Each step Trey Mancini took to his locker in the Houston Astros’ clubhouse at Camden Yards on Thursday felt familiar but was oh so different.
Getting off a plane at BWI Marshall Airport, then heading up Interstate 295 into Baltimore? It was a “drive that I made 1,000 times probably, for a lot of different reasons,” Mancini said hours before he faced his former team for the first time at Camden Yards. He arrived at the Orioles’ home ballpark via the Astros’ team bus, rather than driving himself and parking in the player lot. Inside the tunnel in the stadium’s lower level, he walked farther toward the third base side than he ever had, heading to the visitors’ clubhouse instead of the one he spent parts of five seasons with a designated locker in.
“It’s so familiar,” Mancini said, “but you gotta remember that you’re here as a visitor now.”
He was welcomed as if it was still home. As Mancini warmed up before the game, the Orioles played a minutelong tribute video on the Camden Yards scoreboard that ended with “Thank you, Trey.” Another ovation came when he stepped up to bat in the second inning, removing his helmet to acknowledge a fan base that meant as much to him as he did to it.
It’s where he met his fiancee, Sara Perlman. It’s where he fought the stage 3 colon cancer that kept him out for the 2020 season. It’s where he was welcomed back and adored in a 2021 campaign in which he was the sport’s best story.
“My relationship with the city transcends baseball,” Mancini said, “and it always will.”
The Orioles traded Mancini, then their longest-tenured player, to the Astros for two pitching prospects Aug. 1. Weeks later, they visited Houston, allowing Mancini to shake whatever jitters he might have had facing the team that drafted him in 2013 and called him up to the majors three years later. He said his feelings about returning to Camden Yards were more excitement than nervousness.
This four-game series means little, otherwise, to the Astros, who have locked up the American League West to guarantee Mancini’s second career postseason berth. Baltimore, though, entered Thursday 4 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot with 14 games left. They were a .500 club when they traded Mancini, three games out of a playoff berth thanks to a 27-16 stretch after a slow start, and have gone 26-20 since, entering Thursday having lost 10 of their past 16 games.
“I was excited to see him get to go to such a good team like that and a really winning organization,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “But at the same time, selfishly, I wanted him to continue to be my teammate and be a part of this organization, so it was tough, but it’s all part of it.”
Hays and his teammates, though, said they haven’t allowed themselves to think whether this season might be going differently had the team held onto Mancini and All-Star closer Jorge López rather than trading them in future-focused moves by making no significant additions to the roster. After the Mancini deal, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias cited playoff probabilities in rationalizing the trade, though he has since walked those comments back. The players, though, have responded by remaining in the race.
“The thing about baseball is there’s a lot of what ifs involved and a lot of hindsight in certain aspects,” outfielder Cedric Mullins said. “It’s just a matter of going out and doing your part at the end of the day.”
Mancini acknowledged that he’s trying to “get a little more consistent at the plate” with Houston, hitting .193/.281/407 since the trade. But his bat, one that nearly made him an All-Star in 2019, would have deepened an Orioles’ lineup that has struggled of late.
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“You never know,” infielder Ramón Urías said. “What if we had Trey? We might be better. I don’t know. We’re a different team now, but I think Trey did a good job for us.”
The day Mancini was traded featured “a lot of hugs and tears,” Hays recalled. Outfielder Anthony Santander hugged signed jersey Mancini gave him as an expression of his appreciation for his longtime teammates. Santander said Thursday he plans to frame the jersey and hang it in his Miami home.
He laughed about how frustrated Mancini would get when he played, reminding him to relax by saying “You’re the best hitter here.” Thanks to the trade, that’s no longer the case, but the bond remains.
“At the end of the day, it’s out of our control,” Santander said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “We can’t really control that, and right now, we feel like we have a really good chance to still compete and play hard and do a good job, so that’s all we can do right now.”
Although it took an adjustment for Mancini to find it Thursday, he’s felt welcome in the Astros’ clubhouse. He was thrilled to join a team with World Series aspirations, but he believes he left behind an organization that is trending toward the same level.
“These guys have such a great established culture here,” Mancini said. “From the second I got traded, I felt welcome and part of the team, and that’s just a testament to everything that they’ve built here and what they’ve done. And it’s certainly what Baltimore is on their way to doing over there, building a culture so when guys get traded, are called up there, that they feel welcome and part of the team immediately and it’s infectious.
“I’m really proud of what they’ve done.”