Mel Antonen, loving father, husband and longtime well-known national sports reporter and baseball analyst, died of a rare acute autoimmune liver disorder and complications from COVID-19 on Jan. 30. He was 64.
A resident of Capitol Hill, Mel covered sports for USA TODAY for 24 years, then spent his last decade working as a TV baseball reporter and analyst for MASN’s Mid-Atlantic Sports Report, a cable-TV enterprise that covers the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles. He also wrote for Sports Illustrated and other publications, and analyzed baseball on Sirius-XM radio.
He leaves behind wife, Lisa Nipp, a photojournalist, and his son, Emmett, 14.
Mel hailed from the tiny hamlet of Norden, SD, pop. 550, and it was there that his love of baseball and his career as a professional storyteller began. Son of Ray and Valda Antonen, Mel was the youngest of four children, and he spent his youth immersed in amateur baseball – his father’s passion. In addition to playing the game himself, he would call in scores from Lake Norden’s home games to two local newspapers, which he later worked for as a journalist after graduating from Augustana University.
He began reporting for USA TODAY in 1986 and went on to cover nearly three dozen World Series, three Olympics and professional bowling. A highlight of his early career was covering the Tonya Harding Olympics scandal, but he quickly made his lasting mark as an MLB reporter and columnist, while regularly scoring interviews with such greats as the notoriously press-averse late Yankees Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, and covering Cal Ripkin Jr.’s history-making consecutive winning streak, among many other sports-journalism feats. One of his final interviews, months into his dual illnesses, was with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and an avid baseball fan, who threw out the first pitch at a National’s game.
His last interview, a few days before he died, was with the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame, to which Mel was inducted in 2017, following in the footsteps of his late father.
“Mel was a baseball genius,” said one friend, a regular follower of his former column.
But to those who knew him in his Capitol Hill neighborhood, Mel was just a regular guy, that funny, friendly neighbor who was often seen walking his dog in Lincoln Park or chatting amiably with folks on the street.
As neighborhood friend Jim Monke put it, “To me Mel was a fellow dad. On weekends, my son and I would walk with Mel and his son to a neighborhood baseball field. (These were the mornings after Mel finished working at Sirius radio at 2 a.m., and before he would go teach Sunday School.) Mel and I would play catch to stretch out our old guy arms while our boys warmed each other up. Then we’d practice fielding grounders, and Mel would throw batting practice.”
Following these outings, the dads and their boys would visit nearby Mott’s Market, then sit outside on Jim’s front stoop, slurping “freezies.”
Mel took a genuine interest in everyone he knew; he always wanted to know how they were, what they were up to, even until the end, when he would brush off questions about his failing health, and instead focus on their “stories,” their lives. Indeed, it was said had he not gone into baseball reporting, he would have become a pastor in the Lutheran Church, and his passion and concern for others is what many people remember about him most.
Another neighbor, Michael Lawson, perhaps summed it up best:
“I struggled to find something witty to write in tribute to Mel. My friendship with him seemed utterly quotidian. A friend, neighbor, fellow parent. But [then], it hit me: the extraordinary nature of the ‘ordinariness’ was vintage Mel. In the outpouring of condolences from Mel’s fellow sports writers and baseball players, one theme connects them all—Mel’s ability to simply listen. [And] this theme wasn’t just evident in his professional interactions. It was core to his very being.
“In [our conversations], whether it be our frequent lunches at Tunnicliff’s or during his illness, he always managed to get the conversation turned back to me [and my family]. And this persisted until our last conversation—the Wednesday prior to his passing….Being a careful listener with intense interest in the stories of others was something core to his soul. He was such a decent human being…I’m so glad to have been blessed with his friendship. I will miss him dearly.”
As will all who knew him. R.I.P., dear Mel.
In addition to his wife and son, Mel is survived by sisters Kathy and Carmen, and brother, Rusty, as well as numerous nieces and nephews.