As Trey Mancini walked to the plate for his first at-bat of the 2021 season at Camden Yards, Baltimore Orioles fans made sure he received a proper welcome.
Family and friends watched from the stands, filled with emotion. Girlfriend Sara Perlman cried. Mom Beth Mancini scanned the field and called it an “out-of-body experience.” As for the man who battled through colon cancer to return to the field, he tipped his helmet and soaked in a moment he will never forget.
“It was 25 percent capacity at the time, but it felt like a full stadium,” Mancini said. “The city really rallied around me last year and was so supportive. For it to come full circle and for me to be back in a game … it was really special.”
Mancini has made a seamless comeback to the sport. He has played in 86 of the Orioles’ 89 games during the first half of the season, batting .256 with 16 home runs and 55 RBI. And on Monday, Mancini will participate in the Home Run Derby at Coors Field in Denver, another major accomplishment for the Orioles first baseman in his return to the field.
“It’s been truly a blessing and incredible to watch him play every single day this season,” Perlman said. “He feels great. Obviously, he’s playing tremendously. Just in terms of being able to do what you were put on Earth to do and at a high level … it’s been special and remarkable.”
Mancini was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in March 2020 and had surgery to remove a malignant tumor a few days later. He underwent chemotherapy until late September. Once he finished chemo, he shifted his focus to getting back into playing shape.
None of those close to Mancini are surprised by his first-half success. His mom remarked that his work ethic was evident even during chemotherapy. Mancini was trying to stay active on days when he felt better, whether that was going on walks or doing squats with his dog.
Perlman said the doctors warned him to take it slowly for the first couple of weeks after finishing chemo. She knew how hard that task would be for Mancini, given how much he wanted to play. But once that period passed, she witnessed Mancini get into his normal offseason routine.
“I didn’t think there would be a drop-off whatsoever,” Perlman said. “If he’s not feeling confident or amazing at the plate, he’s working on it. I’m not surprised how well he’s doing.”
Perlman was confident Mancini would return to being the same player he was before, but he wasn’t so sure himself. Mancini is his own harshest critic, and he said those mental games affected his play during the first month of the season. Mancini began to have doubts and, as a result, began pressing too much to be his old self.
“It’s tough. … Whenever you’re up at the plate, there’s some nerves and anxiety that go into at-bats,” Mancini said. “So it’s kind of controlling that and calming yourself during the game and trying to focus on the right thing. That’s really how you get locked in.”
Once the calendar turned to May, Mancini did exactly that. He batted .320 with a .405 on-base percentage and a .588 slugging percentage that month and began to feel like his old self. Now he’s focused on finding consistency in his game heading into the second half of the season.
Beth Mancini knew that, despite the early struggles, her son would find his rhythm. She had seen him persevere through hardships in his life before, and, as she put it, that’s what baseball players do.
“They deal with failure all the time. Their game is failure. They fail at least 70 percent of the time,” Beth Mancini said. “To some people that might sound good, to be only good 30 percent of the time, but then what are you doing with that 70 percent of the time you’re failing?”
A 162-game season can be a grind, which is why Mancini considered using the All-Star Game as an opportunity for a mental and physical break. But then he remembered his days as a kid on the beach growing up in Florida, watching the Home Run Derby and dreaming of being on that stage.
“I didn’t want to look down the line and say, ‘I wish I would’ve done the Home Run Derby when I had the chance,’ ” Mancini said. “I was honored to be asked; I was a little surprised to be asked. But I’m definitely going to take advantage of it and appreciate it.”
Once Mancini decided to participate, he knew exactly whom he would ask to pitch to him. In 2012, while playing at Notre Dame, Mancini won the Big East Home Run Derby. Afterward, he made the man who threw to him, Notre Dame pitching coach Chuck Ristano, a promise: If Mancini ever made the MLB Home Run Derby, Ristano would throw to him again. A few weeks ago, Ristano was sitting in an airport terminal in Georgia on a recruiting visit when he received a call from Mancini.
“It went from a very tongue-in-cheek thing to something that we were still dreaming of in minor leagues,” Ristano said. “Now, it’s a reality. … The fact that he picked up the phone, called me and wanted me to do it, it means an awful lot to me.”
Mancini sees strategic benefits in selecting Ristano as well. Because college batting practice before games is 40 minutes, he is used to throwing at the accelerated pace required in the Derby. The fact that Ristano throws left-handed also helps; Mancini said he loves hitting against lefties in batting practice.
“I’m hoping him and I will find it like two old friends who haven’t talked in a long time and they pick up the conversation right where it left off,” Ristano said.
Mancini will be the first Oriole to swing in the Home Run Derby since Mark Trumbo in 2016. He hopes to use his platform at the Derby for a bigger purpose: to raise awareness for colon cancer.
“Hopefully it can inspire people to get checked,” Mancini said. “Also, anybody going through a cancer battle right now, I can show that after you finish chemotherapy … you can still go on and live your life.”
The Home Run Derby will be a family affair for Mancini: His parents, his girlfriend, his siblings and their significant others, his nephews and his friends will be in Denver. In the case of some friends and family members, it will be the first time Mancini has seen them since the pandemic began.
“There were a lot of tough times in the last year and a half,” Mancini said. “And to have a really happy moment that a lot of people can be there for is really special, and I think more than anything that’s what I’m looking forward to.”