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ESPN's Kurkjian heading to Cooperstown after lifetime in baseball

Tim Kurkjian of ESPN
Jeff Kern, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Tim Kurkjian of ESPN

Tim Kurkjian has spent his life in baseball, and now he’ll be part of baseball history forever. Kurkjian has just received the top award for a baseball writer from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, and will be honored at July’s induction ceremony. Elected by his peers, Kurkjian is best known for his baseball coverage on ESPN since 1998, and has also covered the sport for Sports Illustrated and many newspapers. The Emmy winner has also published three books about the sport.

Kurkjian spoke with WAMC on Wednesday.

It was a wonderful day yesterday, the greatest day of my professional life. And I am just so honored to be nominated. I'm so honored to have won this award. There were several times yesterday I just had to go into a room by myself. That's how emotional it was for me. And that's because I love baseball that much.

What did you think about? You know, you've been in the game for so long. What kind of memories came to you yesterday when you heard about the news?

Well, I always think about my dad first. He died in 2003. He was the greatest dad ever. And he taught his three boys how to play baseball, he gave us a great feel for the game. He taught us how to love the game. This is something that has been with me my entire life. Baseball is the only language we spoke in my house growing up. And anytime that I think of anything related to baseball, I think my dad first and so I had a few moments yesterday with my brother, talking about my dad and how much he would have enjoyed this. So he is the focal point in everything I've ever done in baseball. He was a really good player. He was also a PhD in mathematics, MIT undergrad. So all the statistical work that I like to do, and I'm not very good at it, compared to him, it all came from my father. And so I thought about him yesterday. And my mother was a wonderful writer, and I’ll never be as good as my mom. But I thought about my mom yesterday because it was a great combination of the love of the game and the mathematical end came from my dad and the writing end, and at least some of it, most of it, came from my mother.

Something you said a few years ago has stuck with me about your parents. Your mom battled Alzheimer's disease. And you talked about how even though she was not a baseball fanatic, she sort of permitted the house lingua franca to be baseball. Is that accurate?

Yeah, my mother was born in England. So she grew up playing cricket. She grew up playing, you know, field hockey, so she wasn't a baseball fan growing up. And then she marries my father who loves the game more than anyone I've ever met. And then she's caught in this baseball household every day. And my dad loved my mom so much. But the only time I ever saw him take her on was in 1968 at the dinner table when she told us that she thinks a cricket player throws a ball harder than a baseball pitcher does, to which my dad very politely looked at my mom and said Joy, no cricket player throws a baseball harder than Bob Gibson, OK? And that's about the only time I ever saw my dad disagree with my mother. And it was a baseball moment. And it was a beautiful moment because even though my mom didn't know much about the game, she was the one that put us in the station wagon and drove us to all of our games growing up, all three of her boys.

How did the two of them meet and get together?

Well, my mother came from England in her mid-20s. She went to work in Washington D.C., got set up on a blind date with my father and they were married for 52 years. And it was a wonderful, wonderful connection. And everything I do in my life is based on what my mother and my father taught me. It was just the greatest lessons ever.

This happens to a lot of people who are passionate about sports: at some point, they realize they're much more likely to cover the game than to play the game. How did you get into baseball journalism early on?

Well, I went to Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, named after the greatest pitcher of all time, so I played baseball and basketball in high school, but when I graduated, I was you know 5-foot-3, 120 pounds. And I kind of realized my baseball and basketball careers weren't going to advance much farther than this. So I had written for the school paper at Walter Johnson, it was called The Pitch. And I did a little bit of work for the yearbook, it was called The Wind-Up.

So it was kind of then that I got an idea that even though I was a terrible writer in high school, it at least gave me the idea that maybe I can make a career out of writing about baseball, if I can't play baseball. So that's really where it started. And then I just kept writing and writing and writing. And I kind of figured it out eventually, again, much with much help from my mother. And so that's where it came from. I realized I don't have a whole lot of interest, I'm not very good at a lot of things, but I really love baseball. And somehow I got to turn this into a career. And writing was the way even though it took quite some time.

A lot of your colleagues since this award has been announced are talking about your sense of competition in the job as a beat reporter. They've all said, to a person, that you're a very friendly and great guy to be around the ballpark with. But they've all said that, you know, you would just outwork anybody. Where does that sense of drive come from?

Well, again, everything comes from my mom and dad, my father was brilliant man. But he used to say, Look, you got to show up, and you got to try every day. If you do that, then everything else is going to take care of itself. So I probably shouldn't look at things this way, but you know, on the beat, that's a very difficult job going up against two other three other great writers and reporters, it becomes a win-lose situation, you either win or you lose. You either do the job or correctly or you don't. That's what my father and mother pointed out, that if you're going to do this job, you better do it right. And I learned that at a very young age, in the new newspaper business, I got my brains beat out on the beat the first year because I didn't know what I was doing. But then it became a competition. All right, I gotta get better at this. Not only do I have to keep my job, I have to start to win at this job. And eventually, eventually, I figured out kind of how to do that.

How do you do that? What did you figure out?

Well, I just figured out that I got to try harder than everyone else. I worked against some guys who are way better writers than I than I ever was. So I figured, how am I going to beat these guys? I'm just going to have to be the guy who shows up at the ballpark at 1 o'clock or 2 o'clock in the afternoon for a 7 o'clock game, I'm gonna have to be the guy who writes later than everyone else, I'm just going to have to be the guy who tries harder than everyone else, because I'm not as good as a lot of these people that I'm covering with. So that's pretty much where it came from is I said, How can I win here without great talent? And the answer is you better have a great work ethic. And again, that was instilled by my mom and my dad.

A lot of people in that situation even though it might be rewarding professionally, eventually will lose the passion or the love for the subject matter. That didn't happen with you, did it?

No, it never has. I love the game as much today as I ever have. I love going to the games. I love talking to the players as much as I ever have. I love waking up in the morning and looking at the box scores at 6 o'clock, 5 o'clock in the morning, whatever. Because that's where the great stories come from. If you read the box scores every morning, it just gives you a baseline for where we're going today in baseball, so I've never lost that. But again, the lesson is that baseball tries every once in a while to kill itself with lockouts and strikes and steroids and sticky substances, but the game the game never loses. It always wins in the end because it's the best game ever. It's the hardest game ever. And that's why I love it so much, is it's just so seductive. Once it grabs you it never let you go.

Tim, you're about to turn 65 as we speak. Most players are in their 20s or so. Do you find it more difficult to relate to them now?

Not with the players because we're still talking about the same thing and we have a shared love for baseball. So as long as I'm talking to them about baseball, I’m very comfortable talking to them because we both love that the game. It's the other parts of the job. It's the technology, it’s Twitter, it’s cameras. It's a different journalism. That's the hard part for an old guy like me is trying to keep up with all the technological advances.

You know, when I first started covering baseball in the late 70s, I mean, there was three deadlines a night, if you had a story, it lived for, you know, well over 24 hours. Well, now it's a 24-hour news cycle. And those of the adjustments that I've had to make. They have not been easy, because I'm terrible at technology, but I'm trying. But when it comes to the players, I still feel confident that I can go talk to any player, even if he's 40 years younger than me, and have a baseball conversation, because that's what I'd like to do more than anything.

It's interesting to hear you say that, because you made the jump to television, to ESPN in the 90s at a time when that was the dominant technology. How did you make the transition from being primarily in print, to then being a guy who was really associated with the TV broadcast and Sunday Night Baseball and so on?

Yeah, that was not an easy transition. I, I spent a fortune on clothes first. And then I then I had to wear more makeup than my wife. And then I spent a lot of time walking around in a circle talking to myself prepping for games and shows. But my beat writing experience, the 10 years I spent on the beat, prepared me for television, it prepared me for the radio, it prepared me for working at Sports Illustrated. There's no better job, at least back then for a young baseball guy was to be the beat guy for 10 years. I learned to write on deadline and learn to write quickly. I learned how to get a story even though I missed a bunch of them early. So I started in the right place. And I owe everything I have to my newspaper days because they prepared me for everything else that I do on TV and anywhere else.

What is your offseason like? You know, you go from a job where there's 30 teams playing every single day, basically from spring training through November now. And then all of a sudden, there are no games and as we speak right now, we're in the midst of the first labor stoppage in 25 years.

Yeah, I'm not real great in the offseason. I enjoy the nightly games. That's what excites me about baseball. I'm not as excited about chasing down rumors in a new journalism these days in the offseason, even though I love being at home and not traveling and being with my family. All of that is great. But when it comes to the work, I prefer to watch the games because the games tell you where the story is. So-and-so hit three home runs last night or The Rays have won 14 games in a row. The box scores tell you what the story is. In the offseason, it's different. You really have to chase and now this offseason is completely different for the first time in 26 years, because there there's nothing to do right now. And it's a really difficult time when you have to go find something that might not even be there.

What's your sense of the labor stoppage of the lockout? Do you think this will get resolved in time for, you know, a normal spring training and a normal season?

Well, note my hesitation but yes, I think we will, because I think everyone eventually is going to recognize how much damage will be done by an extended lockout work stoppage. I think everyone in the game recognizes that baseball, sadly, isn't as popular as it was when I first started 42 years ago. We can't afford to have spring training, you know, reduced. So I'm hoping by February 1st this gets done. And we start the major league season on time on April 1st but I'm worried because the two sides, the union and the owners, are so far apart. But hopefully they'll find some common ground and we'll get this done. Because there's simply too much money to be lost and too much damage to be done by an extended lockout.

Do you have a favorite team or era that you covered?

Well, I'm not allowed to root for teams as we know because I have to stay as objective as possible. But you know, my favorite teams are the teams that tell the best story when the Cubs won in 2016 for the first time since 1908, that was a great story. When the Red Sox finally won in 2004 for the first time since 1918, that was a great story. I love great stories and that's all I'm rooting for.

As for my favorite eras, well, again, I'm almost 65 years old. The era in which I grew up watching those players play in the 60s and the 70s….I just wrote a story last summer on the 1971 All Star game, the 50th anniversary, I'll never forget as long as I live how great that game was, how great that era was. So today's players are bigger, stronger, faster, probably better than ever. But I think the game was played overall better in the early 70s when I was 15 years old, and it was right in my wheelhouse. So that was my favorite era because there were Hall of Famers everywhere. And they were truly, truly playing for a love of the game.

Do you fret at all about the way the game is played today? And you know, to put that into shorthand, way more homeruns, way more strikeouts, not a lot of action compared to the era you're talking about.

Yeah, look, I'm always gonna love the game, no matter what the era is. But this era is too many walks, too many strikeouts, too many home runs and not enough action and it needs to be fixed. I mean, there's still so many great players to keep us you know, entertained every night. But we need to find a way to put the ball in play more often, we need to find a way to somehow go back to 1971 when the All-Star Game was played in 2 hours and 6 minutes, one of the greatest games we've ever seen. We need pitchers to want the hitter to hit the ball. We want hitters who want to put the ball in play. We want to see the brilliance of our middle infielders, especially with balls in play. That's what we need to do. But there's no quick fix there. It's going to take some time.

Do you have any ideas about how to do it?

Well, those ideas are going to take way too long. But a pitch clock might start some things. And I think it's time to start to look at the shift and see if there's a better way to do that. Maybe it'll be better if we start every defensive play with two guys on each side of second base. And their feet have to be on the dirt. Mark Teixeira, my dear friend who I worked with all those years at ESPN, convinced me that maybe that's part of the problem is when you see three guys lined up on the right side and you're a left handed hitter, you say, Well, I can't hit it through the shift. I have to hit it over this shift. And that's where we get the guys trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark. And that's where all the strikeouts come from, many of the walks come from, and a lot of the homeruns come from. That's at least a start. But we need to do more than that to correct this issue.

The Atlanta Braves are reigning champs. How surprised were you by their title run?

Well, I wasn't surprised at the end. But if you had asked me in mid-September, can the Braves win the World Series? The answer was probably no. They had 88 wins, fewest wins of any team going into the playoffs. They didn't get over .500 this year until August 6th but this is why baseball is the best game is, basically the last team in, the Braves, won the World Series. It cannot happen like that. In the NBA, the last team in never went into Chicago Stadium and beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls or the Warriors with Steph Curry and that group. But and same thing in football. But in baseball, it's possible. You get hot at the right time. The game is so difficult to play that when things start to connect in the right way, that's how you win. And that's what baseball provides. And that's what the Atlanta Braves provided in 2021.

You'll be taking your space in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this summer. Is there a certain piece of memorabilia or a plaque or something in the museum that you'd like to check out when you're there?

Well, I've been so many times, I've been through that museum so many times. So what what I’ll take with me is a phone call I got this morning. I know I'm dropping names here. But Johnny Bench called me this morning to congratulate me. Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher of all time and he said welcome to The Club. And I almost started to cry again. That's how meaningful and powerful that is for me. So when I go there, I'll think about all the times that I went there as a writer and will continue to go to see guys inducted and this time I'll have something to do with it and I can't even begin to tell you how great that is for me and my family.

Congratulations again. I'm one of millions who absorbed your enthusiasm for the game through ESPN and watching you all the time. Tim, thanks for all the time and congratulations.

Thank you, Ian, I appreciate it.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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