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On YouTube, Matt Antonelli is the star he once dreamed of being

Christian Petersen / Getty Images

The sun is barely squeezing through the clouds above Citi Field on a recent April afternoon, yet Matt Antonelli, resplendent in his Rockies uniform, swaggers into the batter's box with his shades on. A blonde mane spills out of his helmet. A monstrous, Barry Bonds-esque pad covers his left elbow.

As he takes his warmup hacks ahead of his first-inning at-bat against Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman, Antonelli's gaudy numbers flash across the screen. He's hitting .325 with a 1.282 OPS roughly two weeks into the season, which, even after adjusting for the steroidal effect of playing in Colorado, is still bananas. Those are video-game numbers.

And this, of course, is a video game, vicarious wish fulfillment made possible inside PlayStation's MLB The Show 20, then broadcast to the world via Antonelli's YouTube channel.

"I just turned down, like, a seven-year deal for like $69 million or something," Antonelli says, playing agent for his digital avatar. "I'm trying to beat Mike Trout. I want a $400-million contract."

Throughout his real-life baseball career, Antonelli didn't earn so much as $400,000, achieving neither fortune nor fame despite a lofty draft pedigree and the considerable promise he showed as a young professional. Antonelli, an offensively minded college second baseman who the San Diego Padres selected 17th overall in 2006, played only 21 games in the big leagues. He spent the remainder of his eight-year career underperforming expectations in the minors.

Matt Antonelli, right, celebrates Chase Headley's home run in 2008. Karl Gehring / Denver Post / Getty Images

Since retiring seven years ago, however, Antonelli has cultivated a handsome following on his YouTube channel, which boasts more than 147,000 subscribers, effectively leveraging the power of the internet and his big-league experience into a thriving post-playing career in digital media. His relatively recent foray into video-game streaming - and, particularly, the brilliant conceit of playing as himself and essentially reimagining his career in MLB The Show's create-a-player mode called Road to The Show - has only buttressed his growing internet celebrity, and could be a boon for his channel in the coming months with Major League Baseball on pause and fans starved for baseball content.

"When I was with the Padres, I'd go out to eat with members of the team after games," Antonelli says, "and not a single person during my career ever stopped me and said, 'Hey, you’re Matt Antonelli from the Padres.' It didn’t happen once in my career. But when it comes to YouTube and it comes to the video games and all that stuff, when I go to baseball tournaments now as a coach, I get asked for way more autographs than I ever got asked (for) in my entire life as a player."


Antonelli was hardly surprised when the Cleveland Indians released him from his minor-league contract less than a month into the 2013 campaign, and no other big-league club came calling. Nearly five years had passed since his lone cup of coffee in the bigs, when he hit .193/.292/.281 as a September call-up with the Padres, and Antonelli subsequently was ravaged by injuries while bouncing between five different organizations.

In his month-long stint with the Columbus Clippers, the Indians' Triple-A affiliate, Antonelli appeared in only three games. He went hitless in six at-bats. They cut him loose at the end of April following a four-game set against the Pawtucket Red Sox. Antonelli, who grew up in nearby Peabody, Massachusetts, didn't even bother heading back with the team to Columbus to collect his things. He went straight home. By July, Antonelli was officially retired at 28.

"My main goal when I was playing was I wanted to play in the major leagues, and it came to a point where I just didn’t think I was either good enough or healthy enough to get there, (so) I had to step away and pursue something else," he says. "The only teams that called were independent ball teams."

The anxiety of life after professional baseball didn't faze Antonelli, who knew exactly what he wanted to do: coach. Throughout his playing career, Antonelli would spend his offseasons helping out his dad, a longtime travel baseball coach in their Massachusetts hometown; he "knew it was something that I would probably look into doing when I was done playing."

Not long after being released by the Indians, he launched Antonelli Baseball, offering private instruction for aspiring young ballplayers, while also joining the coaching staff at Wake Forest University, his alma mater, as he worked toward the communications degree that professional baseball had interrupted. And with his coaching responsibilities mounting, Antonelli relied increasingly on YouTube, which he first toyed with during his playing days, as an instructional tool.

Antonelli works with a client in 2012. Boston Globe / Getty Images

"I kind of put (my channel) up there just to help answer some of the questions that our players were asking," Antonelli says. "And so we’d do different videos. I’d show fielding drills and hitting drills. That’s kind of how I originally started.

"I did that for a while, and I really enjoyed that. I got to connect with people from all over the country, baseball fans and baseball players looking for help. And that was great."

Still, their instructional merit notwithstanding, Antonelli's nascent videos were niche, tailored for serious ballplayers with serious aspirations. (A three-minute, 16-second video from July 2013 entitled Think the Situation Before You Do, for instance, received only 828 views.) Once Antonelli began centering himself in his videos, however, and mining his experience to illuminate or demystify things about life in the big leagues, his channel exploded.

"I was getting asked a lot of questions from people, you know, 'What was it like playing in the major leagues?' and all that stuff," recalls Antonelli. "So I did a video talking about - I think I talked about the gear that we received, as far as equipment goes. And I woke up the next day and that video had more views than every other video I had put up for the previous, like, eight years. I realized people were interested in that stuff."

That video, published in June 2017, has been watched 462,974 times.

Antonelli's channel has "evolved into a whole bunch of different things" since, and the latest addition to his content portfolio has had an outsized impact on his subscriber count and his overall profile. He has his players to thank for his MLB The Show content, and his adventures in Road to The Show, wherein a player creates an avatar then navigates his ascent through the minors to the big leagues.

Antonelli Baseball / YouTube

"I usually work with the high school guys a lot," Antonelli says, "and those guys were all playing the game, and they kept saying, 'Matt, you got to create your character on MLB The Show, play Road to The Show, and see if you can get back to the major leagues again.' And I thought it was funny. And I was like, 'Yeah, yeah. Probably not going to do that. I haven't played video games since my kids were born.' But they got on me enough, and I played a game in (August). Our summer season had ended, and I played. And the same kind of thing happened: I uploaded it (to YouTube), and like a day later I had like 40,000 or 50,000 views. And I was like, 'I can’t believe people are actually watching this.' It was just kind of going to be a joke.

"Now I've done, I think, almost 80 different videos showing my Road to The Show character, and I’ve gotten a lot more subscribers because of that. I think it just brings a different dynamic to the channel. It brings a new audience."

And this new audience is deeply invested in Antonelli's virtual career.

"I go to tournaments now and I travel around playing, and people talk to me about Road to The Show Matt - we call him Video Game Matt," Antonelli says. "They like him more than they like me, I think. It’s been a little strange, but I’ve got to meet a lot of new people because of it. It’s been pretty fun, honestly."


In hindsight, the timing of Antonelli's foray into MLB The Show content couldn't have been better. Right now, less than eight months after Antonelli first embarked on his Road to The Show journey, the appetite for video-game content among baseball fans is, absent real-life baseball, ravenous. Last week, in fact, Major League Baseball started its MLB The Show mini-season, pitting 30 big-league stars against one another for a virtual World Series and livestreaming every game on YouTube, Twitch, and Facebook.

Video Game Matt. Antonelli Baseball / YouTube

Antonelli's seen a jump in his MLB The Show video views on YouTube of late, and the hiatus also compelled him to create his own channel on Twitch, the preferred streaming service of gamers.

"I just think being inside with more time on people’s hands, they’re playing a lot more video games," he says. "They’ve got a little bit more time to watch.

"Probably a few weeks ago I started streaming games on Twitch. I had never even been on Twitch. I had never heard of Twitch, really, before a couple months ago. But now I've been streaming games on there, and we’re growing a community over there, too."

So long as baseball remains on pause, video-game content may well be the lone reliable driver of traffic on his YouTube channel.

"Typically this time of the year is when I see the most growth on my channel because everyone is in 'baseball mode,'" he says. "However, with MLB not playing right now, I have noticed my views on everything baseball related outside of video games is down."

Until social-distancing protocols are lifted, expect Antonelli and his video-game doppelganger to continue chugging along at a frenetic pace, jointly keeping his channel afloat and burnishing Antonelli's unlikely, after-the-fact fame in the process.

"We’re down in Georgia, playing in a big tournament, and I go into restaurants and kids notice me," Antonelli says of a past experience. "It’s the strangest, strangest thing ever. I guess that is the power of social media and the power of the internet. But it’s been really, really enjoyable. I never thought this would happen, but it’s a lot of fun."

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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