Antonen grew up on that field. As a boy, he would mow the grass, rake the clay, then chase foul balls during games. As a teenager, he finally took the field — as a pitcher, a lefty.
“A baseball park in my mind is a home,” Antonen said during his 2017 induction into the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame. “It doesn’t matter if it’s next to a cornfield, as it is in Lake Norden, or if it is next to a rumbling subway, in New York.”
Baseball, small town and then big league, shaped Antonen’s life until his last days in late January. He opined on Hall of Fame voting in a radio interview from his hospital bed, where he was suffering from hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare autoimmune disease, that was complicated by covid-19.
Antonen died Jan. 30 at age 64.
“He grew up with baseball, and it just stayed with him,” said his wife, Lisa Nipp, a photojournalist. “That’s just what you did in his little town. There’s nothing there but a couple of churches, a mozzarella cheese factory — that’s actually pretty new — and baseball. And then you have all these other little towns with nothing but churches and baseball fields.”
Antonen, who lived with Nipp and their teenage son on Capitol Hill, fell into journalism while falling in love with baseball. It was his job to call in game scores to local newspapers, including the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, where he worked covering sports and politics after graduating from Augustana University in Sioux Falls.
Antonen moved on to cover baseball for USA Today, wrote for Sports Illustrated, and was, most recently, an analyst for MASN, the broadcast network of Orioles and Nationals games. Antonen, colleagues said, was beloved in the press box. He mentored younger writers. Players and managers lauded his fairness. He was funny and warm and just a small town guy even in the biggest of cities.
“I don’t think anybody who ever met Mel, maybe with the exception of one or two baseball players who didn’t like what he wrote about him, didn’t end up thinking he could be your friend for life after just one meeting,” said Chuck Raasch, a longtime friend who played baseball against Antonen and wound up working with him at USA Today.
In an obituary he wrote for the Argus Leader, Raasch recounted the memorable events Antonen covered, including Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s chase for Roger Maris’s home run record and the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, which was interrupted by an earthquake.
“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,” Raasch wrote. “Antonen filed a story, then headed out for days to cover the aftermath, focusing on the human costs.”
Players trusted and liked him, even difficult ones like DiMaggio, who granted an interview to Antonen at Fenway Park after years of turning other reporters down. “They finished,” Raasch wrote, “with a stroll in front of the left-field wall, an imposing, mythical behemoth called the Green Monster.”
Famous players were constantly calling Antonen at home, which sometimes bewildered his wife, who loved her husband but not baseball. She remembers the time a Hall of Famer called while Antonen was doing some chores around the house.
“I had begged him to scrub the porch for, like, two weeks,” Nipp said. “And so he’s finally scrubbing the porch, and this guy calls and I’m like, ‘He’s here, but I can’t let you talk to him because he’s scrubbing the porch.’ ”
The man on the other end of the phone started laughing.
“Just tell him Reggie called,” he said.
And Nipp was like, “Reggie who?”
It was Reggie Jackson, the Reggie Jackson — the Yankees slugger who hit three home runs on three consecutive pitches during the 1977 World Series. The name rang a bell to Nipp not because of his baseball career but because of his cameo appearance in a movie.
“Oh, I know you,” she said. “You shot the Queen in that ‘Naked Gun’ movie.”
A man named Jim Palmer called once. (Palmer was one of the greatest pitchers in Orioles history.)
“I’m sorry,” Nipp told him. “But I’m on the other line with my mother.”
After Antonen wrote a big piece about Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, then in retirement, Feller began calling Antonen every day just to chat. But sometimes he’d call after Antonen had already left for the ballpark.
“I would tell him that Mel’s not here right now,” Nipp said. “And he’d say, ‘That’s okay, I’ll just talk to you.’ And he would say things like, ‘My wife likes flowers. Do you like flowers? Let’s talk about tulips. Do you have tulips?’ ”
When friends would ask what Nipp had done that day, she would say, “Oh, Bob Feller called again.”
And of course they would freak out.
“Bob Feller!” they’d say. “We’d do anything to talk to Bob Feller!”
Meanwhile, Nipp had no idea whether he was even a lefty or righty. (Righty. Ted Williams said he was “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.” Note to Nipp: Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived. He played for the Red Sox.)
Nipp kept a journal of Antonen’s battle against the rare autoimmune disease and covid on Caring Bridge, an online support network.
“Washington rarely gets snow,” she wrote the day after he died, “but today we look just like his beloved South Dakota.”
Their 20th wedding anniversary was coming up in June.
“I think Mel went to the Great Press Box in the Sky,” Nipp wrote. “I hope he has a good view from there and can see how many people love and miss him.”