A Lifelong Love of Baseball: The Journey of Tim Kurkjian

Photo by Ben Solomon, (Courtesy of ESPN Press Room)

Baseball was the only language spoken in the Kurkjian household. At six years old, Tim went to the elementary school library with his father Badrig and found a book titled “Big Time Baseball.” Six years old without any money, Badrig said to Tim, “Alright if you can read the first paragraph, we’ll get you this book”. Tim successfully read the first paragraph, beginning a lifetime’s worth of baseball memories. 

In 1967 while in the sixth grade, Kurkjian was sitting in Ms. Marks class when his class received an invitation from the other sixth grade teacher Ms. Thiebert. Ms. Thiebert told all of the students, “You guys need to put your books down and put your pencils away because we’re gonna watch a baseball game.” Thiebert, a die-hard Red Sox fan, explained to the students that watching baseball for the next hour and a half was more important than studying. At this moment, Kurkjian came to an important realization.

“Wow [baseball] must be really important to other people also,” he said. “I’ll never forget that; it was a wonderful moment.”

Taking a break from academics to watch baseball was all too familiar for Kurkjian as it happened often in his house. Growing up, Kurkjian’s parents would tell him and his brothers to “Stop your studying, the World Series is on.” Badrig was an outstanding player in his own right, while Kurkjian’s brothers Matt and Andy are both in the Catholic University Baseball Hall of Fame.

However, baseball wasn’t the only sport he loved growing up. Attending Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, Kurkjian also loved basketball and football. Standing at 5-2 and 125 pounds when he graduated, Kurkjian realized playing sports beyond high school probably wasn’t realistic. Lacking many interests outside of sports, he knew that he had to stay in sports somehow. 

His mother, Joyce, was a brilliant writer. As a child, he would play tabletop games such as APBA or Strat-O-Matic and write about the games. Realizing he could still be involved with sports as a writer, Kurkjian decided to join his high school paper “The Pitch.” This jumpstarted Tim, although he admits the stories were nothing special. In fact, one day his gym teacher said, “That might be the worst story I’ve ever read in the school paper.”

“When I think about Maryland, I think about journalism.”

Despite the negativity, Tim continued at his craft and enrolled at the University of Maryland in 1974. Each of his four years at Maryland, Tim applied to The Diamondback, but was rejected. Instead, he ended up working for his local county paper, the Montgomery County Journal. When not in the classroom or writing, Tim was often at one of the basketball, football or baseball games continuing his love of sport. Throughout his time at Maryland, Kurkjian had the opportunity to watch several talented players including John Lucas and David Thompson.

“When I think about Maryland, I think about journalism,” Kurkjian said. “I think about learning how to do my job, but I also think about going to Cole Fieldhouse and watching some of the greatest basketball games I’ve ever seen.”

Photo by Dave Ottalini, (Courtesy of ESPN Front Row)

In 1978 upon graduation, Kurkjian took a position with the Washington Star, which was his first experience working at a daily newspaper. During his time there, Kurkjian had the opportunity to work alongside some great writers like Dan Shaughnessy and Steve Guback.

“The most important thing for me as a very young writer was to watch the veteran reporters work, to watch the veteran writers write,” Kurkjian said.

During his three years at the Star, Kurkjian had the opportunity to cover a variety of sports including: the Orioles, Navy Football and Virginia Basketball. However, in 1981 he found out that the paper folded and would be shutting down in two weeks. This announcement devastated Kurkjian. He had grown tremendously as a journalist, learning how great writers, reporters and columnists did their job.

“I was stunned, I was shocked, I cried because I wanted to work there the rest of my life and suddenly it was over,” Kurkjian said.

After leaving his first daily newspaper, Kurkjian was hired at the Baltimore News American. After a brief two-month stint there, that paper also folded. Now, Kurkjian was a 23-year-old young journalist who’d lost two jobs in two months with the circumstances completely out of his control. Unsure of what was next, Kurkjian was offered a job at the Dallas Morning News. Moving to Texas was a frightening step for Kurkjian who had never left the state of Maryland before. His previous sports editor, Dave Smith from the Star, was also hired at the Dallas Morning News, which provided Kurkjian some comfort and a familiar face.

After working there for a month and half, Kurkjian received the first big break of his career. Skip Bayless, a columnist at the Dallas Morning News at the time, left for the Dallas Times Herald. With Bayless’ departure, Randy Galloway, the previous baseball writer, was promoted to columnist. Kurkjian was then promoted to be the beat writer for the Texas Rangers. While Kurkjian was confident in his knowledge of baseball, that first year on the beat proved to be a challenge as he didn’t have the time to cultivate relationships and sources.

“I got killed the first year on the beat and I’m not afraid to say that,” Kurkjian said. “It was a great learning experience for me.”

“That was the most powerful night I’ve ever spent in a ballpark…”

He covered the Texas Rangers for three more seasons before moving back to Maryland in 1986 where he landed a job with the Baltimore Sun. Although he was a more experienced journalist now, covering the Orioles was an entirely new experience. He had to undergo the same process as in Dallas, spending time to build relationships with sources. However, in Baltimore, he was now writing for a much bigger audience compared to his time in Dallas. Even though the Orioles didn’t enjoy much success during those years, regardless of their record they were still the biggest game in town every night. As a result, Kurkjian’s stories would always be on the front page of the Sun the next morning, which was not something he was accustomed to in Dallas.

In 1989, Kurkjian was hired at Sports Illustrated— another monumental step up in his career. Now at SI, Kurkjian felt an enormous amount of pressure, much of which was self-imposed. Kurkjian knew he understood the game of baseball as well as anyone but didn’t believe he could write as well as everyone else. He used this as motivation with every story he wrote.

“At SI, I felt like a football player,” Kurkjian said. “I’m only playing once a week and if I stink it up on Sunday the one week that I write I have to wait another week to make up for it.”

During his eight years at SI, Kurkjian was granted an opportunity not many other journalists received. During his time covering the Orioles, Kurkjian built a strong relationship with Cal Ripken Jr. and was granted access to shadow him for a week. He had the opportunity to travel with Ripken from his gym to his house and to the ballpark. Remarkably, during his week spent with Ripken, Kurkjian only wrote down 30 seconds worth of notes, instead he just observed. 

(Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)

During that week, on Sep. 6, 1995 Ripken became the official “Iron Man” of Major League Baseball playing for 2131 consecutive games. That night, Kurkjian drove home with Ripken from the ballpark and at 1:30 a.m. outside of Camden Yards a man held a sign saying, “Thank you Cal for saving baseball.”

“That was the most powerful night I’ve ever spent in a ballpark,” Kurkjian said. “To me that’s what that night was about, that’s what my story was about.”

Just show up and try.

Kurkjian made his final career transition joining ESPN in 1998. When he joined ESPN, there were no writers on TV aside from Peter Gammons. Kurkjian was still confident in his knowledge of the game and how to tell a story, but the process was completely different on television as opposed to writing. While Kurkjian doesn’t love TV more than he loves to write, television offered a unique benefit with its spontaneity.

“At ESPN, I’m covering a World Series game and as soon as it’s over I get to weigh in on it,” Kurkjian said.

During his time at ESPN, Kurkjian also decided to become an author of three books. For the first one, “America’s Game,” he was approached by Crown Publishing asking him to author a book. However, Kurkjian’s second and third books were his own inspiration. Throughout his career, Kurkjian’s father told him he needed to put all of the stories that he’d collected in one place. 

Listening to his father’s great baseball mind, Kurkjian did exactly that in his second and third books. His second book, “Is this a Great Game or What” focused on his first 35 years in the business. His third book, “I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies” followed a similar idea chronicling 10 more years’ worth of stories and it also made the New York Times Bestseller list.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever been prouder of anything than that,” Kurkjian said.

Spending over 45 years in the sports journalism industry, Kurkjian has learned several important lessons. Despite the great success Kurkjian has enjoyed throughout his illustrious career, he attributes that to “just showing up and trying.” Because Kurkjian knew sports journalism was what he really wanted to pursue, he continued to show up and improve at this craft. He also always made sure to say yes if an editor or boss asked him to do something.

However, Kurkjian also learned that curiosity throughout your career is vital as a journalist. When looking at a box score or something that happened in a game, you always need to ask more questions and wonder further about what happened.

“As long as you’re curious enough to be interested in what you’re watching out there, you always have a chance,” Kurkjian said. “Just show up and try and be curious and be ready whenever the time comes, you’ll be fine in this business.”

For sports fans who may not know of Kurkjian’s coverage, they surely know his voice. Kurkjian certainly has one of the most distinct voices in the industry, as has become a running joke during his career. Players such as J.P. Arencibia went on ESPN and imitated Kurkjian’s voice to his colleagues. While this may have bothered many, Kurkjian embraced it and rolled with the punches. 

“You have to embrace who you are, and you have to have a laugh covering this sport,” Kurkjian said.

57 years after buying “Big Time Baseball” with his dad Kurkjian is doing exactly that, embracing who he is and bringing the spoken language of baseball that was so popular in his house to homes across the world.