The University of New Mexico baseball program hosted its annual “First Pitch Banquet” Friday night at The Event Center at Sandia Golf Club.
UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said the event, which was headlined by guest speaker Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, raised $45,000 on just the 280 seats sold for the UNM baseball booster club. Even more was expected from an auction featuring signed memorabilia from local stars such as Blake Swihart and Mitch Garver to former pros such as Luis Tiant and Gary Sheffield. According to Birmingham, it was all profit as Kurkjian’s appearance fee was paid for by an anonymous donor.
Among the crowd at The Event Center was former Lobo and Isotope Brian Cavazos-Galvez, prominent attorney Sam Bregman and Rio Rancho High baseball boss Ron Murphy, who coached Swihart of the Boston Red Sox.
Murphy said Swihart, who played one season with the Rams, paid for the table for the coach and some players to hear Kurkjian speak.
“We’re here to support Lobo baseball and represent Blake,” Murphy said. “It’s always good to hear different people talk about the game and get a different aspect.”
Birmingham had high praise for Kurkjian, who has been covering baseball since 1981 and has worked for ESPN since 1998.
“Who he is on TV is who he is in person,” Birmingham said. “He’s genuine. He’s probably the most knowledgeable man in baseball.”
Before Kurkjian took the stage at the banquet, the most knowledgeable man in baseball sat down with the Journal to talk a little baseball.
“I have never been to Albuquerque I’m ashamed to say,” Kurkjian said. “I love it here, it’s spectacular and beautiful. You have a good baseball program here and a very good minor league team. I’m well aware of Davey Lopes and Orel Hershiser and Tommy Lasorda and all those guys who came through here. It’s a very rich tradition.”
Continuing that tradition is Albuquerque Academy alumnus and Houston Astros standout Alex Bregman, who helped the Astros win a World Series in 2017 and finished fifth in AL MVP voting in 2018.
“He is a great player already, he came along way faster than I thought he would,” Kurkjian said. “I knew he’d be good but I didn’t think he’d be this good this early. It seems like the bigger the occasion the bigger he plays and that’s usually a sign that he’s only going to get better from here.”
Kurkjian is also familiar with Albuquerque Isotopes manager Glenallen Hill, who played 13 years in the majors.
Kurkjian’s best story about Hill was about a freak accident while he was with the Blue Jays in 1990.
“Glenallen will not want to talk about this but he went on the disabled list because he woke up one night from a nightmare that he was being attacked by spiders and was startled and he ran and fell into a glass table and got hurt,” Kurkjian said. “In all seriousness, that guy had some serious power in his day. Good dude too.”
Speaking of good dudes, baseball, and Kurkjian personally, suffered a loss when Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson died Thursday at age 83.
Robinson was a 14-time All-Star, an MVP winner in each league and the first black manager in MLB. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1982.
“He’s one of the great players of all time and I think he’s the most underrated player of all time,” Kurkjian said. “I don’t think he gets his due for what he meant to baseball on so many levels. He’s also one of the most ferocious competitors I’ve ever met.”
That competitiveness continued after his playing career. Kurkjian told the story of when Robinson played in an old-timers’ game in 1987 at age 51. He was knocked down by the first pitch from the massive Jim Bibby, who was still throwing as hard as ever. Robinson dusted himself off, got back in the box and hit a long home run on the next pitch.
“I go to him after the game, and I’m kidding, and I ask him: If I gave you 600 at-bats as a DH, how many home runs would you hit?” Kurkjian said. “He looked me right in the eye and said ‘30.’ I said Frank you’re 51-years-old. He said, ‘35.”‘
Robinson was fourth all-time on the career home run list with 586 when he retired in 1976. He is now 10th.
Kurkjian was covering the Orioles when they named Robinson manager in 1988 and the two became, and stayed, close over the years.
“I had a personal relationship with him and I learned so much about baseball from him,” Kurkjian said. “That was a terrible loss for the game and for me personally.”