Indignity Vol. 2, No. 62: Hurry home early.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 62: Hurry home early.
BALTIMORE, MD - JULY 28: Trey Mancini #16 of the Baltimore Orioles waves to the fans after a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 28, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Trey Mancini Touches All the Bases

“A FAIRYTALE HAS come to life!" the Baltimore Orioles TV announcer Kevin Brown declared in the bottom of the eighth inning of Thursday's day game against the Tampa Bay Rays. It had, in the sense that genuine fairytales tend to be goofy, nonsensical, and at least a little brutal. So does baseball. Officially, Trey Mancini, the Orioles' designated hitter and the longest-serving member of the team, had just gotten what was recorded as a big hit, stretching the Orioles' 1–0 lead over Tampa Bay to a comfortable 3–0.

Before it was a glorious, unforgettable moment for the fans at home—"Sometimes, you just can’t make it up," Brown marveled—the play started as something else. With one out and a runner on second, Mancini reached down for a two-strike pitch, got the bat on it, and sent the ball high and not especially deeply to right field. The exit velocity was an unimpressive 93 mph; the launch angle was a much-too-steep 39 degrees. Mancini bowed his head in disappointment and began jogging toward first base out of obligation.

It was possibly—unless it wasn't—Mancini's final at-bat in an Orioles uniform in Baltimore. The Orioles, after being the worst team in baseball over a stretch of four seasons, won 10 games in a row in early July to climb one game over .500, and have been holding steady against tough competition ever since. Mancini is the best-established hitter in a suddenly feisty lineup. Yet because he's in the last guaranteed year of his contract, it has been taken for granted all season long that management will send him away at the trading deadline, while the team is on its upcoming road trip. Just before he swung and connected, the camera found a fan sitting with a "Thank You, Trey!!" sign in her lap.

Speaking of taking things for granted: Mancini's easy fly floated toward the outfield. Tampa Bay's right fielder, Josh Lowe, took a few steps back—and then began contorting his body further back and thrusting his glove up awkwardly. "Playing right field here towards the end of these 12:30, 1 o'clock games, I know that the sun is really tough for the right fielder," Mancini said in his postgame TV interview. "So, you know, the second that I saw him put his glove up, I knew that I needed to get going, you know, get scooting."

The ball dropped past the groping glove, hit Lowe in the side of his face as he fell, and caromed toward the empty right-field corner. By the time the center fielder came all the way over to chase it down, Mancini was rounding third base. The throw from the outfield got to the catcher before he arrived, regardless, but it was off-target to the first-base side, and Mancini's sliding foot clearly hit the open white space of home plate before the tag could get around to him.

The official scorer declared it an inside-the-park two-run home run. Tampa Bay's manager Kevin Cash insisted afterward it should have been an error. Factually, Cash's position was more defensible, but it wasn't his call to make. "How can you write this script?" Brown marveled, as he wrote the script of Mancini's heroics in real time, even while the camera showed Lowe with the florid bruise from his misplay already swelling on his cheek, below the outside edge of his sunglasses.

The whole occasion demanded something sentimental, no matter what. Mancini is not just a homegrown Oriole, or one of the few constants through the team's recent years of intentional, extended failure. After hitting 35 home runs in 2019, for a team that lost 108 games, he missed the entire 2020 season while being treated for colon cancer. His return, complete with a second-place finish in the 2021 All-Star Home Run Derby, was the sort of inspirational story that sports relies on to keep believing in itself. "There may be players that mean more on the field to their teams in the majors," Brown said. "Nobody means more off the field than this guy to this franchise."

It was, moreover, Mo Gaba Day. Mo Gaba was a teenaged Baltimore sports fan and pediatric cancer patient, whose devotion to the Orioles and Ravens made him a local celebrity before his death, at age 14, in 2020. Mancini and Gaba became friends, and on the first anniversary of Gaba's death, he caught the ceremonial first pitch from Gaba's mother, then hit a home run in the game. Now he had sort of, approximately, done it again.

Mancini took a curtain call between innings, as the sparse but adoring Thursday afternoon crowd gave him a standing ovation. Everyone had permission to feel good about it. "I said a few days ago that I was gonna treat this week like it was my last week, just in case, you know, 'cause the probability's greater than zero," Mancini said in the postgame interview.

Unaddressed, though, in all the bittersweet observances, was the question of why exactly it had to be Mancini's final home game at all. The idea that the Orioles need to trade Trey Mancini away is, in its own way, every bit as based on feelings as the idea that they should keep him—only it's built on a negative sentimentality, a fable not about the power of devotion but about the power of callousness. Running a proper 21st century baseball team is supposed to be about ruthless pragmatic management, the readiness to treat the players as fungible assets in a portfolio, to be liquidated or flipped in the name of maximum efficiency. In this light, getting rid of a fan favorite like Mancini is a way of showing how rational and results-oriented the team is.

Yet there's no real reason to believe Orioles management knows how to get results by acting cold-blooded. General manager Mike Elias took over a team that had fallen apart and been stripped down, in 2018, and he made it clear that he wasn't trying to come up with a roster that would win games in 2019—nor would he try to win games for some years after that, either. The Orioles were going to starve the major-league roster for the sake of rebuilding with young prospects, for the sake of returning to competitive baseball at some uncertain point in the future.

Like most stories about the need for austerity, it didn't hold up very well under inspection. Instead of getting younger and gradually improving with experience, the team spent three seasons maintaining a cheap roster by cycling through other teams' castoffs, while keeping its own better prospects down in the minor leagues, so they wouldn't start accruing major-league service time and salary obligations. Rather than even being a valuable learning experience, or a fruitful set of tryouts, the regular-season games were treated as purely a waste of time, or as an opportunity to save money.

The breakthrough in 2022 has been mostly a matter of discovering—or random-walking into—some fun and effective castoffs, rather than bad ones, while the players left over from the previous front office blossomed. What seemed to bring the team fully to life was the day in May when the Orioles finally called up catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 draft pick they'd earned with their terrible 2018 performance, a year or more after he could have started being helpful in the majors. Something is working, at last, but it doesn't much resemble the strategic rebuilding plan.

Trading Mancini, however, is still part of that old plan, or of the old message about the plan. A productive, experienced hitter is the sort of thing a rebuilding team is expected to sacrifice, to show its commitment to the future over the present day. Send him to a team that needs an extra bat in the pennant race, and get back someone who fills a need going forward.

Yet when the sentimentalists say that Trey Mancini means more to the Orioles than he would to any other team, they're also describing an unsentimental fact. Mancini is useful to the Orioles right now, in a way that would be hard to match elsewhere. The things that make him seem dispensable, from a would-be savvy management perspective—his limitations as a defender anywhere but first base, his less-than-overwhelming power, his expiring contract—are also things that would limit his trade value. He is a very specific piece of a baseball team, who happens to fit the team he already plays for.

Even if they found a taker, what would the Orioles get in return? This is where the whole story of asset-maximization baseball and strategic rebuilding falls apart. No one, at any point in the process, has made a case that there is some particular player, or kind of player, that the Orioles need to add more than they need Trey Mancini. They simply started from the premise that it was obviously good to get rid of a beloved veteran ballplayer, and are now casting about for a deal that would retroactively justify that choice.

As baseball management, it's purely irrational. What the Orioles, scrapping their way back to the break-even point, mostly lack right now are reliable starting pitchers. (They also need a few better infielders, but they are hoarding prospects in Triple-A who could take care of that, if the team wanted.) And any team that's deep enough in a pennant race to consider investing in two months of Trey Mancini can't afford to give away its own reliable starting pitchers, because it's in a pennant race.

After years purportedly devoted to accumulating less-than-major-league-ready players, to build up "organizational depth," the Orioles find themselves needing to add organizational height. They aren't quite in a pennant race. But with the baseball playoffs expanded to three wild-card teams per league, they're quite not out of it, either. "All I know is I'm here right now, I  love this team, and we're playing really good baseball," Mancini said in the postgame interview. "It has been an incredible turnaround for us, and I'd like to thank all the fans for all their support this year."

It was a strange sort of valedictory address. Nothing that Mancini was talking about needs to stop happening at the end of July, unless the Orioles decide to make it stop happening. But this is what you get when a baseball team has decided that winning baseball games is strictly a matter of sentimental value, for the ignorant and impractical. The Orioles may have celebrated Mo Gaba and inducted him into the team's Hall of Fame, but they also deliberately gave him terrible teams to root for in the last, limited years of his young life. If management does get rid of Trey Mancini, they will have likewise made him waste nearly the entire span of his Baltimore career in losing efforts.

That was the true moral to Mancini's slapstick home run, if it had to have a moral. It wasn't a bold punctuation mark on an era, like Ted Williams homering to bid farewell to Fenway Park. It was just a dumb, delightful thing that happened on a Thursday afternoon in July, in a game that counted for 1/162 of a season—the most that any game can count for, which is why you play them all. Trey Mancini put the ball in the air, and nobody knew where it was going to end up until it got there.

CORRECTION: I originally misidentified the Tampa player who fielded the ball with his face; it was Josh Lowe, not Brandon Lowe.

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