Opening day brings memories of a great friend to baseball

It is opening day, which makes it one more day to miss Mel Antonen, our baseball savant from South Dakota.

Every year, I could count on an email from Mel at the moment of the baseball season’s first pitch. It always said the same thing:

“When is this season ever going to end?”

The only thing Mel enjoyed more than a good joke was telling the same one over and over. Some years I would try to send a first-pitch email to him before he could send one to me, but I never could beat him to the punchline. He would be off in some big-league press box — often at the ballpark where that first pitch was thrown — and I could almost hear his high-pitched laugh echo across the continent.

Mel died on January 30 of a rare autoimmune disease and complications from COVID-19. He was 64 years old, and still a kid at heart. He spent his professional career covering grown men playing a child’s game, and never forgot how lucky he was to do it.

Mel worked at USA TODAY for 24 years. That’s where I got to know him. Later he was a baseball analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the cable channel that broadcasts Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles games. His transition to TV was seamless. It’s not an easy change for those who come from print, but Mel was comfortable talking baseball anywhere — on TV for MASN, on radio for Sirius XM, or at the church social hall after services.

As baseball's long season begins, Mel Antonen was always there to ask: “When is this season ever going to end?” (Photo: Aaron Doster, AP)

The only thing Mel loved more than baseball was family and friends. His wife, Lisa Nipp, and their 14-year-old son, Emmett, were his everything. And he made friends everywhere he went, which was pretty much everywhere. Even Joe DiMaggio could not resist Mel’s charm. The Yankee Clipper was so intensely private in his later years that he almost never talked to reporters. Most of them stopped asking. Mel never stopped — and one day they talked for hours. Mel told the story with style in the pages of USA TODAY.

Mel met Lisa, a photographer, in an elevator: a meet-cute, just like in the movies. “When he saw what he wanted, nothing was going to stop him,” she said in her eulogy at his funeral in February. “Whether it was a girl in an elevator or a famous player.”

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The funeral, at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, in Washington, began with a trumpeter playing a melancholy “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Mel's ashes, on the altar, were contained not in a vase but in a base — the kind you find at first, second, or third. And his eulogists, well, they hit it out of the park. Here is a sampling:

► Chuck Raasch, his fellow South Dakotan and a retired USA TODAY news reporter: “That Mel laugh, that was something, wasn’t it? I call it an unfettered chuckle-chortle of mirth.”

► Peter Schmuck, retired Baltimore Sun baseball writer: “I’ll remember the last year as a time when we all worried about our health, and Mel wouldn’t let us worry about his.”

► Reid Cherner, retired USA TODAY sports reporter, quoting playwright August Wilson: “ ‘Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner.’ And that’s how Mel looked at it. Because for as long as he was sick, Mel thought he was going to take that fastball for a home run.”

Mel kept writing and reporting through his illnesses, including a column for MASN in which he likened the one-two punch of disease-plus-virus to trying to pitch to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Mel even scored an interview with Anthony Fauci, the Nats fan/immunologist. And, in his last column, Mel predicted the 2021 World Series: Padres over the White Sox, in six.

Mel was a master storyteller whose own story is like something out of American myth. He grew up in the tiny town of Lake Norden, in South Dakota, where he played baseball on a real-life field of dreams, with corn rising just beyond the left-field fence. He and his siblings would help their father groom that field in the cool of the morning for all those summer evenings of play. And this pint-size pitcher, who dreamed of being a big leaguer, grew up to tell the stories of others who did make it to the bigs. Which is the next-best thing.

This was no fairy tale, though. Mel was 12 when his mother died, and more than anything he did not want to leave Emmett at a similar age. The field in Lake Norden was Mel’s respite in the summer after she died: the one place he could go to leave the heartache aside.

Mel was given a place in the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. “I love baseball, because it always brings me home,” he said in his induction speech. “A baseball park, in my mind, is home.”

Mel loved all of his homes: the one on Capitol Hill with Lisa and Emmett most especially, of course, but also the one in ballparks, and the one in newsrooms.

USA TODAY had a gym and sometimes Mel and I worked out together in the mornings. He observed at one point that I shaved after showering and he said I had it all backward. Shave first, he said, and the excess shave cream is washed away. No, I said, shower first, and your skin is ready for the razor.

We agreed to disagree. Then, in 1997, the Minnesota Vikings played the Buffalo Bills on the first weekend of the NFL season. (There was something about Mel and opening days.) He suggested we bet on the game. If my Bills won, he would shower first for one week. If his Vikings won, I would shave first for one week. The Vikings won. I didn’t stop at a week. I have been shaving first ever since.

In that sense, you could say Mel changed my life. Then again, he changed many lives. Mel taught master classes in how to be a good friend. When he left USA TODAY, he arranged for us to meet for lunch from time to time. He always kept in touch. Our friendship would surely have withered with distance and time, except that he wouldn’t allow it.

In January 2020, our erstwhile USA TODAY colleague Roscoe Nance died. Mel called and suggested we go to the funeral together. But that morning, he called to say he couldn’t go, because he wasn’t feeling well. It would be a while before doctors diagnosed what was wrong. The last year of his life would be a terrible slog through chemo and COVID-19 and unrelenting pain. And yet, through it all, he somehow held fast to the sunny optimism that defined him.

He taught us how to live, and to love, while dying. It is a gift beyond measure.

Tom Boswell, the great Washington Post sports columnist, wrote a book titled “Why Time Begins on Opening Day.” Today, once more, time begins anew.

“Mel was one of the best-hearted people in sports journalism and an excellent MLB writer for decades,” Boswell tweeted at the news of Mel’s death. “We never missed a chance to talk, and laugh, whenever we met.”

Yes, that laugh. I’ll hear it echoing again today, at the moment when that first pitch is thrown. When is this season ever going to end? Mel is now in a place where all the seasons are unending, and the laughter never stops.

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