Senior writer Tim Kurkjian has been covering Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. since Ripken's rookie year, 1982. But ask Kurkjian to cover Ripken, and he wants no part of it.
"That would be like a fly guarding Godzilla," Kurkjian says of the prospect of going one-on-one against Ripken in one of their many pickup basketball games. "I'm about five feet, five inches tall. Cal's six-four. Does that sound like a good matchup to you?"
Off the court, we can think of no better matchup. As our INSIDE BASEBALL columnist for the past six years, Kurkjian has written about the sport with the grace and ease of Ripken drifting into the hole to nab a soft liner. Kurkjian's latest story on Ripken (page 22), for example, takes a look at the Oriole star away from the diamond—a side of the ballplayer that fans rarely see.
Kurkjian knows firsthand about Ripken's burning desire to be the best at whatever he does. As the Oriole beat writer for The Baltimore Sun from 1986 to '89, Kurkjian played in off-season basketball games organized by Ripken. "I learned more about Cal watching him play basketball than I did watching him play baseball," Kurkjian says. "Even in a four-on-four game in a dinky gym—with no money on the line, no fans and no TV—Cal went out to win every single time. He is the most competitive guy I've ever met."
Kurkjian and Ripken have more in common than you might think. Both men hail from Maryland—Ripken, 34, was raised in Aberdeen, some 90 miles from Bethesda, where Kurkjian, 38, grew up. Both were high school lettermen—Ripken in baseball and soccer at Aberdeen High; Kurkjian in basketball at Walter Johnson High.
And both men have impressive streaks going. While Ripken closes in on Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played, a mark long considered unassailable, Kurkjian has accomplished the near equivalent in the sportswriting game by having written 126 consecutive INSIDE BASEBALL columns. "I've written every one that's appeared in the magazine since December 1989," he says. "I'm rather proud of that."
Kurkjian takes almost as much pride in his considerable basketball skills. Despite standing just a sneaker sole taller than Muggsy Bogues, he has become legendary among SI staffers for his wizardly dribbling, penetrating and passing.
Little wonder, then, that when Kurkjian and his wife, Kathy; their four-year-old daughter, Kelly; and two-year-old son, Jeffrey, recently moved back to the Washington, D.C., area after five years in Dallas, Ripken invited Tim back to the court, to play hoops at the gymnasium the shortstop built next to his home in Reisterstown, Md. "The reason Cal invites me is that I always pass the ball to the open man," Kurkjian says. "Cal's like that, too. He always wants to get the job done, and he wants if done the correct way."
Just one more thing Ripken shares with our iron-man baseball writer.