Mancini makes emotional return to Baltimore

Astros first baseman gets chance to see old friends for first time since August trade

September 23rd, 2022

BALTIMORE -- Heading into this bound-to-be emotional weekend series in the city where he came of age, beat cancer and inspired millions with his achievements on and off the field, Trey Mancini tried his best to “treat it as just another road trip, as much as you can.”

But by his own admission, Mancini knew that would never truly happen. So he braced himself for the emotions he knew would come, kept his schedule open. There are too many old friends to see, too much history to relive, too much that resonates between Mancini and Baltimore for his first days back to transpire ordinarily.

And of course, four baseball games to play.

“When I got traded, I put out in my statement that my relationship with the city transcends baseball and it always will,” Mancini said, standing at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards, adorned in Astro navy blue.

“It's always gonna be a part of me and a place that I always hold near and dear in my heart.”

So it was Thursday, when Mancini returned to Baltimore as a visitor for the first time, starting at first base for the American League West champions and going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in their 2-0 loss. Roughly eight weeks after the trade that sent the then face of the Orioles’ franchise to Houston, Mancini touched down at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, thinking as he rode Maryland 295 north into the city that “this is a drive I’ve made 1,000 times probably, for a lot of different reasons.” This particular reason being new entirely.

More firsts: The team bus dropping Mancini off at the stadium ramp, “rather than parking in the parking lot;” the visiting clubhouse (“I didn’t really know where anything was,” Mancini said); the route from the third-base dugout to greet old teammates and coaches from the left side of the field.

“He probably had feels, as you would say,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “When the plane lands, that’s when it starts. That’s when you think about your past, your future … it was probably weird walking past their clubhouse to get to this clubhouse.”

At one point, Mancini took a moment to acknowledge the dissonance of it all, of experiencing so much he’d grown used to from a flipped perspective.

“It’s a little strange being in such a familiar place but being so unfamiliar with part of it,” Mancini said. “You’ve got to remember that you’re here as a visitor.”

Difficult perhaps, given how Mancini was welcomed back like nothing less than family. The reception was entirely unsurprising, given how deep his connection with the Orioles runs. Already the star of the franchise’s rebuild when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020, Mancini beat the disease at the city’s famed John Hopkins hospital, then returned to win the 2021 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Mancini lobbied for years to stay in Baltimore long-term, and for years, the Orioles in many ways became synonymous with his inspiring story of perseverance. A poster bearing Mancini’s “F16GHT” campaign logo still hangs on the wall of their dugout tunnel.

“The fan base here loved him and still continues to love him, and his teammates think so highly of him as well,” O’s manager Brandon Hyde said. “We're proud to have that sign still up. It means a lot from that year.”

Said Mancini: “It's really nice to try to leave an impact on a place like I did here. I know on the field we had our share of struggles during my time, but there are a lot of good times throughout that, too, and I think that's what you remember after you're done playing -- the relationships you form, the teammates you play with and the impact that you can leave on a city and some people. That's something that's always gonna be really special to me about this place.”

All told, Mancini hit .270 with 117 home runs and a .797 OPS over parts of six seasons with the Orioles, before the Astros acquired him for two Minor League pitchers on Aug. 1. Mancini was long a trade candidate in Baltimore, but an imperfect fit on Houston’s deep roster. The 30-year-old will be a free agent for the first time at season’s end.

“He was kind of quiet, after the trade,” Baker said. “He was happy to come to a first-place team. But he was kind of subdued.”

Mancini is still adjusting to less-than everyday playing time, hitting .188/.276/.399 over his first 42 games, albeit with eight homers and 21 RBIs. He hit 10 homers with 41 RBIs in 92 games with the Orioles prior to the trade.

“I knew that it would kind of be a lot coming here,” Mancini said. “At the same time, we have games to play. I want to try to hit my stride and get a little more consistent at the plate. That's more of what's been on my mind than anything else, to tell you the truth.”

For Mancini, it was an afternoon spent engaging the waves of familiar faces waiting to greet him, from old teammates to clubhouse attendants to one of the largest media scrums the ballpark has seen in years. The Orioles then acknowledged his return with a video tribute prior to his first at-bat in the second inning.  

Mancini, who received a standing ovation prior to that AB, tipped his cap to the crowd before striking out. 

“The fans and I here have such a good relationship,” Mancini said. “They're always going to be a special part of my baseball experience. So I'm definitely looking forward to it more than anything else.”