Notre Dame pitching coach Chuck Ristano was in the Atlanta airport last month when Trey Mancini’s name appeared on his phone. Over the decade they have known each other, messages from player to coach were often holiday wishes and congratulatory texts after the births of Ristano’s two children.
But a light buzz filled Ristano’s head as his mind drifted to the worst. He thought back to the previous March and the text Mancini sent revealing that, for the second time in a month, one of his former players was diagnosed with cancer.
To those close to them, the similarities between Mancini and Ricky Palmer are striking: The hardest worker but one who consistently directed credit to others. A player who strived to be team-oriented in everything he did, offering support wherever needed. The one son with two sisters in a tight-knit family of Italian heritage.
“The Palmer family is like Mancini family north,” Ristano said.
The pair even shared a cancer battle. Mancini’s March 12, 2020, procedure to remove a tumor from his colon came exactly three weeks after Palmer was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Mancini’s biweekly chemotherapy program began that April. Palmer had already been enduring the treatments for weeks. When substances as plain as room-temperature water burned Mancini’s throat, Palmer reinforced the value of staying hydrated. Pouches of Gerber baby food made of blended fruits and vegetables became a daily snack for Palmer, something he could easily digest to ensure his treatments didn’t come on an empty stomach. As his motor functions faded, he was adamant his family let Mancini know how helpful the packets were.
Eight years earlier, Palmer was in attendance as Ristano served as pitcher when a baby-faced Mancini won the Big East Conference’s home run contest. It spurred an agreement: If Mancini ever reached the major league edition, Ristano would be the one throwing to him. On Monday, the 16-month anniversary of his surgery, Mancini will participate in the Home Run Derby in Denver, putting the Orioles first baseman and his comeback story on the national stage.
Palmer won’t be there to see this one. That late February diagnosis came eight days before his 29th birthday. He died in October, less than a month after Mancini’s last chemotherapy cycle.
All this raced through Ristano’s mind as he braced to answer the phone. Only one of them could still call, and Ristano worried what he had to say. Mancini wasn’t delivering bad news. He was keeping a decade-old promise, letting Ristano know he hadn’t forgotten.
“That little story,” Ristano said, “tells you all you need to know about probably a million meaningful relationships Trey has that you’ll never know about.”
Stage 3 colon cancer cost Mancini last season, but he knows how fortunate he is to be part of this one, to be back at Camden Yards. Standing on the ballpark’s warning track this week, fresh off a round of batting practice, Mancini considered what Palmer would think Monday night, seeing him among baseball’s brightest stars, the sport’s eyes upon him. He wants his Home Run Derby appearance to let people know there can be life after a cancer diagnosis. He also wants it to honor those such as Palmer for whom that’s not the case.
“I don’t know if he’d …”
“Actually, I think he would believe it. He’s always believed in me. Through good times, bad times, Ricky has always, always believed in me.”
‘Captain of the clubhouse’
Family meant everything to Palmer, and he was the baby of his, the youngest of Priscilla and Rick’s three children. But in Mancini, he found a little brother.
Palmer was a year older than Mancini, earning a roster spot as a walk-on catcher the same season Mancini arrived as a Florida transplant who didn’t receive a scholarship offer from any of the major schools in his native state. Palmer, though, marveled at Mancini from the beginning.
“This kid Trey, he’s going to do big things,” one of Palmer’s sisters, Jenna Maziur, recalled him once saying. “He’s going to go all the way. He’s the real deal.”
Mancini has delivered on that promise. After three years as Palmer’s teammate with the Fighting Irish, he joined the Orioles organization as their eighth-round pick in 2013, reaching the majors three years later. Palmer followed along as he earned his master’s in data analytics at the University of Chicago and worked in a tech startup’s artificial intelligence department.
Being close to his hometown of Orland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Southside Chicago, meant he could always be at his family’s Sunday dinners, where the signature dish was Priscilla’s homemade gravy and meatballs with pasta.
In Maziur’s estimation, there was perhaps nothing Palmer loved more than being an uncle to his five nephews and one niece. A tattoo of a puzzle piece on Palmer’s left arm recognized Maziur’s son Alan’s nonverbal autism. On the right side of his chest, he had a Down Syndrome Awareness ribbon for Charlotte, his sister Lauren Earnest’s daughter. He was a fervent supporter of the Special Olympics in the Chicago area, a passion bred from his love for his family.
“We were the most important thing to Ricky,” Maziur said.
Still, she knows baseball might have been their greatest rival. His playing career at Notre Dame featured nine at-bats and one hit, a double struck his first time up. But Mancini was drawn to his work outside of games.
He had a knack for lightening the mood with his dry sense of humor, but also provided truth even when validation was sought. He was unofficially “the captain of the clubhouse,” former teammate and roommate Charlie Markson said. Loyalty, Mancini said, was Palmer’s defining trait.
“If somebody needed to get kicked in the ass a little bit, he was there, but it always came from a good place,” Mancini said. “He shot you straight. He told you how it is, what you maybe needed to clean up. He wanted to see his friends succeed and happy.”
After Palmer’s death, Markson worked with the university to create the Ricky Palmer Memorial Fund, which will use donations to provide scholarships in Palmer’s name to Notre Dame baseball players and renovate the team’s clubhouse, with a locker featuring a plaque honoring Palmer and the standard he set for leadership. Support flooded in, Mancini leading the way.
“Ricky was the type of person that people wanted to do something for,” Markson said. “Trey was the type of person that it didn’t matter what was going on in his life, he just wanted to help.”
Whenever the Orioles played in Chicago, Palmer was there.
Afterward, he, Mancini and friends from school would go out for a beer. He was the one who let the group chat know how Mancini was playing, sending highlights and asking whether they were watching. In November 2019, they all got together at a teammate’s wedding.
It was the last time Mancini saw Palmer.
It was around then Palmer told his mom something wasn’t right. He played in several softball leagues, but he wasn’t seeing the ball as clearly as he once did. He would wake up with blurred vision and experience a sharp tingling sensation in his right hand and foot.
“This tough kid from Chicago, we really don’t know when he started feeling this stuff,” Maziur said.
A dozen MRIs and countless CT scans couldn’t diagnose the problem. Bloodwork and a spinal tap gave no answers.
On Feb. 4, 2020, Palmer had a seizure. He underwent a craniotomy two days later, revealing a tumor on his right frontal lobe. Two weeks afterward, his official diagnosis of stage 4 glioblastoma came.
About the same time, Mancini arrived in Sarasota, Florida, for spring training, prepared to follow up a campaign in which he was the Orioles’ most valuable player and narrowly missed his first All-Star selection.
But he felt unexpectedly sluggish. A routine blood test as part of a team physical showed he had low iron levels. He braced for a lifestyle change, thinking he had celiac disease and would have to forgo beer and other products with gluten.
Instead, Mancini soon learned he had stage 3 colon cancer, with his procedure — coming the same day the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training — showing he would need to undergo chemotherapy treatments every other week for six months. The recovery period caused him to miss the 2020 season. The Orioles adopted the mantra #F16HT, featuring Mancini’s jersey number.
As Mancini began chemotherapy, Palmer was already suffering through it. The first round of Palmer’s treatment plan included weeks of physical therapy, daily chemotherapy sessions and radiation five times a week. The next phase featured constantly wearing a Tumor Treating Fields system, a device that sent low-intensity electric waves into his skull to break up cancer cells.
He had bouts of pneumonia and experienced more seizures. He lost the ability to walk, talk and use his hands.
“Ricky was falling apart,” Maziur said, “and he was worried about Trey.”
He expended his energy trying to tell his family what to text Mancini, whose last conversation directly with Palmer came that May. As Mancini underwent his own treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he continually sought updates from Markson. Knowing the end was near did not make it any easier on Mancini.
“He, in the weirdest, most convoluted way, felt lucky,” Markson said. “He just never really wanted anybody to worry about him. He was so focused on how Ricky was doing.”
On what would have been Ricky Palmer’s 30th birthday, Trey Mancini returned.
The Orioles’ first exhibition game this year came Feb. 28. The fans at Ed Smith Stadium gave him a lengthy standing ovation before his first at-bat. When he promptly singled, they did it again.
Maziur spent the day thinking about what she could do for her brother. She settled on something Palmer would’ve done himself: checking in on Mancini. An Instagram message let Mancini know she was thinking of him and established a new link between him and Palmer’s family.
When Mancini and Ristano reunite at Coors Field next week, it will mark the first time they have seen each other since Palmer’s funeral. Ristano delivered the eulogy.
With Mancini’s immune system worn down from his treatments and the country’s count of virus cases increasing, the need to travel from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, meant Palmer’s family understood if he chose not to attend.
“I needed to be there for Ricky’s family and to honor Ricky,” Mancini said. “I know he would do the same for any of us.”
He went to the wake, then stayed overnight for the funeral. During the service, Ristano looked over at him.
“Nothing’s bringing Ricky back,” Ristano thought to himself, “but, Trey, do your thing, man. You don’t need anything else on your shoulders, but they’re pretty broad.”
In his comeback season, Mancini has played near the level he did before cancer. He was among baseball’s leaders in runs driven in early on, a sterling May showing he missed a year but didn’t lose a step.
“It’s just energized us like a damn lightning bolt,” Ristano said.
There have been struggles. His frustration has come through at times, with helmets slammed and heads hung, but he tries to maintain perspective. He was close with Mo Gaba, the teenage Orioles superfan who battled cancer practically his whole life before dying in July. Palmer died in October. Mancini, though, is still here.
As the MLB draft approached during Mancini’s junior season, Palmer told him to not put so much pressure on himself. Even though he’s gone, Palmer is still providing those reminders.
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“I have to realize that being here in itself is an accomplishment, too,” Mancini said, “and I know that’s what Ricky would tell me.”
Maziur is thrilled to see Mancini playing like himself, and she knows Palmer would be, as well. She firmly believes if he could, Palmer would be in Denver as one of Mancini’s loudest supporters, just as he always was.
“What we watched was just an uphill battle every day with Ricky,” she said. “I am so thankful that Trey does have the opportunity to share that message to not take a day for granted, to not take a game for granted, to not take a step for granted.”
Mancini saw the Derby as a chance to share his experience with a wide audience, providing hope to those currently facing cancer. That desire echoes the top of the GoFundMe page made for Palmer.
“One day you’re going to tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through, and it’s going to be someone else’s guide to survival.”
Palmer can’t spread that message. Mancini will deliver it for him.