Chuck Ristano Jr., the pitching coach of Notre Dame’s baseball team and a Valley Stream native, shared a big-time moment with Trey Mancini, first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, as the two teamed up for the Home Run Derby at Coors Field in Denver on July 12, part of Major League Baseball’s All-Star festivities.
Mancini, remembering a promise he had made to his former pitching coach more than a decade ago, when he was an up-and-coming heavy hitter at Notre Dame, asked Ristano to pitch to him in the contest.
“We always joked about if [Trey] ever got to the major league Home Run Derby, he’d call me and ask me to do it,” Ristano recalled. For both of them it was little more than a dream.
And then the dream came true.
Ristano had already enjoyed many notable successes in his long and accomplished coaching career, most recently helping Notre Dame climb to No. 2 in the national rankings and finishing just one win shy of the making it to the College World Series — where the Fighting Irish haven’t made an appearance since 2002.
But just when Ristano might have thought he had reached his professional ceiling, Mancini asked him to break through it in a way only a “guy like Trey” could do.
Ristano was at an Atlanta airport, capping off a recruiting trip, when he got a call from Mancini. The last time Ristano had seen his friend or heard his voice was at the funeral of Ricky Palmer, an Orioles teammate of Mancini’s, a former Notre Dame player and a friend of Ristano’s, who died of brain cancer.
Shortly after Palmer’s diagnosis, Mancini had his own ar-duous battle with Stage 3 colon cancer, and at one point Ristano expected the worst possible outcome, but Mancini eventually recovered. So, earlier this month, Ristano found himself standing before 50,000 baseball fans at Coors Field.
In the minutes leading up to his supporting performance, he was a happy and anxious bundle of nerves, he said, but when his turn came on the pitching mound, he zeroed in on Mancini, and the noise of the crowd faded away.
Ristano hadn’t thrown to Mancini since 2013, but any initial concern about whether they would be able to pick up where they left off soon faded, too, Ristano said, as he delivered the pitches for Mancini and savored every second of their game of pitch-and-hit.
“There’s no shortage of people who would love to throw to Trey,” Ristano said, “and the fact that he cared enough to keep his promise after so many years means just as much to me as how much fun the actual Home Run Derby was.”
Mancini made it into the finals, where he lost to Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who repeated as Derby champion. Mancini hit 59 home runs.
After the contest was over, the emotions and excitement of the night settled. Everyone except Ristano and Mancini had left as they shared a moment alone in the clubhouse, and treated themselves to a late-night dinner of steak and lobster tails.
“We were sitting eating dinner just like a couple of regular guys,” Ristano said. “This is the most surreal baseball experience I’ve ever had, and it’s going to end with Trey and I eating together — almost felt like we were transported back to Trey’s time in college. I’m so thankful Trey gave me the opportunity. It’s a night I will never, ever forget.”