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Mel Antonen, longtime MASN and USA Today baseball reporter, dies at 64

Mel Antonen, a renowned sports journalist, died Jan. 30 of a rare acute auto-immune disease and complications from COVID-19.
Mel Antonen, a renowned sports journalist, died Jan. 30 of a rare acute auto-immune disease and complications from COVID-19. (Courtesy of Charles Raasch)

WASHINGTON — Mel Richard Antonen, family man, beloved friend and renowned sports journalist, died Saturday of a rare acute auto-immune disease and complications from COVID-19. He was 64.

Antonen was a longtime baseball reporter at USA Today and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network who covered nearly three dozen World Series. In a half century in journalism, he reveled and excelled in telling others’ stories.

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Antonen’s own story became the best of all. It began in the tiny town of Lake Norden, South Dakota, on Aug. 25, 1956, when he was the third of four children born to Ray and Valda Antonen. Lake Norden is 225 miles from the nearest major league ballpark and has never been populated with more than 550 people, but on soft summer evenings it can swell to multiples of that number, as fans from counties away congregate at Memorial Park to watch a new episode of South Dakota’s storied amateur baseball history. That field of dreams was always home to Mel, and its pull never left him even as he walked, as a sports journalist, on Boston’s hallowed Fenway Park’s left field with the late New York Yankees Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, or sat in a pregame spring training dugout with another Hall of Fame member, the Minnesota Twins’ Harmon Killebrew, weeks before Killebrew died.

The Antonen family has promoted amateur baseball in Lake Norden for decades. Mel loved to tell how his father, Ray, a lover of baseball, over the years brought to the tiny hometown a series of barnstorming pros, including the legendary Satchel Paige and Cy Young Award winner Jim Perry, to play at Memorial Park. On the mornings of home games throughout his childhood and beyond, Mel, his father and siblings would groom the field, with the rising corn and soybean fields ritually marking the progression of summer beyond the left-field fence.

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“I love baseball because it always brings me home,” Antonen said at his induction to South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. “A baseball park in my mind is a home. It doesn’t matter if its next to a cornfield, as it is in Lake Norden, or if it is next to a rumbling subway, in New York.”

At USA Today, and later as an analyst for MASN, the network that covers and broadcasts games for the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, Antonen “was a very good storyteller who went far beyond balls and strikes and the score of the game,” said his retired USA Today editor Henry Freeman.

“The Orioles are heartbroken by the passing of decorated sportswriter Mel Antonen,” the team said in a statement Sunday. “Throughout his illustrious career, Mel reported on some of baseball’s most historic moments, including Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-setting streak and nearly every World Series since 1980. He was a fixture in the Camden Yards press box and beloved member of our extended Orioles family.”

“We are saddened by the passing of long time baseball reporter Mel Antonen, who was a fixture in the Nationals press box for many years,” the Nationals said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and colleagues during this difficult time.”

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Antonen never tired of the scent and feel of walking onto a freshly lined field, and he was perpetually humbled by the fortunes and fates that always led him home. A lefty, he pitched American Legion and amateur ball himself, and stayed connected with lifetime friends through banter and reminiscing about their childhood games. Many famous athletes he covered became his friends after they retired, and many would call him at any hour just to talk, including Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who once phoned while Antonen was mopping the screened-in porch at home.

His wife, Lisa Nipp, took the call, and told Jackson that Mel would call back after the chores were done. Floor cleaned, he called back, and he and Jackson had a laugh.

“Why me?” he said in that Hall of Fame speech. “I had moments, but overall, I didn’t do anything spectacular as an athlete. I think I am here because I found a way to have the ballpark’s best seat for free to watch a baseball game and get paid for it, and then go on vacation.”

His journalism career began as a kid, when he called in scores from Lake Norden’s home games to two newspapers that he ended up writing for: the Watertown (S.D.) Public Opinion, which paid him as a high schooler 15 cents a copy inch; and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, where he got his first job after graduation from Augustana University, eventually covering the sports, farm and political beats.

He joined USA Today in 1986, where one of his earliest assignments was covering the Tonya Harding Olympics scandal. Antonen became a Major League Baseball beat writer and columnist, covering history from Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games streak to the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa record-breaking home run race and the steroid scandals that followed. The story he often said was seared most in his memory came during the earthquake-interrupted 1989 World Series. There, sitting in a press box high above San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, he watched as the entire stadium undulated dangerously during the destructive Loma Prieta quake. Antonen filed a story, then headed out for days to cover the aftermath, focusing on the human costs.

Ripken told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, a former colleague of Mel’s, that Mr. Antonen “was a fixture around the game for so many years, and it was clear that he had a passion for baseball. He was a thorough and thoughtful reporter and left his mark on his profession.”

Along with the World Series, Antonen covered three Olympics and professional bowling leagues.

“I can’t imagine being anything other than a reporter, an ink-stained wretch,” he told his Hall of Fame audience.

Freeman, his editor at USA Today’s sports section, said Antonen’s knowledge of baseball, reverence for its history, and his love of stories, was evident from the first day.

“It became clear to me right away the understanding he had of baseball, and a lot of that was because of his father,” Freeman said.

Freeman said one of his favorite stories during his editorship at USA Today involved Antonen at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the 100 meters in world-record time, but he failed a drug test, and he was ordered to be sent home. USA Today received a tip that Johnson had reservations on one of several potential flights out of South Korea, and Freeman immediately sent Antonen to the airport to find Johnson and to do anything necessary to get an interview.

Carrying nothing but a walkie-talkie and his reporter’s notebook, Antonen arrived at the airport and quickly discovered that Ben Johnson was booked on a flight to Toronto. Antonen bought a ticket, went aboard and found Ben Johnson — who turned out to be a doctor, decades older than the sprinter by the same name. Antonen turned failure into a memorable human interest story about the frantic hunt through Olympics high-security obstacles that ended up with the wrong Ben Johnson.

“It was a non-story that he made a good story of its own,” Freeman said. “It also showed the lengths that Mel would go to get a good story.”

He was “one of the nicest, most positive people” people he worked with, who gained trust from athletes by patient relationship building, Freeman said.

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Using persistence and personality, Antonen scored a rare interview with the notoriously press-shy DiMaggio, late in the legend’s life, after learning that DiMaggio was in Boston for a special event at the rival Red Sox’s Fenway Park. The man considered “ungettable” by many sports journalists talked for several hours with Antonen, and they finished with a stroll in front of the left-field wall, an imposing, mythical behemoth called the Green Monster. DiMaggio “loved the history of baseball,” Antonen years later told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

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Antonen was a sports broadcaster for MASN and radio analyst for MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM in the last decade of his career, and he wrote for Sports Illustrated and other publications. He did a radio interview on the baseball Hall of Fame voting from his hospital bed less than a week before his death. He especially loved talking baseball with long-haul truckers on a late-night Sirius baseball show he hosted. His insights into the athleticism, history and psychology of the sport went far beyond the games themselves, and they were honed and nurtured in hours talking baseball as life, starting with his father, and continuing on the phone or chatting with friends and sources throughout his life.

Antonen’s mother died when he was 12. His father, himself enshrined in the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame, raised Mel and his sisters, Kathy and Carmen, and brother, Rusty, with the field at Memorial Park becoming a refuge, a sustainer and redeemer through deep loss.

“My life reflects the power of baseball,” Antonen said in that 2017 speech. “One of my earliest memories of Lake Norden baseball was the summer of 1969. … In March of that year my mom died after a year-long battle with cancer. But it was baseball, and Lake Norden baseball, with hot dogs and a 10-cent glass of pop and chasing batting-practice foul balls on a beautiful summer night, that created a diversion from fearful images of three months prior — [of] my mom’s tan casket, crying adults, the hearse in front of Trinity Lutheran, on an overcast subzero day, when there were piles of snow in one of South Dakota’s worst winters.”

To endure in that summer’s mourning, he leaned into the mundane routine of pulling weeds and marking baselines, ritually helping his dad on game days put up the “baseball tonight” sign on Lake Norden’s three-block Main Avenue.

Antonen kept reporting and writing throughout his illness with COVID-19 and an auto-immune disease so rare that his doctors told him he might have been the only person on Earth with that combination.

Months after being diagnosed with both diseases, Mel scored an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and big baseball fan, who talked about the need for caution, but also hope, in a pandemic. “You’ve got to go on with your life, but that doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of all the pleasures” Fauci told him.

Antonen’s final column for MASN, written after the Dodgers won the World Series in late October, paid homage to the comforting and reassuring next-year ritual of baseball. It ended this way: “World Series 2021 prediction: The Padres in six over the White Sox.”

Antonen is survived by his son, Emmett, 14, and his wife, Lisa Nipp, a photojournalist, whom he married in 2001. Lisa embraced the many characters in Mel’s baseball orbit, once holding the phone for Mel with the crusty, late Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller by discussing the beauty of hollyhocks.

He is also survived by three siblings and their families, sisters Carmen Antonen and Kathy Antonen (Allan Brendsel); brother, Rusty Antonen (Sherry); and legions of friends, in and out of baseball.

“From Joe DiMaggio to Dusty Baker and Bryce Harper, I have gotten to meet and interview and become friends with people that baseball fans around the world would love to know,” he said in that Hall of Fame speech in South Dakota. “But those experiences only happened because I grew up around people that we should all be lucky to know. The lessons learned here, and on the prairie, have gone with me and worked beautifully. And tonight, baseball brings me home once again.”

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