At some point next week, there will be a new storyteller in the booth, someone else perched high above Nationals Park trying to make sense of it all. F.P. Santangelo will deal with that when he has to — from a suite? the press box? the stands? — as TBS takes over the national broadcasts of postseason games and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network crew focuses on its pre- and post-game coverage. For now, for this final stretch of regular season games, Santangelo is trying to soak up every second of a drama-filled baseball season.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my baseball career,” Santangelo, MASN’s second-year color analyst for Washington Nationals broadcasts, said one recent afternoon. “I feel lucky just to be a small part of it and relay the message to the fans.”
Santangelo, 44, has narrated a memorable summer in Washington as the team’s ever-present voice, charged with providing texture and meaning to every twist and turn of the season, from Bryce Harper’s debut to Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown. For Santangelo, it has been a crash course in color commentary. Last year was his first in Washington, which he likened to a teenager who had just earned his driver’s license.
“You got both hands on the wheel, you keep checking the mirror, you’re careful with the blinker, always looking over your shoulder,” he said. “This year is like driving with your knee on the steering wheel, texting somebody, checking out the scenery. It’s all easier.”
Rob Dibble’s controversial exit from the MASN broadcasting booth late in the 2010 was loud and ugly, spurred by his questioning of Strasburg’s resolve. By contrast, Santangelo came to Washington with no introduction, no fanfare and no real expectations.
“Still today I run into people who have no idea I even played the game,” he said.
Santangelo played in the majors from 1995-2001, experiencing the highs (102 wins with Oakland in 2001) and lows, which included using banned substances late in his career. When the Mitchell Report was released five years ago, 86 players were singled out, but Santangelo was one of the few to publicly discuss and apologize for transgressions against a game he loves so much. “That’s all in the past,” he says today.
Even during those low periods, Santangelo couldn’t wait to be around the ballpark. Even now, he arrives a few hours before each game, heading straight to the clubhouse. “Those 15 minutes are my favorite part of the day,” he says.
“Yeah, he’s media, but we really don’t look at him as media,” Nats pitcher Ryan Mattheus said. “He does a great job of keeping that ballplayer credibility with us. He knows what we go through on a daily basis. He’s kept that ballplayer mentality in him.”
Santangelo, whose given name is Frank-Paul, was a guy who always seemed to perform above his ability. In 1989, he was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 20th round — as a favor to his college coach, Santangelo says — and started off in professional baseball with a $1,000 signing bonus. He played for four teams in seven seasons, plugging holes wherever needed. Over the course of his career, he played six positions.
In Montreal, Felipe Alou told Santangelo he would make a good coach some day. So when his playing days ended in 2002, Santangelo drifted in that direction without giving much thought to anything else.
“When you retire, you’re kind of lost,” he said. “You’ve only known one thing your whole life, and that's playing baseball.”
He took a position as a hitting coach for the Class A San Jose Giants, a job that paid $35,000, not enough to support a wife and two kids. The long bus rides, crummy hotels and bad pay helped him realize climbing the minor league ladder wasn’t an option.
Broadcasting seemed like a good alternative.
Santangelo tapped into a couple of contacts and ended up on the telephone with Bob Agnew, the operations manager for KNBR-AM, the Giants’ flagship station in San Francisco. Agnew asked if Santangelo had any tape available.
“How soon could you mail it here?” Agnew asked.
“I’ll drive it down now. I can be there in two hours,” Santangelo told him.
That afternoon Santangelo was on the station’s afternoon show, and before long, he was a permanent fixture on KNBR’s airwaves.
“He was hungry and eager,” Agnew said. “That really impressed me right off the bat.”
Santangelo eventually landed a gig doing the TV pre- and post-game shows for the Giants. In the Bay Area, viewers remembered Santangelo from his days in a Giants’ uniform and appreciated his gritty, hard-nosed playing style.
“He was fiery, the guy that was always yelling in the dugout,” said Duane Kuiper, the Giants’ longtime broadcaster and a former ballplayer himself. “I don’t know if that’s the criteria to be a good broadcaster, but I do think the guys who had to work a little extra harder and also didn’t make a whole lot of money when they played, I think that helps when they start doing this.”
In 29 years of calling baseball games, Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter can’t even begin to count the dozens of broadcast partners who’ve sat next to him in the booth. “When it comes to knowledge of the game and nuances of the game, F.P.’s easily in the upper 10th percentile,” he said. “He can identify things going on and instantly analyze it. That’s a gift.”
Coming to Washington, Santangelo had no reservations about resuming the baseball lifestyle: long trips, late-night flights, time away from family and friends. Santangelo has two children in high school in California, who live with his first wife. He remarried two years ago, and his second wife, Michelle McLaughlin, a model and former Playboy playmate, lives with him during the season in Crystal City.
Though Santangelo never played in D.C., he hardly hides his rooting interests during games. And compared with other analysts, Carpenter says Santangelo is especially opinionated.
“He and I have probably had more disagreements in the booth and on the air than anyone I’ve worked with,” Carpenter said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. . . . Last year, I was taken aback by that a bit; I took it the wrong way. But it’s who he is. His passion for the game is as strong as anybody I’ve worked with.”
This season, Santangelo is more fluid and comfortable, no longer the broadcaster who just got his driver’s license. He said the network and the team have given him no constraints. He can be “as critical as I want to be.” More times than not, that means not very. He’s prone to giving the Nats — and ballplayers in general — the benefit of the doubt.
“It looks easy from up here, looks easy from the stands,” he said. “But get in the batter’s box and see what 98 mph feels like. If you always remember how hard the game is, whatever you say is going to be okay.”
The Nationals won a game against the Marlins earlier this month after trailing 6-5 in the ninth. Rain suspended play for 2½ hours and when the tarp came off the field, Jayson Werth hit a game-tying home run. On-air Santangelo just chuckled. “Unbelievable,” he said. The Nats won with a walk-off single in the 10th, and after the game, Santangelo texted Werth: “I’ve never seen [anything] like this in my life. I feel lucky to see it.”
“This is the next-best thing to playing,” he says. “By far. I’m around the guys every day, I’m at the ballpark every day. There’s no place else I’d rather be.”
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