The newness struck Trey Mancini before he stepped inside Camden Yards. The bus ride to the ballpark. A different mode of transportation and route. And, of course, the walk to the visiting clubhouse with his Houston Astros teammates.
Mancini described it as “wild,” and that was in a calm moment.
“I didn’t really know where anything was in the locker room, where the kitchen was, anything like that. So, it was a little strange being in such a familiar place but being so unfamiliar with part of it,” he said, as media crowded him.
“It’s pretty crazy coming back. I spent a lot of time here and obviously love my time here. I stopped in on my way in, saw some of the trainers, and a couple guys were in there. It’s always good to see old friends and co-workers and everything.”
This isn’t the usual return of a former player, however. Mancini meant way too much to the team, the city and its fans. The survivor of Stage 3 colon cancer, recipient of three Comeback Player of the Year awards in 2021, the fighter who inspired and taught.
Manager Brandon Hyde was with Mancini and his family every step of the way in spring training 2020 as the cancer diagnosis became official. Seeing him again today was bound to bring back the emotions that churned in Sarasota.
“There isn’t a playbook for this, doing what I do, and leading young men in their 20s and 30s that have all different sorts of backgrounds from all over the world. There’s a lot that goes through it. And real life happens. Even though it’s a six-month baseball season, there’s a lot of life beyond that and life experiences that happen,” Hyde said.
“That was my first time ever dealing with somebody being told they had cancer in my office, with parents there and loved ones, and listening to the doctors talk. That was a day that I will never forget. Having to tell the team, too. It was a tough week. That’s a way understatement. But what I learned from Trey during that time was just, I remember we had lunch. I hadn’t seen him since (spring training). We had lunch here. He drove in. He couldn’t come to the ballpark. And just seeing him look the same and seeing how strong he was and talking about it, talking about his chemotherapy, I was pretty in awe of how strong the guy was. And his attitude was unbelievable.
“I just learned so much from him, honestly, during that time of somebody that’s gone through this insane adversity, a young guy getting this cancer that’s so rare for somebody his age, and to deal with it the way he did was so inspiring.”
Baseball was moved to the back burner in Hyde’s second season as a major league manager.
“It definitely put a lot of perspective in your life and everybody’s that was in the building of seeing somebody that’s so young and healthy and strong to be dealt this,” he said. “That was definitely a life-perspective moment.”
Former teammates, coaches and members of the athletic training and the strength and conditioning staffs approached Mancini today after he headed outside for batting practice. He stepped inside the cage, lined a ball off the left field wall that taunted him this year, and cleared it at the end of his round – a line drive into the first row of seats.
Mancini walked outside the cage and embraced Rougned Odor before returning to business, his next swing launching another ball into the stands.
“I’m excited to see Trey, get to go talk to him out there,” said outfielder Austin Hays. “I’m sure he’s going to feel very welcome to Camden Yards, but at the end of the day he’s still wearing another uniform, so we’ve got to have our pitchers make it tough on him.”
“It’s going to be amazing,” said outfielder Anthony Santander, who has a signed jersey from Mancini at his Miami home that he’ll get framed after the season. “I think the whole stadium’s going to be fired up. I think everybody in our dugout is going to be happy to have him back, especially all the years that he’s been with the Orioles and everything he’s been through. It’s going to be an exciting moment for everybody.”
The Orioles visited Houston last month for a three-game series, perhaps softening today’s reunion just a little. But it still felt like a special day.
“We got to see Trey and say hello to him and talk to him,” Hays said. “It’ll just be very similar, same instance here. We’ll just see him in a different uniform and give him our hellos, and then we’ll battle it out for nine innings after that.”
Mancini and fiancée Sara Perlman have looked forward to this date. Excitement more than nerves for the first baseman, who’s batting sixth tonight for the 99-win Astros.
“It’s just a little funny being back as a visitor after being here for so long,” he said.
Mancini met Perlman in Baltimore while she worked for MASN. He received his chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His relationship with the city transcends baseball.
“It always will,” he said.
“Besides Sara, who was with me when I got diagnosed, the only people that I really got to tell in person that I was diagnosed with cancer were my teammates, a lot of the guys over there. Obviously, we called everybody else, my parents rushed down and everything, but the only people I told in person, Sara was there with me when I got the news, and then Hyder and (Mike) Elias were with me when I was waiting to see what the diagnosis was and everything like that. Those are powerful moments, and things that are way bigger than baseball and always will be.”
The Orioles kept the “F16HT” sign hanging outside the dugout entrance. Fans still reach out to him, many survivors of cancer or going through the battle.
“It’s really nice to try to leave an impact on a place like I did here,” he said. “On the field, we had our share of struggles during my time, but there were a lot of good times throughout that, too, and that’s what you remember when you’re done playing are the relationships you form, the teammates you play with, and the impact you can leave on a city and some people.
“That’s something that’s always going to be special to me about this place.”
Mancini’s last at-bat in Baltimore on July 28, a day that the Orioles chose to honor superfan Mo Gaba, produced an inside-the-park home run on a ball that hit Josh Lowe in the face after he lost it in the sun. A crowd that kept rising to give Mancini ovations demanded a curtain call, and he obliged after the inning. First on the top step of the dugout and then onto the dirt track.
Hays was ahead of Mancini on the play and rotated his arm to keep his friend running.
“I remember rounding third and I was playing third base coach,” he said. “I was waving him home. I didn’t care what Manso (Tony Mansolino) was doing, I was telling Trey he had to go for it all the way around.”
Those were the fun times.
The three-team trade on Aug. 1, consummated while the Orioles were in Texas, brought a high level of sadness to a club that tried to brace for the news but couldn’t become desensitized to it.
“It was an emotional day,” Hays said. “There were a lot of hugs, some tears in the locker room. I’ve known Trey for a long time. I had never been in this clubhouse without him, so it was an emotional time for me. I was excited to get to see him go to such a good team like that, a really winning organization, but at the same time, selfishly, I wanted him to continue to be my teammate and be a part of this organization. So, it was tough, but it’s all part of it.”
Mancini said he hasn’t wondered about the crowd’s reaction to his return, what he’ll hear as he steps into the box for the first time.
“The fans and I here have such a good relationship and they’re always going to be a part of my baseball experience. I’m definitely looking forward to it more than anything else,” he said.
“I had it a lot just of course with everything I went through and the welcomes back at a couple of the away parks, and obviously here after I came back from everything that happened in 2020, so it’s something I’m used to. Definitely going to soak in the moment and appreciate it. But when it’s over, it’s just another ballgame and you’ve got to play.”
Because he isn’t a lover of seafood, Mancini can’t say that he misses the crab cakes in Maryland. He had his favorite restaurants in the city, including La Scala in Little Italy.
“If I liked crab cakes,” he said, “that would be my answer.”
The Orioles are 26-20 since Mancini left. They remained in contention for the last wild card after posting three consecutive winning months prior to September.
“I know the personnel over there, I know the guys that they have, and the guys that have come up, and I’m not surprised with what they’ve been able to do,” Mancini said. “I was always and still am a huge fan of Hyder. I think he’s done an incredible job over there and I’m really proud of what they’ve done.
“Obviously, I look at scores across the league every night and see what’s going on. I honestly haven’t paid that close attention, like every night, just because I have a lot going on myself. We play every day and I’ve got enough going on, but whenever we’re not playing them, obviously I have a lot of friends over there and I want the best for them. But at the same time, I’ve got enough on my plate to worry about, so I’ve been more focused on what’s going on here.”
Hays won't dwell on what might have happened if the Orioles held onto Mancini and closer Jorge López, who was dealt to the Twins at the deadline.
“I don’t let my mind go there,” he said. “We had a really good couple of months after the All-Star break and we’re down to the last two weeks here and our names are still in it, so that’s all I’m really focused on is just how well we’ve played and how fun of a year it’s been.”
For the Astros
Jeremy Pena SS
Aledmys Díaz 2B
Yordan Álvarez LF
Alex Bregman 3B
Kyle Tucker RF
Trey Mancini 1B
Christian Vazquez C
Yainer Díaz DH
Mauricio Dubón CF
Justin Verlander RHP