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 is the greatest honor of my professional life,” Kurkjian told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “There is not a close second. And I wake every day saying what Cal Ripken said after breaking Lou Gehrig’s record: ‘It can’t be happening to me.'”
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.
“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.
Baseball has been a key thread in the fabric of Kurkjian’s 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.”
“This is something that I’ve been interested in my entire life,” Kurkjian said. “This is not something that I got interested in after high school.”
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.”
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 resume 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,” Ripken 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 said. “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.
It has been a love affair and it’s ongoing and it reached an all-new level on Saturday, when Kurkjian earned a permanent place among the immortals of the sport.