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Since he was 4 years old, all Trent Giambrone wanted to do was play baseball.
He would sit at the back door of his family’s home in Metairie, La., and cry while watching neighborhood kids play on the baseball diamond across from their backyard.
“I lied to be able to get him to play ball,” his mother, Theresa, told the Tribune, chuckling. “My cousin said, ‘Just sign him up, who knows his age?’ And I did.
“It was like an alarm clock for Trent. When the first ball was hit at that playground every morning, he heard it and he was out the door with no shoes and ready to go to see who could pitch to him.”
Nearly 24 years later, the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 25th-round draft pick made his major-league debut during the final week of the season. A COVID-19 outbreak meant the Cubs needed reinforcements to close out the year.
After everything Giambrone went through since the summer of 2020 — a canceled minor-league season because of the pandemic, the work he put in back home in Louisiana to prepare for 2021 and a devastating personal loss earlier this year — the unexpected call-up was the byproduct of years of hard work.
Gazing at the field from the visitors dugout at Busch Stadium two days before the season ended, a reflective Giambrone searched for the words to explain his journey.
“Looking back at it, I’m a spiritual person,” he said during a conversation with the Tribune. “I believe God had a reason for everything.”
One week before Giambrone, 27, left for spring training in Mesa, Ariz., as a non-roster invitee, he found himself in a very familiar place: his family’s drag racing shop.
He watched his dad, Tony, methodically pop off 18 big truck tires from their rims, then carry each one — weighing about 150 pounds — and put it on a truck. Tony remarked how he felt a little more tired than usual during the process. At 59 years old with a strong build, Tony — known as “Big T” or “Big Tony” — decided to get what he expected to be a routine checkup.
A week later, in mid-February, Tony received grim news. Tests revealed pancreatic cancer. By the time it was discovered, the cancer had spread to other major organs, including his liver and kidneys.
Giambrone’s parents told him the diagnosis at the beginning of March while he was in Mesa. Four weeks into camp, Giambrone knew he needed to return home to Louisiana to help as his dad’s health deteriorated. He later joined the Cubs alternate site in South Bend, Ind., in April before again going home to be with his family as the Triple-A season got underway in early May.
For six weeks, his professional baseball career took a back seat to his family and his father’s health. He attended doctor visits with his parents and helped around the house. They didn’t want Tony in a hospital facility, so the family took shifts to care for him. One night Giambrone, barefoot and wearing Cubs shorts, went to a pharmacy at 1 a.m. to pick up medicine his dad desperately needed.
Only 11 weeks after his cancer diagnosis, Tony died shortly after turning 60.
“For me, it was just giving back in the sense of he always gave to us even if he couldn’t. My mom’s the same way — give up for us to have,” Giambrone said. “I was there and I wouldn’t change it for anything else. Because I knew he would have done that for me. Like, if I was in that situation, he wouldn’t have left me. He would have given up everything he had just to be there. And I was willing to do the same.”
From the time Giambrone was a child committed to playing baseball through the uncertainty of what a year without minor-league ball would bring, his dad always supported him. In the summer of 2020, Tony built a workout area for Trent in the family’s drag racing garage. The 30-by-40-yard space on the second level featured a pitching machine and full-size batting cage.
The setup allowed Giambrone to stay in baseball shape and get reps while the minor-league season was in limbo and eventually canceled.
“He’s just going to keep battling because my husband said never give up,” Theresa said. “He taught him that life isn’t easy and you’re going to have disappointment, but don’t you ever give up.”
The dual function within the garage replicated the crossroads Giambrone faced when he was around 11 years old. It was then that Tony told Trent he needed to make a choice — keep playing baseball or continue on the drag racing route. Competition is in the fabric of the Giambrone family. They planned to pass down a drag racing car his older brother, Tony Jr., used for Trent to race in junior dragsters.
His dad asked if he wanted the car, explaining it was too expensive to race and play baseball.
“Everybody’s got their own thing, and my husband strictly believed in that,” Theresa said. “He said, ‘Do you want this car or do you want a baseball bat?’ ”
Giambrone picked the bat, and his parents sold the car.
“From a young age, I had a natural gift for it,” Giambrone said of baseball. “I always liked to be a little bit different. And my family was all-in on racing, racing, racing. I love racing, I’m not going to lie. It’s in my blood. But I was like, I want to do baseball.”
Giambrone appreciated the Cubs allowing him to spend as much time as he needed in Louisiana with his family. There was no timetable for when he would rejoin the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. But Giambrone never wavered from a desire to get back on the field.
“This is what he wanted me to do, so if I would have stayed home longer, I would have been going against his wishes,” Giambrone said, “in the sense of, every day when things were still rolling, he kept telling me, ‘Just go back. I’ll be all right.’ And I’m like, ‘Dad, this is a tough situation.’ But that just shows how strong he was and how much he supported me.
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“As soon as it happened, I want to say I was ready to get back, but you’re not ready because of everything that went on. But this is what he wanted me to do.”
Giambrone joined Iowa on the road and made his season debut June 16. In his fifth season of pro ball, he played 72 games for Iowa, logging time at five positions.
“It’s about the people that stuck behind me,” Giambrone said, “so hats off to the ones who believed in me from Day 1, the ones who have my back no matter what, when they said I was too small or this or that. They have my back. They pushed me and kept me going. Those are the people I give the gratitude to.”
It all led to the moment he stepped into the batter’s box Sept. 29 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, one of five games, including three starts, he appeared in during the Cubs’ final two series. Called on to pinch-hit in the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Giambrone officially became a major-leaguer as Theresa and his girlfriend watched from the stands.
He connected on the first pitch he saw, lacing the ball to left field for a single. Rounding the base, he kissed his hand and pointed to the sky.
“I know my dad was there too. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Giambrone said. “As soon as I hit first base, I said, ‘Dad, that’s yours.’ At the end of the day, I know this is exactly where he wanted me to be.”