Mancini delivers on Derby promise to coach

July 12th, 2021

made a promise to Chuck Ristano: If Mancini ever made the Home Run Derby in the Majors, Ristano would be his pitcher.

When that conversation unfolded, Mancini, then a sophomore at Notre Dame, had just won the 2012 Big East Home Run Derby alongside Ristano, the team’s pitching coach who served up the meatballs. Mancini had confidence that he would make the Majors. Ristano did, too.

But the Derby? That was an entirely different proposition.

Come Monday night, Mancini will step into the batter’s box. Ristano will position himself behind the L-screen on a raised mound, about 40 feet away. Two friends will share the national stage. A promise will be fulfilled.

“I still can’t believe it,” Mancini said.

Ristano recalled being in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a recruiting trip when he received a call from Mancini. The two stayed connected through the years, primarily through text messages. A call struck Ristano as odd.

Upon exchanging pleasantries, Mancini prefaced that what he was about to tell Ristano was not yet public news. To Ristano, the ensuing split second before Mancini’s next words felt like a lifetime.

Ristano knew what Mancini had gone through; that Mancini had been diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer; that he went through six months of chemotherapy; that Mancini had not only overcome the deadly disease, but that he made his way back onto the field.

But Ristano also knew of another tragedy that had occurred in the not-too-distant past. On Oct. 17, 2020, Ricky Palmer, a former Notre Dame teammate and close friend of Mancini’s, passed away from brain cancer. Ristano, who gave the eulogy, recalled that everything occurred quickly, without warning.

“He was one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker I’ve ever played with,” Mancini said. “He led by example. He was a confident guy, but he’s the most loyal friend I’ve ever had. He believed in all his friends and cared so much for all his friends.”

These were some of the thoughts that ran through Ristnao’s mind when Mancini said, “This isn’t public yet.”

But Ristano could soon exhale -- at least for a moment.

Mancini told Ristano that he had been picked for the Home Run Derby, and he wanted his old pitching coach to serve up batting practice one more time. He wanted to keep his promise.

In the years following Mancini getting drafted in 2013, the two periodically mentioned the idea. They talked about it after Mancini was drafted. They talked about it as Mancini tore through the Minor Leagues. They talked about it after he made the Major Leagues. But now, this was no longer just talk.

The moment was “a shockwave of excitement and emotions” for Ristano. He told Mancini that he’d have to ask both his boss and wife if he could make the trip, knowing that they’d be on board. Ristano needed the entirety of his plane ride to calm down, but by the time he landed, word had gotten out of Mancini’s participation, lifting the pressure of secrecy off Ristano’s shoulders.

“I am so honored, blessed that Trey thought enough about a conversation we had nine years ago to include me,” Ristano said. “It means the world to me.”

Mancini’s selection of Ristano was all the easier given that the two have on-field chemistry. Along with the Big East Home Run Derby, Ristano, a southpaw, constantly threw batting practice to prepare the Fighting Irish for left-handed pitching. To Mancini, Ristano was always adept at putting pitches where he wanted, which helped if Mancini wanted to work on hitting pitches in a certain part of the zone.

“I don’t really know what that says about my job performance as a pitching coach to be so adept at getting up balls that go over the fence,” Ristano said with a laugh.

On the surface, the story of Mancini competing in the Home Run Derby with Ristano throwing is about a player and coach. Yet neither talk about one another through the lens of the player-coach dynamic. They speak of one another as friends, their three shared seasons at Notre Dame being the backdrop that allowed their relationship to unfold.

Mancini recalls immediately connecting with Ristano the moment he stepped on campus. Perhaps it was the fact that Mancini was a position player and Ristano was the pitching coach, meaning the latter wasn’t presiding over the former. Regardless, Mancini says the two have always been close.

One of Ristano’s favorite non-baseball memories of Mancini came shortly after he was drafted. Ristano’s wedding was set to take place on Nov. 1, 2014, with the rehearsal dinner falling on Halloween.

Mancini recalled that the bars in South Bend had a Halloween theme and those who dressed appropriately received free cover, “which was a big deal at the time,” Mancini said. Mancini didn’t have an elaborate costume on hand, so he and a friend threw on onesies with a bib. Mancini didn’t have time to change as he made his way from the bars to the event. As Ristano recalled, Mancini attempted to conceal his costume.

“Trey wouldn’t take his jacket off,” Ristano recalled. “[I said], ‘Come on, take your jacket off.’ He opens his jacket and he was dressed like a Smurf.”

Come Monday evening, Mancini, as well as Ristano, will be dressed for a different occasion.

When Mancini won the Big East Home Run Derby in 2013, there were only a few hundred people in attendance. Coors Field, however, will be an entirely different monster. Ristano admitted that he’s nervous, but hopeful that his reunion with Mancini will quell any nerves.

“Trey is a performer,” Ristano said. “I'm just hoping that I can do my part, and if I do, I know Trey will do unbelievable.”

While the spotlight will fall on Mancini and Ristano come Monday -- Ristano said he’d love to be invisible -- the moment won’t solely be about them.

The last time Mancini and Ristano have seen one another in-person was Palmer’s funeral. Ristano described the moment as sobering. When the two reunite and take the field on Monday, fulfilling a promise made nearly a decade prior, they’ll be doing so in memory of Palmer.

“Having lost Ricky was gutting for all of us, but watching Trey step up to the plate, not only with his own story, but to support Ricky’s, has been great,” Ristano said.