OPINION — Opening Day should be a national holiday.
This year, it was especially sweet — even with the Twins and my Giants blowing big leads late — since we didn’t have an official Opening Day last year. Well we did, sorta. But COVID-19 delayed the season until July, and only 60 regular season games were played instead of the normal 162.
There was no All-Star Game, and fans were kept away to reduce risk. To make matters even worse, the damn Dodgers won the World Series. As I said, I am a Giants fan.
So it’s great to have baseball back. I’ve been a fan for more than half a century and I found myself more excited about the start of the season than I have been in years.
I have been reminded of Opening Days I attended, such as the Twins’ 1979 home opener, when 37,529 fans packed Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., to greet their returning hero Rod Carew, who had forced a trade to the California Angels because of the racist comments Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith had spewed during a drunken appearance at a Waseca, Minn., dinner.
It was a record turnout for the first game of the season, with a sunny spring day making fans thirsty for baseball and beer. The Twins failed to quench their desire for either, as the team stumbled to a 6-0 loss, and Angels ace Nolan Ryan struck out 10 on the way to a shutout.
Griffith, a renowned tightwad, had not anticipated the crowd, so there were not enough employees to handle parking, which was a mess, or sell beer, popcorn and hot dogs.
It was a glorious day in the bleachers, at least for me. Our trip was unexpected, but when we were playing softball the night before, the weather was so warm we decided to head to the Twin Cities and catch the game.
We had a few drinks along the way, closing a bar in a small town. My friends suffered from terrible hangovers and were miserable in the sun without a beer or two to ease their pain. I had not imbibed that much, and not being a Twins’ fan, their ineptitude on the diamond didn’t hurt as much.
I went to Opening Day 1986 with a different group of friends in Houston to see my Giants take on the Astros. Once again, Nolan Ryan was pitching, but he didn’t get a shutout this time. San Francisco first baseman Will Clark, in his first big league at-bat, homered to dead center in the Astrodome as the Giants won 8-3.
We didn’t witness that memorable moment, arriving a tad late. Will the Thrill is one of my favorite players ever, so I can’t believe we missed that while walking through the enormous parking lot.
The 1986 Astros had a tremendous season, winning 96 games and the National League West Division. I covered some games for the Galveston Daily News and went to others as a fan. As a reporter, I loved to go early and hang around the batting cage to watch the players hit and listen to them tease and joke with each other.
There was one game when I interviewed Yogi Berra, an Astros coach, and also talked with Johnny Bench, who was a Reds’ announcer. Reds manager Pete Rose was also there, as was Astros coach Gene Tenace, the MVP of the 1972 World Series.
For a baseball fan like me, it was an amazing day. The fact that I was paid to be there makes it my favorite “work” day ever.
There is a sad note to the start of the 2021 season. A son of South Dakota who loved and knew baseball as well as anyone, Mel Antonen, won’t be here to watch or write about it.
Antonen (seen above in an image from the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame website), a Lake Norden native, rose to the top of the sports-writing world covering baseball and other sports for USA Today, Sports Illustrated and other media outlets.
He died on Jan. 6. Mel was just 64.
I read Mel’s work for decades. He was insightful, added wit and a historic perspective and his passion for the game came through with every word.
I grew up on a farm outside of Estelline, just a few miles from Lake Norden, and we were just two years apart. We both attended SDSU and wrote for the Argus Leader but our paths never crossed, at least not in person.
We became Facebook friends a few years ago and chatted there several times. I told him how much I admired his work and he was very complimentary of my political coverage and encouraged me to keep digging for stories.
I’d rather have done what Mel did so well. He covered big league baseball, saw thousands of games and interviewed all the stars, as well as legends like Joe DiMaggio, who rarely talked to reporters.
But Mel wore him down and got a lengthy interview that he turned into a wonderful piece. He wrote about baseball expertly and talked about the game with knowledge and wit.
“A baseball park in my mind is a home,” Mel said when he was inducted into the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. “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.”
His longtime friend and colleague at the SDSU Collegian, the Argus and USA Today, Chuck Raasch, wrote a touching tribute to Mel. Chuck, a Castlewood native, played baseball against Mel when they were kids, and they both rose to prominence as journalists. They shared a friendship and a love for baseball.
One of my earliest memories of Mel’s work was a column he wrote for the Argus about pitching for his hometown Lake Norden Lakers. His father Ray Antonen was the most important figure in South Dakota baseball history.
That’s why the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame is in Lake Norden — admission is free, and it’s well worth a trip — and the local ballfield is a gem. Mel used to tend to the field in the mornings and then play on the gleaming, pristine diamond at night.
My father Vernon, who played baseball for many years, was a lifelong fan. He knew Ray Antonen and admired his devotion to the game. I shared that with Mel when we talked online in the last few years.
Ray befriended many baseball players, including Tony Oliva, the Twins’ legendary right fielder. After he retired, Oliva came to Lake Norden for a game.
Mel pitched to him. In the Argus column, Mel said he was in reverie as the great Twins’ star stepped in the batter’s box. But he awoke from the dream when Tony O whistled a line drive past his ear.
Mel battled hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare autoimmune disease for a year. He also came down with the coronavirus; his doctors told him he may have been the only person in the world with that dual challenge. He also was afflicted with lymphoma, which was just so unfair. Still, he was determined to pull out victory in his final at-bat.
He and his wife provided regular updates and their many friends and admirers like me hoped he would recover. At times, he seemed to be turning the corner and would be safe at home.
But life, like baseball, can be heartbreaking, with favorite teams denied a championship and beloved players growing old and unable to get around on the fastball. Life is full of disappointments, which is why we must celebrate the happy times, like Opening Day.
It’s a damn shame Mel isn’t here to write about it. He deserved many more innings.
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