CHICAGO — About a week before the Orioles arrived in Chicago, as Trey Mancini began to make plans with his former teammates and lifelong friends, his wife Sara asked him whether any nerves were starting to set in.
Last year at this time, of course, Mancini still called Camden Yards home. Almost 10 years to the day, he made his professional debut as a member of the Aberdeen IronBirds. The Orioles selected him out of Notre Dame in 2013, and he went on to build a life in Baltimore. He met his wife, received and then overcame a cancer diagnosis, became a fan favorite — and then was traded away at the deadline.
“He said, ‘It’s just not really weird anymore,’” Sara Perlman Mancini said.
That’s not to say Trey Mancini doesn’t find the matchup at Wrigley Field this weekend without meaning — the Orioles will always matter to him, and he’s still friends with many of the players — but he had already experienced the emotions of playing his former club late last season.
With the Houston Astros, Mancini returned to Camden Yards, and in that series he did feel the nerves that accompany a visit to one’s old stomping grounds. He’s further removed from it now, although the physical distance doesn’t change the historical significance.
“If you would’ve told me 10 years ago everything that would’ve happened between then and now, I don’t know if I would’ve believed it back then,” Mancini said. “It’s always going to hold such a special place in my heart. It’s where I met my wife. It’s where my life was saved. I’m always indebted to Baltimore, the community, Hopkins, and the organization. It’s a special connection that will never go away.”
In December 2022, Trey and Sara got married. The wedding, for how special it was on its own, came at an opportune time to become an ideal distraction from the worries of Mancini’s baseball future. For the first time since Trey Mancini opted to play college baseball at Notre Dame, he had a choice in who he played for.
His free agent market was slow moving, however, in the earliest part of the winter. Mancini left the negotiations to his agent and “tried to remain emotionally distant from everything,” following the advice of friends who have gone through the free agency process before him.
Mancini’s mutual option to return to the Astros was declined. He also knew a return to the Orioles was mostly “off the table” heading into the offseason; he and Sara could look at the roster construction and ideology of Baltimore and know that a veteran right-handed hitter seeking a multiyear contract likely wasn’t the Orioles’ biggest need.
“I think he kind of saw the writing on the wall, so he never really said, ‘Oh, it looks like I’ll go back to Baltimore,’” Perlman Mancini said. “Of course, he would’ve went back, but he knew it wasn’t going to happen. I think the Orioles knew it wasn’t going to happen. So he never really allowed himself to go there, which is probably for the best, because you don’t want to get your hopes up or think one thing that isn’t realistic.”
Mancini said the rise for the Orioles isn’t a surprise to him. He saw the improvements last season and knew that the crop of young stars would soon raise the level of play — and he keeps track of how his friends are doing.
The 31-year-old and manager Brandon Hyde are still close as well — they’ve been through a lot together, after all — and Mancini and Hyde caught up on the field before Friday’s game.
“He gets sick [in 2020], that’s just such a blow,” Hyde said. “I mean, I’ll never forget that day. Such a blow in every way and it makes you rethink everything. And then going through that, you appreciate the guy even more for what he came back from and how tough he is and how strong he is.”
The opportunity to come to Chicago was enticing for Mancini.
He signed a two-year deal worth $14 million to join the Cubs as a first baseman and designated hitter, and the location played a large role in it. During his college years in South Bend, Indiana, Mancini visited Chicago plenty. His sister lives here, and he and his wife have friends in the area. He also gets to play in a historic stadium for 81 games a season.
There is a common correlation between Baltimore, Houston and Chicago, too. Mancini was a fan favorite with the Orioles, then experienced sell-out crowds en route to a World Series with the Astros. And at Wrigley Field, the atmosphere is one of the best in baseball.
“It’s cool to be here and play here,” Mancini said. “To get to play at Wrigley every day is incredible.”
Inside his new clubhouse Friday morning, he was surrounded by a gaggle of Baltimore’s media contingent. When he took the field for ground balls, he soon found himself down the first base line, hugging all of his old teammates and coaches. Jorge Mateo snuck up from behind Mancini and lifted the first baseman off his feet.
Mancini left that impact on Baltimore.
Baltimore also left that impact on Mancini.
“Trey was in Baltimore for so long that no matter where he goes, he might love it just as much,” Perlman Mancini said, “but I don’t think it’s ever going to be Baltimore.”