'It was surreal': Mancini finishes 2nd in Derby

Orioles slugger's comeback year continues with impressive showing at Coors Field

July 13th, 2021

DENVER -- Notre Dame pitching coach Chuck Ristano was in the terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, on his way back to South Bend, Ind., from a recruiting trip, when his phone buzzed. The caller ID read, "Trey Mancini."

"Coach, look," said the familiar voice on the other side. "This isn't public yet."

Ristano's heart caught because he didn't know if it would be good or bad news. Everyone the world over knew about Mancini's battle with Stage 3 colon cancer. In fact, the impacts of the disease hung over both of them in that their last in-person meeting had been nine months earlier, when they met for the memorial service of former Fighting Irish teammate Ricky Palmer.

But this time, it was good news -- the resolution of a promise from nine years ago, when Mancini won the Big East Home Run Derby with Ristano as his pitcher. He'd jokingly told Ristano at the time that if the occasion came up in the big leagues, they'd pair up again. Their reunion was almost as successful.

Exactly 16 months to the day after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor from his colon, and less than a year after wrapping up months of chemotherapy, Mancini put on a show in his first Home Run Derby on Monday at Coors Field. The Orioles slugger knocked out the A's Matt Olson in the first round and the Rockies' Trevor Story in the second round before his night came to an end with a 23-22 finals loss to back-to-back Derby champion Pete Alonso of the Mets.

"It was surreal to see that become a reality from my vantage point," Mancini said. "That, and then seeing my family afterward on the field, they were all so happy. They were all crying, they were so happy. Except for one of my nephews, who was crying because he was upset that I lost."

Mancini said before the event that, having won his own battle, he hoped to continue representing others battling cancer more prominently through his platform. On the biggest stage he's seen since his own fight with Stage 3 colon cancer, Mancini's power-packed performance ensured that his story -- and message -- stood more prominently than ever.

"I've never been on a stage like this before," Mancini said. "And it was just an incredible day, an incredible evening, and I was just so honored to be a part of it and just to be asked. To make it to the finals is something that I think we're going to look back on and really cherish and appreciate."

"This one, for me, was just off-the-charts special," Ristano said. "I'm so thankful to have Trey in my life. And obviously, incredibly proud of not only the incredible baseball player he's become, but the young man that he is today. It's been unbelievable."

To be clear, Mancini wasn't just here for this to be a feel-good story. He was in it to win it -- and he put up a requisite huge fight in the final round. Still, Alonso's consistent power appeared effortless at times throughout the evening, and that carried through into a loud performance, capped by six homers in six swings in bonus time, sending the Polar Bear to a walk-off win.

Mancini had only five homers when he took a timeout with 1 minute, 17 seconds on the clock in the finals, and just as he did in the first round, he came out of the break with a vengeance. In the seeming blink of an eye, his total had ballooned to 17 by the end of the two-minute round, and he added five more in bonus time to give Alonso a high bar.

"I knew that they'd changed the rules to the finals, and I wasn't quite sure what it was, because I didn't really pay too much attention to it earlier on in the day," Mancini said. "I was just kind of focused on the early rounds and everything."

The 29-year-old is relieved that he can focus on baseball that way again. Considering where he was at the end of the 2019 season -- coming off a career-best campaign, eagerly looking forward to building on it in '20 -- he acknowledged that, though there were more good days than bad following his diagnosis, he still harbored some anger and bitterness about losing a year of his prime.

Mancini made a well-documented and meteoric return to baseball, of course, and has 16 homers and a .791 OPS in 86 games this season. Still, the outwardly bright and positive Mancini found himself needing to channel that anger and bitterness somewhere.

At times, Mancini found himself using baseball as an outlet. He came to realize that wasn't an association he wanted for this game that has given him so much.

"In the last couple of weeks, I've been doing a much better job of being a lot more even-keeled out there," Mancini said before the event. "But it's hard, man. ... That's no way to live. You can't live life like that, and I realized that."

Mancini was freed once again in his natural habitat on Monday, defined more by his first-round moonshots to eke by Olson, 24-23 -- after Olson's final blast went foul by a matter of feet -- and the battle of attrition in the second round, in which a tired Mancini bested a tired Story, 13-12.

And if anybody was going to get cheers from the crowd at Coors Field after eliminating Story, the hometown kid, it was going to be Mancini, who said he was in Denver on this night for Palmer, for 14-year-old Baltimore superfan Mo Gaba -- who died last July -- and for others giving their all to that battle.

Mancini's bat -- and his voice -- spoke louder than ever before with his message.

"There's life after it," Mancini said. "I was diagnosed over a year ago, but when that's the case and you go through chemotherapy, it's something that's still on your mind and you still have to worry about. But I think it can set an example that you've got to go back to your normal life, even though you might have this thing hanging over you sometimes.

"That's the message that I really wanted to get across. I'm still going through a battle, and there's so many people going through battles still. But like I said, by all accounts, you can go back to how you were before, and I feel great about my health and where I am and what the future holds. You definitely don't want to take every day for granted."