COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The love affair that ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian has enjoyed for decades with the sport of baseball — and everyone associated with it — reached its pinnacle on Saturday when he was honored as this year’s recipient of the BBWAA Career Excellence Award.
“This has been the most overwhelming, most overpowering experience of my life,” Kurkjian said during his speech.
In accepting the award, which is presented annually to a sportswriter “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” Kurkjian takes his place alongside the list of heroes, mentors and friends who have been previously honored.
“Johnny Bench called me to congratulate me. And he said ‘congratulations, Tim. Welcome to the club. You are one of us now.’ Let’s be clear, I am not one of them. I am not in their club. But the greatest catcher of all time called me to congratulate me.”
Baseball was the “primary language spoken” in the Kurkjian household and has been a key thread in the fabric of his life, tracing back to his baseball-loving father and two older brothers who played for Catholic University. A native of Bethesda, Maryland, Kurkjian played baseball and basketball at Walter Johnson High School — named after the Hall of Famer pitcher. While there, he wrote for the school paper called “The Pitch.”
Kurkjian was honored during a private ceremony at the Alice Busch Opera Theater at Glimmerglass Festival outside of Cooperstown, along with the late Jack Graney, who won the Ford C. Frick Award, which honors broadcasters for “major contributions to baseball.”
“When you look at the names on that list from way back and then coming forward with Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy, Jayson Stark, I’m just so honored,” Kurkjian said on ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
A student of baseball history, and never one to shy away from self-deprecating humor, Kurkjian lauded Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz for his induction into the Hall of Fame in typical Kurkjian style.
“Congratulations to David Ortiz, Big Papi. I checked with the Elias Sports Bureau, which I do virtually everything and we established that it is the largest disparity in size between a player being inducted and a writer being honored in the same year. I give up at least a foot and close to 200 pounds to David Ortiz.”
Kurkjian, 65, has authored three books about baseball and his experiences in it. His professional career began in 1979, when he joined the Washington Star. By 1981, he was covering the Texas Rangers for the Dallas Morning News, followed by a four-year stint covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun.
After seven-plus years with Sports Illustrated, Kurkjian joined ESPN in 1998. Since then, he has worked as a columnist and become a prominent part of ESPN’s broadcast coverage of baseball. He has been a fixture at Baseball Tonight, contributed to SportsCenter and worked as a reporter and analyst during game broadcasts. Kurkjian has twice been honored for his work in television.
Kurkjian has transcended his long and a varied résumé simply by becoming one of the most beloved figures in the baseball world and a person who exudes a bonafide joy of the game. The son of a mathematician, Kurkjian has long been known for his meticulous work habits, such as a 20-year stretch when he cut out newspaper box scores from every game and pasted them into spiral notebooks, a practice he ceased only because printed box scores became so hard to find.
“I always thought that Tim looked for the good in baseball,” Cal Ripken Jr. told ESPN’s Willie Weinbaum.
Kurkjian covered Ripken during his time on the Orioles beat, chronicling his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. They became friends because of another of Kurkjian’s passions: Pickup basketball, where he displayed surprising acumen despite standing just 5-foot-4½.
“We bonded over basketball,” Ripken added. “I remember he used to take his NBA ball on the road with him when he was covering us, looking for some sort of game. We connected and played basketball on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights.”
The friendship with Ripken was but one example of countless relationships Kurkjian has built during his time working in sports as he became as known for his relentless positivity and generosity as for his skill in writing and broadcasting, not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, about which no tidbit was trivial in Kurkjian’s eyes.
Kurkjian’s love affair with baseball is ongoing and it reached an all-new level on Saturday, when Kurkjian earned a permanent place among the immortals of the sport.
“Baseball is the greatest game, it is the best game of all time,” Kurkjian said. “It is the hardest game in the world to play. It is a beautiful game and the number of people I have met in this game over a number of years who will be my friends for the rest of my life.”