“It’s no surprise that if he hadn’t been bitten by the sportswriting bug he would have gone into the Lutheran ministry — something I learned during one of his talks at my church,” Dan Connolly, who covers the Baltimore Orioles for the Athletic, wrote of Antonen. “He would have made a hell of a pastor. He cared so much about others. Even as he battled through a year of illness, Mel wanted to know what was going on in his friends’ lives, only reluctantly revealing details of his own struggle.”
In a column in June, Antonen, who is survived by his wife, Lisa Nipp, and 14-year-old son, Emmett, wrote about undergoing five rounds of chemotherapy after being diagnosed in January with a rare disease that attacked his liver and later testing positive for the coronavirus midway through his treatments. The combo, Antonen surmised, was “much like pitching against the 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.”
Mark Zuckerman, MASN’s Nationals beat reporter, received a call from Antonen on Wednesday, two days after MASN announced that it was parting ways with Dan Kolko, Bo Porter and Alex Chappell.
“I was trying to ask him questions about how he was doing, and all he wanted to do was deflect back to how I was doing, how was my family and how were our MASN colleagues doing,” Zuckerman said in a phone interview. “He knew what had been going on and really just wanted to find out he we all were coping with that. That was way more important to him than anything about himself.”
Pete Kerzel, another of Antonen’s former MASN colleagues, echoed that sentiment.
“Interactions with Mel were always fun, punctuated with stories and laughter, and usually included him asking a lot of questions,” Kerzel wrote Sunday. “He cared deeply about his friends — and I’m blessed to have counted him as one — and what mattered to them mattered to him.”
Antonen was born in the small town of Lake Norden, S.D., where his father, Ray, was the longtime president of the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Association. He graduated from Augustana University and then wrote for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader before arriving at USA Today in 1986. Over the next 24 years, Antonen covered Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games streak, the 1998 home run chase, almost every World Series, a Super Bowl and three Olympics for the paper. After leaving USA Today in 2010, Antonen covered the Orioles and Nationals for MASN while living on Capitol Hill, but he never forgot his South Dakota roots.
“I love baseball because it always brings me home,” Antonen said upon being inducted to the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. “A baseball park in my mind is a home. 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.”
As news of Antonen’s death spread Sunday, his baseball family from across the country remembered him fondly.
“Mel was among the kindest people in any press box he ever graced; we were so lucky any time he was around,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser tweeted. “He will be so missed.”
“Mel was one of the best-hearted people in sports journalism and an excellent MLB writer for decades,” The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell said. “We never missed a chance to talk, and laugh, whenever we met.”
David Driver, the sports editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va., would often sit next to Antonen in the press box at Nationals Park. He was always impressed by Antonen’s ability to balance his responsibilities covering two teams with his desire to spend time with his family. Antonen would sometimes arrive at the ballpark for Nationals Manager Dave Martinez’s pregame news conference, drive to MASN’s Hunt Valley studios to tape a show and then return to Nationals Park for a couple of innings before heading home.
“He was a storyteller, he cared about you as a person, and he didn’t have an ego,” Driver said in a phone interview. “Here’s a guy who covered the World Series for more than 20 years for USA Today, but you would’ve never known that. He was just a really great guy.”
Zuckerman got to know Antonen well after joining MASN in 2016. He was immediately struck by the sheer number of people Antonen knew in baseball, from players and managers, to league executives and scouts, and his ability to get them as guests on MASN’s weekday afternoon “Mid-Atlantic Sports Report.”
“I think it said something about the respect he had in the business that he was able to get some pretty big names to do appearances on that show,” Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman said he and Antonen also bonded over the joys of raising young sons and the challenges of doing so while in a profession that sometimes requires long stretches on the road.
“I came to understand how much Emmett meant to him,” Zuckerman said. “He couldn’t wait to brag about whatever he had done in his Little League game or at school. He was just incredibly proud of his son.”
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