Tim Kurkjian is one of the nicest people in broadcasting, and one of the nicest people on the planet, for that matter. The ESPN baseball analyst has just come out with his new book, I'm Fascinated By Sacrifice Flies - Inside The Game We All Love (St. Martin's Press).
Tim took time to talk to me about what makes baseball so special to him, and to the rest of us.
Michael: You write that baseball players can't play well when they're hurt, and that shows how hard baseball really is.
Tim: That's how I view it. I'm way in the minority on this but I think it's the hardest game in the world to play. And it's the ultimate skill sport. But if your body isn't working, you simply can't play this sport. And I don't pretend to understand football, but I've seen guys break both of their hands and tape them up or put them in casts and go play in a football game.
You go hit somebody with your head, and you could be an effective player that day; it takes nothing away from football players. But with baseball, if your body's not working properly and you're off even by a little bit, not only can you not succeed: You can be a really bad player that day. You will have no chance, ultimately, to be a good player if your body doesn't work properly.
Michael: Is that especially true for pitchers?
Tim: I learned this a long time ago talking to Jim Palmer and some other great pitchers, that if there's a huge blister on your middle finger and you can can't grip the ball properly, it's not a matter of pain. It's a matter of execution. You can't throw the pitch the way you want to. This game, as focused on skills as it is, cannot be played properly if you're not healthy.
Michael: How different is that from basketball or football?
Tim: When LeBron James is in a shooting slump, he just puts the ball to the floor and goes to the rack. He dunks a couple of times, and all of a sudden, his slump is over; whereas baseball players, given the degree of difficulty in hitting, stand out in right field wondering, "Am I ever going to get another hit?"
And they have plenty of time to think that through because there's so much dead time in the game; whereas in the other sports, the reactionary, athletic sports, there's no time to think, "I've missed my last five shots." The ball is in your hands, you're going to the basket, and you don't have time to think yourself into or out of a slump.
But baseball players have to do that all the time, and that's what separates them, their ability to work through the really difficult parts of the game, which basically happen all the time.
Michael: Talk about the mental aspect of the game.
Tim: You have to be able to focus on what you're doing. And if you can't maintain that focus in baseball, the thought of hitting a 95 miles an hour fastball or catching a ground ball hit at 120 miles an hour at you, that's just not going to happen unless mentally, you are together.
The common denominator of basically every Major League player I've met is just how strong they are mentally to get through the rough periods and to be able to convince themselves, "I have to be ready when this pitch comes 98 miles an hour at my head, or it's going to break over the plate." So I don't think there's any doubt in my mind you have to be incredibly strong mentally to play this sport.
Michael: Baseball has slipped in popularity over the last 4 decades compared with NASCAR and the NBA and the NFL. Can it keep pace with the other sports?
Tim: This is an issue that Major League Baseball faces and the Commissioner, Rob Manfred, brings up about once a week: Pace of the game. How do we speed things up to keep it more relevant for our younger people today? I frankly don't think it's that big of a deal. I just listen to Buck Showalter of the Orioles, who says the only people that are really worried about pace of the game are the media and the umpires because they have to work a whole lot longer.
And yes, it's very difficult in our "Give me everything now, I want action now, I want action all the time" world for baseball to keep pace. And yet, it's still a beautiful game on every level, and the beauty of it is that it doesn't have a clock, and it isn't in a hurry.
Would I love to get some of the dead time out of the game? Of course. I don't enjoy watching four hour baseball games when we could shorten them conceivably. But if we go too far on this and we affect the fabric of the game just by trying to speed it up, I think we're making a big mistake.
Michael: What about the emphasis on relief pitchers, and the idea that starters can only go six innings and seldom get to finish what they start?
Tim: I totally agree. And baseball as an institution is to blame for this because we take our young pitchers the minute they sign in pro ball, and we put in their head that 100 pitches or six innings, that's plenty. You've done your job. So many teams now are starting to build their club backwards, meaning "Let's build a deep, versatile bullpen first and then get to the starting rotation." And that's just the way the game is played now.
Look at all the teams that have won the World Series in, let's say, the last 30 or 40 years. Virtually all of them have really good bullpens. And I'm not sure this is the right way to go about it. Granted, we have so many hard throwers coming out of the bullpen every day. It's amazing, and it's admirable, but at the same time, we're telling starting pitchers, "Look: All you have to do is just give us five innings, six innings, and then we'll call for the bullpen."
Max Scherzer's one of our best pitchers in the game, and he set a Major League record for starts at the beginning of a career without completing a game. I mean, he went 164 starts before he threw a complete game. He had 200 strikeout seasons. He was a Cy Young winner and everything else before he ever completed a game.
Michael: If starters aren't throwing more than 100 pitches, why are so many getting hurt?
Tim: It's very confusing. I go to Tom House, who's pitched the Major Leagues, and who's been a pitching coach, and he knows about more the throwing of a baseball, certainly, than anyone that I've ever met. He explained it to me that this epidemic in the Major Leagues of pitchers getting hurt goes all the way back to when these kids are 12 years old, if not earlier. He says our kids today are pitching too much and not throwing enough.
And he explains by saying that when we were kids, we used to throw from different arm angles and different objects all the time: Baseball, football, basketball, rocks, whatever. Now, we have a generation of kids who are throwing one way and one way only, and that is a pitching motion from on top of a mound, and they're doing it 12 months of the year.
He suggests that's how we're getting hurt, is that our kids are pitching too much. He suggests and I totally agree put the baseball down for three months out of the year at least. Go make the basketball team. I could not agree more because when we have 14 year old kids having Tommy John surgery, then something is really wrong with this picture.
Michael: It's rare to have a kid who letters in three sports today because the baseball coach won't let you play basketball.
Tim: I totally, totally agree that specialization for an 11 year old is a really bad idea. It happened to my daughter even on the smallest level in high school. She played high school basketball and soccer, and the coach of each sport wanted her to quit the other one. And we're telling her, "You need to play multiple sports."
This is the common denominator of every great baseball player I've ever met, is they were a multi sport star in high school. Playing basketball makes you a better baseball player, and playing baseball makes you a better basketball player. There was nothing better than our football quarterback showing up for basketball practice on the first day because he just finished the football season. He's in competitive shape. And to tell an 11 year old, "You're going to play baseball 100 games a year, and you're only playing baseball year round," I think is a big mistake.
Michael: Any chance we'll have an earlier World Series? Right now, it can end in November.
Tim: Unfortunately, money runs everything in baseball, as it does in virtually every business. And yes, I would love to see baseball return to a few day games in the World Series, but that simply is not going to happen.
When my sixth grade teacher said, "We're closing our books at 1:30 in the afternoon because we're going to watch the Cardinals Red Sox World Series" I was already hopelessly in love with the game at that point but when my teacher said baseball for an hour and a half is more important than you kids studying, that really resonated with me.
And we just don't do that anymore. And I find that really, really sad that my kids, for instance, didn't even get to watch an entire World Series game until they were deep into their high school years because it was simply too late for them to stay up on a school night and watch a World Series game end at midnight.
Michael: When did you fall in love with baseball? Was it 1967 and that Red Sox World Series, or was it a different time?
Tim: Well I can't even pick the time because this is the only language we spoke in my house growing up. This has been with me since birth. This is something that I picked up when I was in high school.
My father was a really good player. My two brothers are in the Baseball Hall of Fame with Catholic University. Again, this was the driving force of everything we did in my house. My father had a great feel for the game, a great understanding of the game, and he imparted that to his three boys. And this was all we did, was we played the game. When we weren't playing, we were watching. And when we weren't watching, we were reading about it. We were doing this all the time.
So this has been in my blood since I was born, and it still is in my blood. And I still love watching the games, getting up every morning and reading the box scores. There's nothing professionally that makes me happier than that.