Tim Kurkjian and the Normalcy of Anomaly


Tim Kurkjian wakes up at dawn, grabs a newspaper and a Diet Mountain Dew, and hunts for his white whale. He makes for an all-too-agreeable Ahab, poring over box scores like a baseball doctor scanning for abnormalities.

"They tell you so much," he explains, his mind both entirely present and perusing the overcrowded bins of quirky inventory he's banked through the years. "I still love to get up to see who had three hits last night. Every single day I look to see — and this is really pathetic —to see if anybody had a reverse triple-double. That's what I call two grounded into double plays, two strikeouts, and two errors in the same game. I check that every day just to make sure that it hasn't happened because it's only happened once in baseball history."

The culprit? Kurt Bevacqua. Back in 1978.

Didn't know that one? Never fear. There are plenty of other bits of trivia to come. He rattles them off regularly over the course of an hourlong conversation. Not in a showy way but a way that invites you in. Like Willy Wonka opening up the doors to the Chocolate Room. Kurkjian is a kid with a permanent golden ticket and his candy store has 108 seams and unmatched history.

"Cecil Fielder and Prince Fielder had the same number of homers, 319," Kurkjian riffs. "How can that happen? How can it be? Dennis Eckersley picked off Kenny Williams in a game, then went four years without picking off anyone, then picked off Kenny Williams again. Do you know how many things like that I have stored in my stupid head?"

One of his ESPN colleagues calls him "baseball's greatest storyteller." Someone who deftly navigates the increasingly political camps of baseball fandom. A constant harvester of both fact and feeling who can be both romantic and informative.

It may not be the approach that will cast a spell and inspire a new generation of baseball-loving fans. But it's damn effective at reinforcing existing love. There's genuine enthusiasm in his voice when he speaks about the game, the echo of a childhood past. Yet he's not a blind evangelist. He sees the fault lines. The paradox that at a time of unprecedented talent, the games aren't nearly as appealing as they should be.

One gets the sense that the work, the honing, the attention to detail is part of the joy for Kurkijian. He makes no secret that his favorite place to be is the ballpark, where he'll arrive 5.5 hours before a broadcast. There's a security blanket there as he realized nothing could happen without his watchful eye in place.

If baseball is an iceberg, the actual game is the top. Below the surface, there is so much to see. Whether that be Juan Pierre rolling balls down the third-base line as part of bunt prep or Bryce Harper taking grounders at first or Eduardo Rodriguez's simulated game feeling like a big-time event, he's seen it all. And seen what others perhaps missed.

"Tim is a noticer," one of his ESPN colleagues surmises. "He has that eye. Not just for a story but a way to tell it."

"I went to a party with my wife a few years ago and some guy I don't even know comes up to me the minute I walk into the door," Kurkjian recalls. "He doesn't bother to introduce himself. He shook my hand and told me that 15 guys have hit 40 homers in a single season with four letters or less in their last name. So now the gauntlet has been thrown down. My wife is standing next to me and she already knows that the night is ruined because this guy has challenged me. I went after this and I got them all by the end of the night. I got Wally Post at 1:30 in the morning and it was the greatest thing other than the birth of my children that's ever happened to me."

He collects the names and eccentricities like baseball cards. Making sure the numbers are squared before laying them out on the table. There's a Jamie Moyer, a Frank Tanana, a Jim Parquette. The curio of Stan Musial having the same number of hits on the road as at home. The fact that Ken Griffey and Musial, two of the greatest lefty hitters who threw lefty, were both born in Donora, Pennsylvania.

Baseball was the only language spoken in his childhood home. His father, a math wizard, was equally as diligent and precise in explaining the art in the game. This is all he's ever wanted to do. There's an aw shucks quality to his persona but it belies a diverse four-decade career that's ascended to the highest places.

One of his competitors describes him this way: a guy who will outwork you with a smile.

In 1979, Kurkjian went to Dave Smith, his sports editor at the Washington Star, and told him he wanted to cover the Alexandria Dukes, a Class-A team. "He looked at me and said "great, I couldn't find anyone else who wanted to do that," Kurkjian laughs.

He grinded. He followed Dan Shaughnessy around like a puppy. Those nights and afternoons at an offbeat ballpark paved the way for bigger opportunities. On a rainy Philadelphia night, he watched as Pete Rose, north of 40, hustled around the bases for the deciding tally. Everyone else at Veterans Stadium was tired, but Charlie Hustle was still energetic, playing as though someone was watching him for the first time. Or writing about him for the first time.

Kurkjian remembers the joy of realizing he was rubbing elbows with titans, doing what he'd known he wanted to do since high school. It's as if he bottled that moment up and has drank deeply every day since. There's a keen understanding of sports as improv. A lack of script means endless possibilities.

It hasn't all been lollipops and four-hit games. He speaks of "getting his brains beaten" in his early days as a beat writer. Needing to suffer alone in the shadow of imperfection, he'd take his dogs for a walk and pore over three different newspapers to see where and when he'd been scooped. There were times his sleight frame rattled with a primal scream.

The diligence led to a gig at Sports Illustrated, which led to television hits. It was a brave new world, and not exactly one he dove into headfirst like Rickey Henderson. "As a young writer I had no interest in going on television, I just wanted to own a TV," he explains.

The immediacy of the platform grew on him. Instead of writing, curating, and incubating, he could talk about subjects right now, at the apex of their passion curve. Kurkjian caught the eye of the Worldwide Leader and, in 1998, jumped into another cycle of change.

"I spent a fortune on clothes because I was sitting next to Harold Reynolds who was wearing a $3,000 suit and I'm wearing something from the Heck Company. I started wearing more makeup than my wife. And then I started walking in a circle quite a bit talking to myself."

Though that all sounds like the beginning stages of becoming The Joker, Kurkjian leaned into appreciation and a far smoother late-night broadcast. For almost 15 years he used the twice-nightly Baseball Tonight to dive into the details. He also used it as an opportunity to further his education, gleaning information from the former players who rolled through Bristol. Mark Teixeira. David Ross. Buck Showalter. Eduardo Perez.

This is what he does. Notice and explore. He has a list of anecdotes at the ready. How Lance Berkman couldn't keep track of the growing barrage of fireballing relievers and their surnames. How Orel Hershiser invented the finger flap on a glove because his index digit fluttered on curves and tipped off hitters. How Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez have abnormally large hands for their size while Tony Gwynn and Dustin Pedroia were on the smaller side. How Joe Mauer sheepishly admitted to averaging 22 points per game in high school basketball minutes after claiming he was only a defensive specialist. How Billy Hamilton averaged 27 on the court and also hauled in 30 touchdowns as a wide receiver.

It's not rote, rigid knowledge. Because when you throw a new baseball nugget at him, he can help shine it up. He can explain how there's connective tissue between new information and old.

When you talk to him his words are carried by a genuine appreciation. There's a casual assuredness and air of authority. Below that, though, are the echoes of a guy who had a plan, executed it, and is constantly rewarded by the game he loves.

So perhaps it's fitting we end here. If he didn't eat, sleep, and dream baseball, Kurkjian could have had a career as a reliable laughtrack guy. And not in the phony media way. In the honest-to-goodness, this is funny laugh that breaks through even the most persistent cynicism.

It can be heard when Dan Le Batard peppers him with lookalikes or when Scott Van Pelt breaks out an exaggerated Baltimore accent. Kurkjian always loses it. The latter is a bit that's crossed over into real life.

"Scott is one of the funniest people ever and he could read the phone book and make me laugh," he says. "But he's also the master of every impression and nobody does it better. One time on the radio 15 years ago he threw a Leo Mazzoni at me and it was so weird I just laughed out loud. He started to make it a bit. Then he started getting requests from fans to make me laugh."

It's an inside joke that's been opened up to the public, essentially a Where's, uh, Waaaaaaldo for fans.

"I was in the Harris Teeter the other day and another guy comes up to me, and again without introducing himself, he asks about the women's World Cup goalie," Kurkjian says. "Just to get me to say Hope Solo."

Kurkjian's normalcy is abnormalities. He hunts for them from sunup to sundown, delighting in the new and interesting. He's unapologetically himself from the laughter to the layered humility. A guy who dreamed and realized the relatively simple dream of making a career out of poring over box scores, an almost sacred morning ritual.