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In the booth with F.P. Santangelo

Nats’ TV analyst opens up about being a homer for the team, his love of broadcasting and being single in Old Town Alexandria.

Photo by Jonathan Timmes

We are coming up on baseball season, 162 games that grind from opening day on March 29 to sometime around Halloween when the World Series finally, finally comes to a merciful conclusion.

By season’s end, the players and coaches of the 30 professional teams in the MLB, along with their affiliated support crews, log hundreds of thousands of miles in six months of constant movement across the U.S. and Canada. A typical day might include landing at the airport, checking into the hotel, fitness workouts and batting practice, meetings, video studies and then playing a game that averages three hours—often longer, but rarely shorter.

Many times they pack up and leave immediately after the game, so as to reach the next destination with time to do the aforementioned process again. So add “checking out of the hotel” to the daily to-do list.

The travel is near constant, save for the occasional weeklong home stand. Days off are scarce.

And Frank-Paul Santangelo couldn’t be happier.

“I like structure,” he says. “I go stir crazy in the offseason. I get bored, I really do.”
Santangelo is beginning his eighth season as the Nationals’ color analyst on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, sharing the television broadcast booth with play-by-play announcer Bob Carpenter, who is in his 12th season with the Nats. This year marks Santangelo’s longest tenure in one baseball market, topping his seven years with the San Francisco Giants.

Actually, Santangelo is in his 18th year with the Montreal Expos-Washington Nationals franchise, including 10 years as a uniformed player.

After living in Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood for his first Nats seasons—close enough to Nationals Park that he could bike to work each day—Santangelo put down roots in Old Town Alexandria two years ago, buying a historic property south of King Street. Beyond saying “it’s pretty recognizable,” he demurs in saying much more. “I don’t want people knocking on the door at 8 in the morning, which has happened,” he says with a laugh.

“I like the people, I do love Old Town,” he says in the spacious booth overlooking the Nationals’ diamond one afternoon before a home game. In the offseason he’s likely to be at Virtue Feed and Grain on South Union Street. Otherwise, “I like to walk around and have a cold one on King Street” as well as host backyard barbecues at his house, he says.

For anyone in a fickle industry such as broadcasting—the Nats have had four TV analysts in their 13-year history—buying a home is a statement, one Santangelo is happy to make.
“I wanted to be a broadcaster who is part of the community,” he says. “That was really important to me. Most [announcers] fly in for the season and fly back to where they live, but I feel like I’m D.C. now. All my friends are here, my life is here and I decided to make my home here. And I just love it.”

It helps that his two children—F.P. Jr., 22, and Summer Jo, 20—are grown and attending college in California. With the occasional holiday excursion to see them, Santangelo lives full time in Old Town.

“Now I’m a Caps fan, now I’m a Redskins fan and a Wizards fan. I’m all in,” he says. “And I’m a Nats fan. That’s the way I broadcast. I just happen to be a fan that has a voice every night.”

Which brings up an issue some baseball fans have when discussing the merits of various broadcasters: That Santangelo is a “homer,” and not in the sense that he’s knocked a ball out of the park. A homer is a broadcaster or journalist who has a clear bias for the home team.

“I don’t think it’s a derogatory term,” he says firmly. “The most beloved broadcasters in the history of baseball were homers. When you look at the history of baseball, the broadcasters who have statues outside of ballparks, they were there for 30 or 40 years. You think you can be critical on a nightly basis? You might be lucky if you’re there two years.”

Besides, Santangelo is an employee of the Nationals and as such travels with the players and coaches on a daily basis.

“When you know every single player and you develop relationships with them, and you know their wives and kids … and you live with them for seven months, staying in the same hotels and riding the same buses … I’m not up here to rip people. I’m up here to explain the game to people, but I will tell them why maybe something happened that was negative.”

And who wants to hear more bad news coming from the television during downtime?

“Baseball is your escape,” he says. “Why would you want to hear a broadcaster who is negative and critical? If you do, listen to sports talk radio, that’s what they do. That’s not what I do.”

Santangelo’s deep empathy for the players and coaches comes not only from familiarity with their personalities, but also because he played in the major league for so long. “I remember how hard it was every day,” he says. “And it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things you can do.”

F.P. Santangelo was born in Michigan and moved to Sacramento, California, when he was 8. After playing baseball and majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Miami, Santangelo was selected by the Montreal Expos in the 20th round of the 1989 baseball draft.

He signed for $1,000—513 players were chosen ahead of him.

Four years later he worked his way up to playing Triple-A baseball (one notch down from the majors, but a world apart in accommodations and scheduling), making $13,000 a year, with a wife and child.

It was an emotional day when Santangelo, after seven years of playing in the minor leagues, made his major league debut on Aug. 2, 1995. “That was seven years of hard work,” he says. “A lot of not giving up and not quitting.”

He recalls the day he made his debut vividly: Santangelo arrived at the Expos’ clubhouse at 12:30 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. game. “The general manager, Bill Stoneman, said, ‘Don’t you think you’re a little early?’ and I said, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.’”

The manager, the legendary Felipe Alou, arrived at 1 p.m. and spotted Santangelo already ready to go at his locker. “He congratulated me and put me right into the eighth spot [in the batting order],” he says. “And I stayed there for seven years.”

He went 2-for-3 in his first at-bats, with his first hit being a triple. By the time his professional career wound down in 2001—after stints with the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics—he ended up hitting .245 with 21 home runs and 162 runs batted in.

He remains grateful to manager Alou not only for his big league career but for teaching him “how to respect the game on a daily basis and how to play hard every day,” he says.
Santangelo pays quiet homage to his former manager whenever the Nationals make their first hit of the evening by announcing, “There goes the no-hitter.”

“It’s a tribute to the greatest baseball man I know, maybe the greatest man I know,” he says. “He said it every night in the dugout whenever the Expos got their first hit … He always said that’s the first thing you have to take care of, the first hit.”

For 33 years, until the arrival of the Nationals in 2006, Washington-area baseball fans saw few first hits, or any hits at all for that matter. In 1971, the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers, leaving the nation’s capital without a home baseball team. True, the Baltimore Orioles were just 65 miles north, but it’s difficult to root passionately for another city’s team in a sport that demands nearly daily devotion.

Nationals Park // Photo by Jonathan Timmes

Other Washington sports teams came to dominate—particularly the NFL’s Washington Redskins—leaving a generation of baseball fans no team to pull for. Which is why Nationals fans—to this day—can be forgiven for not understanding the infield fly rule, the nuances of a cagey late-inning double-switch or when to leave your grandstand seat to get a hot dog: They’re still relatively new at being baseball fans.

Which is also why Santangelo is the ideal broadcast companion for those watching baseball games in Washington: He’s instructive without talking down to viewers; informative without being too “insider baseball” and statistics-driven; and he makes sure the viewer understands what they just saw—or are about to see in the case of an impending no-hitter.

“Part of my job, maybe most of my job, is teaching,” says Santangelo, who at one point was on the trajectory to become a baseball manager. “I don’t think my broadcast would go over very well in Boston or New York where there have been generations growing up with baseball.

“Both of my parents were educators”—his mother a school teacher, his father a coach—“and I get a lot of satisfaction teaching fans the intricacies of the game, the nuances of why things happen. People think I’m making excuses for players, but in reality I’m just trying to tell you why, for instance, someone threw a ball away: because their feet weren’t underneath them, he was off balance and he dropped his arm.

“‘I learn something every game I watch.’ I hear that everywhere I go.”

Thomas Boswell, an award-winning sports columnist who’s written for The Washington Post since the ’70s, sees the ways in which Santangelo’s broadcasts have positively affected fans’ understanding of America’s pastime. “F.P.’s particular appeal for this market is that he’s an instructor by nature,” says Boswell.

“Washington always had a core of sophisticated fans, especially among those who followed the Orioles as a semi-substitute for a home team. But a large part of the new Nats fan base needed to learn, or relearn or brush up on all the details of the game.”

“F.P. is a teacher, and a very enthusiastic student of the game. He’s someone who had to study all the correct techniques and details of the game to have a nice career himself,” says Boswell. “He’s been a MLB hitting coach [for the Class A San Jose Giants] but he’s also played both infield and outfield, so he has more experience at more positions than most color men.”

And if Santangelo spots something going on in the dugout or around the periphery of the playing field, chances are he knows what’s behind it, and he’ll illuminate his suspicions for the audience.

“He’s got a sly ballplayer humor,” Boswell notes. “He’s always watching expressions on faces, personality quirks in the dugout, so that what he says is fresh and directly related to the game in progress.”

Santangelo, at 51, keeps in shape with daily gym workouts and runs around the region.
He’s also single. In fact, he asks if we can make that the headline.

“It’s hard to have a relationship when you’re home for seven days and gone for 10,” he laments (he’s been married twice). “A date here and there and that’s about it. Our lives are not conducive to relationships and when you’re married in this world, you have to work really hard at it.

“But the payoff is, for six months, I’m available.”

When he’s asked what he would be doing as a career if baseball weren’t in his life, Santangelo struggles to think of an answer.

“It would be something to do with baseball,” he says, finally, after a long pause. “I’d be coaching if I wasn’t doing this. But non-baseball? I have no idea.”

Santangelo’s playing career yielded a Major League Baseball record that still stands long after his playing career: Most hit-by-pitches for a switch hitter in a single season. In 1997, Santangelo was plunked 25 times, and, in keeping with one of baseball’s ancient traditions, he rarely rubbed the wound. “You can’t show them it hurts!” he says emphatically, adding,

“There are some players I won’t name who are a little too dramatic.”

Remarkably, despite the career numbers and the solitary MLB record, Santangelo is represented in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

“It’s kind of blasphemous, me in Cooperstown,” he says, acknowledging the apparent over-achievement. “But such an honor.”

In the Nationals’ exhibit at the Hall’s museum, a mock locker contains an assortment of memorabilia, including Santangelo’s scorecard from May 11, 2016, hanging prominently front and center.

It’s the game when pitcher Max Scherzer struck out 20 Detroit Tigers, becoming just the fifth pitcher to have that many strikeouts in nine innings in the history of baseball.

Now that he’s reached Cooperstown, does Santangelo have post-Nats aspirations, perhaps of “going national” to a cable sports network or to the booth of a team in a larger market?

“Nope,” he says flatly. “I’m at the top of the mountain right here.

“I like being part of the community, I like being part of an organization and I like being at the ballpark every single day, not just once a week.

“No matter what’s going on in my personal life, I’m happy when I’m here. This is my happy place.”

(April 2018)

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