In addition to enjoying the scenery during the trip, I amused myself by looking through The Baseball Encyclopedia: The Complete and Official Record of Major League Baseball, a large, heavy book published in 1969 by Macmillan that came in a slipcover box. Yes, I was a geek. But I loved baseball and reading about it — and still do.
Tim Kurkjian would have been an ideal passenger for those long rides. This is a guy who not only loves baseball, but also enjoys looking into the trivial things, investigating trends of the game, and coming up with the weird or obscure facts that make you sit up and think “Hmm, I didn’t know that.”
Kurkjian shares his insights in I’m Fascinated By Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love (St. Martin’s Press; hardback; $26.99; 232 pages). Kurkjian, a mainstay at ESPN for nearly two decades as a writer, reporter, analyst and host, shares some interesting insights about the game, and what he learned from some of baseball’s most astute players and managers.
“The game always tops itself,” writes Kurkjian, who says he has personally attended more than 3,500 games. “It never disappoints, if you are paying attention.”
The man is a vault of baseball knowledge and trivia. Some nuggets that many fans may not know:
- Two men pitched perfect games in their first career major-league starts (Dallas Braden and Philip Humber).
- Drew Butera caught two no-hitters in his career, while Tony Pena caught 1,950 games and never caught a no-no.
- Reliever Tim Collins stands 5-foot-6½. In 2014 he became the second pitcher shorter than 5-foot-7 to appear in a World Series game (Bobby Shantz was the first, when he started Game 2 of the 1957 Series).
Kurkjian also takes the reader onto the field, where batters have to put up with catchers who are trying to upset their concentration, or where players have superstitions that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. He explores baseball’s unwritten rules that are “far from dead.” Showing up a pitcher with a bat flip or slow trot around the bases still can bring a retaliatory pitch some time down the road.
What if a baseball player pulled a stunt like Joe Horn of the New Orleans Saints, who scored a touchdown and then grabbed a cellphone he had taped to the goal post to “make a call”?
“He wouldn’t finish the call,” catch John Baker told Kurkjian. “There would be balls flying into both dugouts. … Oh my God, the world would stop spinning on its axis. The ice caps would melt.”
You get the idea.
Naturally, Kurkjian explains the title of the book, a statement he made on “Baseball Tonight” in 2007 after Carlos Lee hit his 13th sacrifice fly of the season before the All-Star break to set a Houston Astros franchise record. Kurkjian then unleashes a torrent of statistics related to the sacrifice fly.
- Eddie Murray is the career leader in sac flies with 128, but never led the league in any season.
- Chili Davis drove in 113 runs in 1993 but did not hit a sacrifice fly that season.
- Pitcher Nolan Ryan has allowed the most sacrifice flies (146) in a career.
- Lee, who seemed a lock to break Gil Hodges’ major-league record of 19 sacrifice flies in 1954, did not hit another one during the rest of the 2007 season.
Through all of this trivia, I did find one mistake. Kurkjian notes that in 1969, Don Money drove in five runs on Opening Day for Milwaukee. Money was actually playing for Philadelphia in ’69.
Kurkjian writes about his “Quirkjians,” a statistical oddity, a peculiar fact, or something that simply makes no sense. They are fun to read and are capable of making the reader laugh out loud. So will tales of his banter with ESPN colleague Scott Van Pelt, who can make Kurkjian crack up with laughter at names pronounced in an exaggerated Baltimore accent (both men hail from Montgomery County, Maryland). Always a name with a “long O” sound, like Kohki Idoki, or Sixto Lezcano.
Kurkjian’s stories about scorekeepers, Earl Weaver, Don Zimmer and Buck Showalter are warm and insightful. And his knowledge about baseball and its inner workings shows how much he truly loves the game.
He would have been a godsend on those long car trips I took as a kid.