec. 29 in detail. Five days after his 25th birthday, he received a diagnosis that, just months before, would have seemed unthinkable -- skin cancer.
Melanoma, more specifically, what the National Library of Medicine characterizes as "the most dangerous type of skin cancer" and the "leading cause of death from skin disease." As a result, Sobolewski, a young professional athlete in peak physical condition, suddenly found himself questioning his own mortality.
"Thursday, Dec. 29th -- I'll never forget it," said Sobolewski, who often goes by the easier-to-pronounce nickname of "Sobo." "Everyone was so upset and scared. It was a rough evening."
The melanoma first made its appearance in early September, in the form of a pimple-like protrusion on the left side of Sobolewski's throat.
"The season was winding down, and I saw it when I was shaving," recalled Sobolewski, who spent the entire 2011 campaign with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats. "I didn't think anything of it. It didn't seem suspicious, wasn't dark-colored or anything crazy like that."
Nonetheless, it didn't go away. In December, Sobolewski asked his girlfriend's mother, a nurse, for her opinion on his enduring "pimple." She referred him to a dermatologist, who conducted a biopsy that resulted in the melanoma diagnosis. On Jan. 11, Sobolewski underwent surgery to remove the area surrounding where the melanoma first appeared as well as two surrounding lymph nodes. A few days later, Sobolewski received welcome news: The surgery had been successful, as the melanoma had not spread to anywhere else in his body.
Having now had some time to process this tumultuous -- but ultimately triumphant -- series of events, Sobolewski has decided to make his experiences public in the hopes of raising awareness about melanoma. His story was first publicized last week by Fisher Cats beat writer Kevin Gray, and shortly thereafter he posted pictures on his Facebook page of the melanoma "pimple" and the bandages on his neck following the surgery.
"If anybody has any questions [about melanoma], I'd be more than happy to talk about it," he said. "I just want everyone to be aware, because there are people walking around with it now who have no clue. It could be under your hair, on your scalp, you never know. I want to stress the importance of getting looked at by a dermatologist."
Melanoma has a genetic component, and as an individual with blonde hair and blue eyes who is prone to moles on his body, Sobolewski now realizes that he was at a greater risk to contract the disease than most. Going forward, he'll do everything he can to take precautions.
"I've got to wear sunscreen now and re-apply it. Did I use it growing up? Yeah. But was I perfect? No. I played a lot of baseball out there under the sun, absolutely," said Sobelewski, who grew up in Florida and played collegiately at the University of Miami. "I have to be smart now and get checked by the dermatologist every three to six months. There's not a great chance of this happening again, but I have to keep getting those checkups."
With his harrowing health scare now in the rear-view mirror, Sobolewski is once again dedicating himself to the single-minded goal of making it to the Major Leagues. After a solid 2011 campaign with New Hampshire (he batted .273 with eight homers and 49 RBIs over 112 games), he is hoping to begin 2012 with Triple-A Las Vegas and then take it from there.
"Whether you're in [Class A], Double-A, Triple-A, it doesn't matter. There are two leagues: Major and Minors," he said. "I'm going to do everything in my power to put myself in a position to move up and get a shot in the big leagues. That's got to be the goal. If you're not playing for that, then I don't know what you're doing."
Though Sobolewski's goal isn't changing, his outlook has.
"Obviously my perspective is a little different now. I feel grateful to be able to play this game and to be healthy," he said. "When that little slump comes around in the middle of the summer, instead of feeling down about it, I can say, 'Going 0-for-15 isn't that bad.' I'm just going to keep my head up and get it corrected."