Testing positive for the coronavirus has impacted Mel Antonen in many ways. It hasn’t messed with his memory.
The Augustana University graduate and former USA Today baseball writer recalls the anticipation and energy of Opening Day, when the national pastime and brightening skies reduced the distance between spring and summer.
His late father, Ray Antonen, who presided over South Dakota amateur baseball for two decades, would pull Mel and his brother out of school in Lake Norden and make the drive to the old Metropolitan Stadium for Minnesota Twins openers.
“The stadium was always full,” recalls Mel, now 63 and living in Washington D.C. “And the next day there would be 6,000 fans. There was something special about Opening Day.”
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In 1981, Antonen was just out of college and working for the Argus Leader when sports editor John Egan sent him to the Met to cover the opener between the Twins and Oakland Athletics.
Billy Martin was coaching the A’s at the time and kept starter Mike Norris on the mound for the full nine innings of a 5-1 Oakland victory.
“After the game, we went into Martin’s office and one of the reporters told him that Norris had complained about pitching nine innings in the opener,” recalls Antonen. “So Martin says, ‘Just a second’ and goes into the locker room and gets in Norris’ face. Then he comes back to the office, points right at me and says, ‘Kid, you go ahead and ask him again.’”
Pain and confusion
The spring of 2020 was going to be different for Antonen, but just as memorable.
His 24-year stint as national baseball writer for USA Today ended in 2010, but he works as an analyst for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, tracking the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles.
His wife, Lisa, and 13-year-old son, Emmett, heard on numerous occasions how eager Antonen was to cover spring training and the Orioles’ home opener at Camden Yards, continuing his lifelong love affair with baseball.
He was rejuvenated after a recent family trip to England and was ready to roll. What could stand in the way?
“I was feeling like a million bucks,” recalls Antonen of the day in January that changed everything. “I got home from work, read the paper, went to bed and then started throwing up violently.”
He assumed it was a stomach bug and stayed in bed for a few days. But his misery persisted.
“My skin had turned jaundiced by that time and we went to the emergency room,” says Antonen. “When we got there they examined me and, ‘You’ve got some issues here.’”
Blood tests revealed that his liver function was abnormal, but the doctors weren’t sure why. Another battery of tests and MRI showed that Antonen was suffering from a rare disease known as hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), which weakens the immune system and has a mortality rate of about 50 percent.
“Basically, some white blood cells went rogue and attacked my liver,” says Antonen, who lost 25 pounds and spent five weeks in the hospital. “There was a lot of pain and confusion, but they decided to start me on chemotherapy and saw good results.”
He left the hospital in mid-February and did outpatient chemo as his liver function improved. With the disease in remission, he started to go for walks around his Capitol Hill neighborhood and regained strength, looking forward to returning to work even with baseball in limbo due to the COVID-19 crisis.
At one of his last chemo treatments on March 19, he had a cough and a slight fever, a cause for concern with the coronavirus gaining a foothold in the area. Doctors ordered a COVID-19 test the next day, which seemed like a mere precaution.
On Sunday, March 22, Antonen was back home in bed when he heard the phone ring. Lisa answered and spoke in measured tones for a while before entering the room to address her husband.
“I have some news for you,” she said.
Love of the game
They met on an elevator at the USA Today offices in Arlington, Va., in 2000. She was a young photographer on loan from the Nashville Tennessean and he was a veteran baseball scribe from South Dakota. They both loved adventure and figured they could share a few together.
About a year after first date, they were married in the summer of 2001.
“I’m not a baseball fan,” says Lisa with a laugh, realizing how strange that sounds.
Antonen was born into baseball in Lake Norden, a town of about 450 residents located 30 miles south of Watertown. His father was a player, manager and commissioner whose attachment to amateur baseball was such that he helped start a museum in Lake Norden that still stands today.
Mel played Legion ball in Bryant and amateur in Lake Norden and Renner. But the 1979 Augustana graduate knew that his best chance to stay connected to the game was to write about it, which he did for the Argus Leader until making the move to USA Today during its heyday in 1986, with a daily circulation of nearly 1.5 million.
On one of his first assignments, on a Saturday in May in Boston, was to write a profile of New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, who was making a rare public appearance at an old-timers game at Fenway Park along with his brothers, Vince and Dom.
“I was pretty nervous, because as a young reporter, trying to get Joe DiMaggio to sit down and talk seemed like a longshot,” says Antonen. “But I found out what hotel he was staying at and called his room at 8:30 in the morning and asked if I could interview him. To my surprise, he said to come on up.
“He was getting ready for the day and was very avuncular. He started telling stories and then looked at the time and said, ‘You might as well ride with me to the ballpark.’ So we ended up walking along the Green Monster in left field, talking about his brothers and what it was like to play the outfield at Fenway. He loved the history of baseball.”
Antonen went on to cover Cal Ripken’s Ironman streak, the 1989 Earthquake Series, the players’ strike of 1994 and the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race of 1998, in addition to profiles of legends such as Yogi Berra, Stan Musial and Bob Feller. He was inducted into the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, joining his father, who passed away in 1987.
Even after leaving USA Today amid changes to the print journalism industry, Antonen thought back to that surreal Saturday with DiMaggio at Fenway Park and how it put his career in motion.
“I was a younger reporter trying to establish my credentials,” he says. “And let’s just say I got lucky that day.”
Searching for daylight
In the age of coronavirus, the Antonens lead separate lives. Since testing positive, Mel has been quarantined in the master bedroom, while Lisa resides in her office and Emmett has the run of the back of the house, making his own meals and taking care of Nutmeg, the family cat.
For a while, Lisa thought she may have contracted the virus, but she has felt better recently and is resuming a more active schedule, within their confines of her shrinking world.
“With all we’ve been through, every step seems like a momentous mile,” says the 51-year-old Vanderbilt alum, who works as a freelance photographer and instructor. “The other day when I left my office to venture into the living room where there’s a larger TV to watch Netflix, it felt like an epiphany. And walking around in our backyard garden for a few moments seemed like taking a trip to Asia. You become grateful for every little thing.”
Mainly, Mel is happy that he’s alive. If coronavirus symptoms had struck while his body was reeling from chemotherapy, he might not have had a chance. As it is, he’s had a fever for two weeks straight and toggles between coughing spells, dizziness and body aches, with no immediate remedy in sight.
“The doctors really can’t do anything,” he said during a phone interview this week. “They said the only time to come to the hospital is if I have a temperature of 105 or I have trouble breathing. The other day I woke up shivering under five blankets, and I shook for five or six hours and it was the most miserable thing. Then that quieted down and I coughed all afternoon and had dizziness and night sweats in the evening.”
Because of lingering issues with his liver disorder, it’s tough to predict when Antonen’s COVID-19 experience will end. It’s another dose of uncertainty in deeply unsettling times.
“This is a very different journey for someone with a compromised immune system,” says Lisa. “How quickly is someone in that condition supposed to recover from this? They just don’t know. It could be six weeks.”
Much of the support Antonen has received, on social media and texts and phone calls, comes from South Dakota. His brother and sister, Rusty and Kathy, still live in Lake Norden and lift him up with phone conversations, while old friends lend a nostalgic touch.
A former teammate from the 1974 American Legion team in Bryant sent a photo from their district championship win over Clear Lake, a sure way to cheer Mel up. Another friend connected on FaceTime with images of thousands of geese flying over a South Dakota lake, a series of sights and sounds that took him back to his childhood.
“It was harder before baseball was shut down,” says Lisa. “But now life is shut down for everybody and we’re all in the same boat. We’re just taking each day as it rolls. I’m sure that Mel misses baseball, but there’s not really a baseball season to miss.”
Like everyone else, Antonen envisions a day when this global nightmare subsides and favored rituals resume, like when his dad would take him out of class and the trek to the Twin Cities would begin, with baseball talk and anticipation filling the air. He longs for moments like that again with his own family, when every morning’s rise will seem like Opening Day.
Argus Leader Media columnist Stu Whitney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @stuwhitney
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