On Saturday night, The Diamond Club hosted the Fifth Annual First Pitch Dinner for Georgetown baseball and welcomed ESPN baseball writer and analyst Tim Kurkjian for the keynote address. Kurkjian has been an institution in baseball for the last three decades. He has been at every All-Star Game for the last 28 years, and has voted for the Hall of Fame and attended the World Series for over 20 consecutive years.
Kurkjian has seen and talked to all the great players and the ones you may not have heard about, and he entertained the crowd in the Leavey Center Ballroom with both his comical stories about past players and his wise insight into the game of baseball.
“Baseball is the best game .for a million different reasons,” Kurkjian began, highlighting both the statistical and traditional aspects of the game. A great admirer of Walter Johnson – he graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md. – Kurkjian gave his first of many memorable lines: “true greatness transcends all eras.” He gripped the attention of both the young and old athletes in the room as he discussed the legacies and statistics of legends Ted Williams, Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth. He further noted that baseball’s past is still relevant today and stressed his view that players from the past could play at the same level in this new era of baseball.
But why did he assert so passionately that baseball was the best sport? First, “the players look like us,” noting the small stature of AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and the librarian-like looks of future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, in contrast to the height of NBA stars or the mass of NFL players. Kurkjian’s excitement about the game was clear as he moved quickly but smoothly from one anecdote to another without notes or even hesitation, impressing the crowd with statistics about Tony Gwynn and unknown feats of George Brett on the golf course.
He also stressed that baseball is the hardest game to play, which he said a lot of people, including fans, don’t always understand. He spoke about all-stars and Hall of Famers who woke up on certain mornings and were uncertain as to whether they would be able to still hit the ball that day or if they could continue playing at such a high level.
“It’s a skill sport,” Kurkjian remarked, but he added that the one way to fight that feeling is to be competitive. “These are the most competitive men,” he said, noting Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who he believed was the most competitive player he had ever seen.
He also stressed the great courage that players have, highlighting Don Zimmer. While Zimmer was playing in the major leagues, he was hit in the face by a pitch. When he woke up in the hospital he thought he had been out for an hour, but in reality, “he had been out for thirty days, and had to relearn to walk and talk.” Kurkjian then smiled as he recalled how, when Zimmer returned to play again, he moved closer to the plate, not afraid at all of being hit by another pitch.
The crowd laughed when he jokingly compared the worst-case scenarios for Michael Jordan and Randy Johnson: “What’s the worst thing Michael Jordan can do to you? Dunk on you. What’s the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you.”
Yet he also understood that not all major leaguers are always the superheroes we want them to be, as he spoke, ironically, on the day that the story broke that Alex Rodriguez allegedly used steroids in 2003, the year he won his first of three MVP awards. But that has not reduced his enthusiasm for the game, Kurkjian said, which has the ability to make people do “some odd things.” For instance, he noted his own peculiar habit of cutting out the box scores of every game for the last 20 years and taping them into a book in his home.
Personally, his passion for and fascination with the game are what drive him.
“There have been over 200,000 games played in the history of Major League Baseball and there is the distinct possibility that something can happen in a game you’re watching that has never happened before,” he said, adding that fans don’t always grasp that concept.
When asked about his fascination with the statistical side of the sport, he answered, “great stats lead to great stories” and “I always root for the good story.” But that has not limited his passion for the traditional side of the game, which was evident in his pristine memory of and insight into its operations and players.
Kurkjian was very open to the crowd and took the time to answer many questions, including one about the effect of steroids on future Hall of Fame voting, in which Kurkjian has cast a ballot for the last 20 years. For the past three years, Kurkjian has voted for Mark McGwire. He noted that we only know certain details about what these men did, including the fact that, at the time, it was not illegal to take steroids.
Kurkjian then commented on the new completely statistic-oriented writers, who insist that certain players’ statistics aren’t good enough, such as the 28 writers who did not vote for Ricky Henderson in January. Kurkjian’s advice: “Just watch the game.”
He understands that he has to be fair in his reporting, being an “opinionated” analyst rather than columnists and radio hosts who are free to take any biased stance they choose. Finally, when asked if he ever got tired of writing about baseball he said, “This is a hard game and if you don’t like it, it will spit you right out. But as long as I can wake up each morning and look forward to the box scores, I’ll keep doing it.”