"I'm gonna beat this."
Every conversation with Mel Antonen over the past year, every email, every Zoom, every FaceTime, every single interaction included these words.
Dealt a horrible hand with multiple health issues - something called hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare autoimmune disease that attacked his liver, followed by bouts with COVID-19 and then lymphoma - Mel battled to the very end. Unfortunately, that came late Saturday night, when he passed in his sleep. Mel was 64.
I don't know anyone who has fought more bravely than Mel against so many insidious obstacles that defied medical treatment. For more than a year, since returning from a family trip to England over the holidays, he's been in and out of the hospital, on a first-name basis with more medical professionals than anyone might imagine and stared down death on a daily basis with those four words, equal parts personal mantra and reassuring comfort to his family, friend and coworkers.
"I'm gonna beat this."
Hearing Mel say those words, with his trademark hearty laugh and a twinkle in the blue eyes behind his eyeglasses, it was hard to argue with him. If courage and determination were how we measure someone's battle with health issues, Mel showed grace, dignity and passion in his long, uphill struggle.
When he first took ill, several weeks after one of our far-too-infrequent lunch meetings that stretched over a couple of hours at Dempsey's Brew Pub & Restaurant at Camden Yards, Mel didn't seek sympathy. He apologized for not writing anything for a couple of weeks because he hadn't been feeling well.
We came to an understanding very quickly: He could write when he felt up to it. It was more important for him to focus on getting better, being a good husband to Lisa and a good father to Emmett. Though telling readers what was happening in baseball was one of the things Mel did best, he was determined to defeat what was slowly robbing him of energy and the ability to function on a day-to-day basis.
As the pandemic wore on, delaying the start of baseball's season and making covering the sport a chaotic nightmare, Mel rallied. He felt good enough to write his previews heading into the truncated campaign. He scored an exclusive interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci to talk about COVID-19 and his Nationals fandom, and he penned a very personal account of his battle to clue his longtime readers into the reason his byline had been so sporadic.
Though I'd known Mel for years from his work on the baseball beat at USA Today, I became fast friends with him during my time at MASNsports.com, where he functioned as our national baseball writer. A few days after I was hired, I learned that Mel would be writing for us, in addition to doing some video projects and serving on the nightly roundtable panel on the network's "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report."
I'm not sure who was luckier - Mel for getting to do what he loved after leaving USA Today, or us for getting to work with and hear from a guy with a baseball resume we could only dream to have. Mel knew everyone in the game, and walking through the lobbies, halls and corridors with him at the Winter Meetings each December was like trying to walk the streets of New York unnoticed with Babe Ruth by your side.
People would stop to chat with Mel and he'd always gladly make an introduction. One thing Mel got more than most: The game is about people and their stories make good copy. He learned to listen to them, gain their trust and work hard to tell their stories. He could be critical but fair, a combination that's sometimes lacking in the media world.
Mel was a hardworking and calming person to be around. At my first Winter Meetings in Dallas in 2011, I was both a kid in a candy store and a fish out of water. I'd never covered the event before, and some staffing changes landed me there on the Nationals beat (in addition to editing the Orioles coverage on our site). To say the least, it was a little overwhelming. A dream come true, but had I bitten off more than I could chew?
The evening I arrived at the headquarters hotel, Mel sought me out to go over our coverage plans. That didn't take long; I asked him to file nightly to wrap up the big-picture news of the day, while our Orioles and Nationals writers handled the team-specific news. But Mel, being someone who knew from experience how chaotic the Winter Meetings could be, sensed my apprehension and immediately pivoted to coach me up.
"You know what you're doing," he told me. "And if I hear something that you can use, I'll share it with you. How's that sound? We'll work together."
The next morning, he pulled me aside in the workroom and whispered about the Red Sox and Nats discussing a swap that could land them outfielders Ryan Kalish and/or Josh Reddick in discussions for pitchers Ross Detwiler or Collin Balester. I thanked Mel, ran with it and had my first Winter Meetings byline. That the deal never came to pass is inconsequential. Later that night, in the hotel lobby, I sipped a frosty, cold beer with Mel and toasted the completion of the first of many days spent chasing down rumors, working contacts and trying to read between the lines when general managers spoke.
"You did great," Mel told me. It remains one of the best compliments I've ever been paid.
Interactions with Mel were always fun, punctuated with stories and laughter, and usually included him asking a lot of questions. He cared deeply about his friends - and I'm blessed to have counted him as one - and what mattered to them mattered to him. Call it the commutative property of friendship. If Mel considered you a friend, you were a friend for life and he would be there for you.
Two summers ago, when my dementia-ridden mother was spiraling out of control, bouncing between the hospital and rehabilitation center while dealing with a broken wrist and then a broken hip, Mel would spy me eating alone in the press lounge at the ballpark and ask if he could join me. He'd ask about my mom and her prognosis, but he'd also pull no punches in seeing how I was doing.
"How are you?" he'd ask, and then, before I could start to answer, he'd follow with, "How are you really doing?"
For the last several months of my mom's life, the ballpark was a place of respite where things could follow a set schedule, where the games were played night in and night out, where all the craziness gave way to familiar routine. And nothing was more welcoming than having Mel ask, "Can I join you? How you doing?"
When you're struggling, you find out quickly who your friends are. And during the whole of mom's illness through her death, Mel was always there to check, to comfort and to remind me that better days were ahead.
"You're gonna be OK," he'd tell me. "And if you think you're not, you call me."
More planning went into our lunches every few months than you could imagine. My schedule would change at the last minute and I'd have to reschedule. Or Mel would be burning the candle at both ends - doing his work for MASN and then spending a few hours on the late-night shift at SiriusXM to talk baseball with the masses on MLB Network Radio - and need to find a few minutes to just rest before repeating the whole shebang, Groundhog Day-style.
But through it all, Mel always went out of his way to let you how much he appreciated your efforts. He'd thank me for a critical edit. Few writers and their editors enjoy that kind of relationship.
And Mel loved being at the ballpark, in the press box, sitting among his fellow writers and broadcasters. It didn't matter if the game went extra innings or if there was a rain delay. You were covering baseball; what did you have to complain about? At the World Series games at Nationals Park two seasons ago, he pulled me aside. At first, I thought Mel was going to clue me in to a scoop or some breaking news.
"Isn't this the greatest?" he said, his smile as big as the gap in left-center field. "Take a few minutes to enjoy this. Soak it in. You never know if or when you'll get to do this again."
Our last lunch get-together was about a year ago. I heard about the trip Mel, Lisa and Emmett took to England. Oh, how Mel loved spending time with his family. He enjoyed telling me how he grew to love baseball growing up in South Dakota and driving hours to Minneapolis to see a major league game. He returned to South Dakota regularly, and loved covering amateur baseball in his home state. In 2017, he was inducted into the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame - just as his father, Ray, had been - and Mel was surprised when I got wind of the honor and wrote about it on our site.
Over the past year, our chats had become more infrequent as Mel trained his attentions on learning everything he could about the conditions that were robbing him of his energy and how he could combat them. He wanted so much to be a good husband, growing old with Lisa, and a doting father, watching Emmett grow from a teenager into a young man. And he was determined to remain hopeful, even when the odds seemed firmly stacked against him.
"I'm gonna beat this."
On Wednesday morning, I woke up at my new condo in Ocean City, Md., checked my iPhone and discovered that at 6:11 a.m., Mel had tried to video chat with me. I'm wishing I hadn't silenced my phone. I messaged him back that I was sorry I missed the opportunity and to let me know when we could try again. Over the next couple of days, I heard from some writer friends that Mel had been reaching out to them to talk Hall of Fame voting, the latest moves by the Orioles and Nats, and other baseball news.
I've always told folks that the best thing about working in baseball is the people you meet. Players, executives, staff, writers, broadcasters - everyone has a unique story, and with a little prodding, most are more than willing to share it.
Mel was one of the game's good people, a dogged reporter and gifted storyteller who had a unique ability to connect with any number of folks on a variety of levels. If I found a spelling mistake or factual error while editing his copy, he'd apologize profusely. Because more than anything, Mel understood the idea of getting the information correct so that the story wasn't in any way obscured.
From a professional standpoint, it's been my great honor to work closely with him. From a personal standpoint, I will miss a dear friend and coworker who innately knew how to lift people up and see the good in them. And, most importantly, to point out that good and make sure they knew about it.
Rest easy, Mel. Be at peace after your long and courageous battle. You fought hard, and for all the right reasons. I'm thankful for years of friendship, chats and baseball banter. But your passing leaves a huge void in a world you made better just by being yourself.