Noie: Home Run Derby a magical moment for Notre Dame assistant Chuck Ristano
It was barely 8 a.m., two time zones and 1,100 miles from his Granger home, but Notre Dame pitching coach Chuck Ristano already was operating as if he’d drained a half dozen cups of coffee.
That’s life early in the morning after a late night that exceeded every expectation. Ristano, who’s spent the last 11 years as an Irish assistant, thought he’d reached his professional peak in June when Notre Dame raced from nowhere to be ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation and got within one win of going to the College World Series for the first time since 2002.
Ristano believed that it also was as good as it’s ever been for him professionally. Nothing could top it.
Man, was he wrong.
For a few hours Monday, the 39-year-old Ristano lived a dream. No, scratch that. This wasn’t a dream. Ristano never dreamed that he’d step in a Major League Baseball clubhouse and see his name on the back of an authentic Major League jersey. He never dreamed of seeing a locker with his name above it located near members of the New York Yankees, his favorite team while growing up a long home run from Kennedy Airport in Valley Stream, N.Y. He never dreamed of standing on the Home Run Derby stage during All-Star Week and sharing it with former Irish standout Trey Mancini. He never dreamed of exchanging fist bumps and high-fives with some of the game’s best, or getting a few minutes to chat up the likes of Peyton Manning and David Ortiz and Ken Griffey Jr.
Ristano never dreamed any of it. But on Monday at Coors Field, he lived it. All of it. Hours later, as a downtown hotel in the shadow of the stadium still was waking up, Ristano already was rolling. He couldn’t sleep. So he relived it all. Again. He’d do that often Tuesday, right up to the time it was time to head back to Coors Field and watch the All-Star Game.
He returned that night as a fan in the stands, but Monday, he lived a life he’d never imagined.
“I’ve not let myself come down from it yet,” Ristano said in rapid-fire response. “Friends, different people, have all reached out to me. Each time, you recap the story of how it felt in the moment and it takes me right back there.
“I’m not ready to come down. It was pretty exhilarating.”
When Mancini, now an outfielder with the Baltimore Orioles who beat stage 3 colon cancer, learned he’d participate in Home Run Derby, one of his first calls was to his old college assistant coach. The two teamed up as pitcher and hitter to win a Home Run Derby during the 2012 Big East tournament. It was there in Clearwater, Fla., that Mancini made Ristano a promise — if he again was in a Home Run Derby, Ristano would throw to him, just as he did that night at Bright House Field.
Sure, Ristano thought. Like that would ever happen. It became a running joke between them. In texts, in fall weekends when Mancini was back on campus. They'd say it, then laugh. It might not ever occur, but if it did, Ristano would be there.
He was there.
Do the job
Traversing the tunnel that led from the clubhouse under the third-base stands to the playing field at Coors, Ristano kept telling himself to stay calm. Stay in the moment. Make sure it belonged to Mancini, the feel-good story of All-Star week. All Ristano had to do was throw some baseballs over the sweet part of the plate.
Not so much.
Ristano wrestled with the magnitude of the moment when he entered the locker room and saw that his cubicle was close to the Yankees trio of Aaron Judge and Aroldis Chapman and Gerrit Cole. Like, seriously?
“Growing up in New York, those pinstripes mean an awful lot to me,” said Ristano, who wore an Orioles uniform with No. 34 and his name on the back of the jersey. “But the Trey Mancini variable trumped any allegiance that I had for the Yankees.”
So for one night, he was an Oriole from head to toe. Ristano had little time to let the nerves settle once he took the mound for the opening round. That’s because Mancini drew the shortest of straws. In the eight-player field, Mancini would hit first — just as he did in 2012.
There was no easing into it or acclimating to the surroundings. Just go up and start throwing and hitting. Mancini promptly belted 24 home runs to advance to the semifinals.
“Not too many people who start a marathon in first place win it,” Ristano said. “You kind of want to get your feet under you a little bit. For Trey to be the bar was hard on him.”
And on Ristano. You figure the guy who has to hit has all the pressure, but the guy who has to deliver the pitch, well, there’s also stress. Fall into a rhythm with the hitter and nobody in the stadium notices. Fall out of rhythm and you wind up a punchline on YouTube.
“I don’t want to romanticize how hard it is, but if you’re doing it really well, you’re somewhat invisible,” Ristano said. “You want Trey to perform. You want to put the ball where he wants it. You just kind of go with it.”
Prior to Monday, Ristano had not thrown BP to Mancini since 2013. They then had all of 60 seconds of on-field practice at Coors. Once it was go time, the left-handed Ristano wanted to make sure his BP mound and L screen that protects him from any comeback line drive, were in the right spots.
Being a college pitching coach, Ristano did what any college pitching coach would — he went to position them himself. He then realized that he wasn’t in Eck Stadium.
“I started to move it and there was a team of five guys who moved it for me,” he said. “I turned around to them and was like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m a college baseball coach, I’m used to doing this. I apologize.’”
Part of the club
Following the first round, Mancini and Ristano had to wait out the other seven hitters. From the time Mancini finished his opening swings until he stepped back in the box for the semifinals, nearly two hours passed. The two retreated to the hitting cage under Coors to stay loose. The down time also gave them both plenty of it to decompress, take a few deep breaths and lock back in.
“It was a blessing,” Ristano said. “To take that many high-intensity swings, Trey was really gassed. That was just enough time to get your energy back, get your swing back and then go and do it.”
Hitters also had the option during their Derby swings to call a timeout. Each time the right-handed hitting Mancini did, a ball boy/girl would bring him a towel and an energy drink. On the mound, Ristano would use the pause to take everything in.
“You take those 30 seconds and get a panorama view of what 50,000 people looking at you look like,” Ristano said. “I just tried to enjoy it.”
Mancini crushed 59 total home runs across his three rounds. He advanced to the finals, where he lost (23-22) to New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who repeated as Derby champion. Ristano admitted it was tough being a life-long Yankees fan to lose to a Met, but that’s when any hard feelings about anything just kind of melted. Just as he’d done with Manning and Ortiz and Manny Machado, a former Mancini teammate, and San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., Ristano shared a fist-bump and a laugh with Alonso.
All of it caught him off guard — in the best of ways. For guys who are in a different stratosphere, athletically and financially, they seemed like a bunch of good dudes.
For a night, Ristano was one of them.
“I couldn’t believe the ease with which we communicated with everyone and how willing they were to be regular guys,” Ristano said. “Everybody went above and beyond to make me feel welcome in a club that I’m not part of 364 days a year (but) when you’re on the field, you’re like, ‘Wow, I feel a part of this show.’”
As for Mancini, Ristano lost track of how many times he offered the kid a hug for making it all happen, for allowing the old college pitching coach into his world.
Afterward, the two even appeared together at a post-Derby news conference.
“It was fun to be back with Coach Ristano,” Mancini said. “We had a great time out there.”
Both used the word surreal to describe the shared experience. Ristano hauled home a couple Derby baseballs with a lot of autographs over them to remember the night. He'll replay and relive all those moments on an internal highlight loop forever. All of it thanks to Mancini.
“He’s just a special dude,” Ristano said. “I wish I could find a word that would explain what those 24 hours meant to me.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI