This Lou Gehrig Day, my brother — and best friend — is facing ALS

This Lou Gehrig Day, my brother — and best friend — is facing ALS post thumbnail image

My older brother, Matt, is my best friend, and the strongest person I have ever met. We were born in the same year, just 11 months apart, and immediately inseparable. My parents sent me to kindergarten a year early because they couldn’t imagine separating us. We were in some of the same classes in school, we played on the same sports teams, and since we were five years old, we shared a love of baseball. One of our favorite movies as kids was the Lou Gehrig story, “The Pride of the Yankees.” We watched that movie dozens of times.

On July 11, 2021, I was nominated for the Career Excellence Award by the Baseball Writers Association of America. It was an incredibly proud moment for me and my family — we grew up in baseball, and perhaps the only people to whom the honor meant more were my father, my mother and my brothers.

But the greatest day of my professional life was followed by the worst day of my life. The very next day, Matt was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I can’t say — or write — those words without crying. Our family is devastated. Matt is the ringleader of our extended family, the adhesive that holds everyone together.

And yet, every time I break down, I look at my brother, who is 66 years old and is fighting this wretched disease every day without complaint, without pity, without tears. His speech is affected, but he can still command a room with his storytelling. His mobility is affected, but he still mowed his lawn until early April. His dexterity is affected, but he recently stood on a chair and repaired a mangled curtain. His positive attitude has always been his greatest asset, and it has been crucial through this ordeal. There are days when I need to be strong, and I’m not, but when Matt sees my pain, he rests his hand on my shoulder and says, “Tim-o, don’t worry about me. I’m a happy guy every day.”

He has always been at his happiest when he was with family, or playing baseball, which often was one and the same. Baseball was the primary language spoken in our house as a kid. My dad, Jeff, was a really good player. He taught his three sons to play the game, and to love the game. My mom, Joy, became a convert as she shuttled her boys from field to field.

My oldest brother, Andy, is one of the greatest players ever to play at Catholic University, a power-hitting catcher with a tremendous throwing arm. He was enshrined in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1999. Matt followed him there, playing four years (1974-78) at Catholic. Matt was a 5-foot-7, 125-pound third baseman who could hit, run, take a walk and catch anything that came his way. He had a major league throwing arm, and despite his kind and gentle demeanor, he would tear your throat out rather than allow you to beat him or his team no matter what the competition. “If we had nine Matt Kurkjians on our team,” said CU center fielder Val Vandeventer, “we would win every game.”

In Matt’s junior year, the 1977 CU team won the ECAC Division I Championship, beating heavily favored St. John’s, and came within two games of going to Omaha for the College World Series. That team is in the CU Hall of Fame, and everyone around it will tell you the guts of that group was Matt Kurkjian.

A few months after Matt’s diagnosis, CU had its first (and only) fall game: a doubleheader at Mount Saint Mary’s on Oct. 1. Ross Natoli, who has won nearly 750 games as the head coach of the CU team over the last 37 years, called me last September to ask if Matt could come to the game and throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The ceremonial first pitch is rarely, if ever, thrown out by someone representing the visiting team, but Coach Natoli had no trouble convincing Mount Saint Mary’s coach, Frank Leoni, to let Matt do the honors — especially after he described the enormous influence that Matt has had on the CU baseball program.

“Matt is the greatest teammate I have ever had,” says Natoli, who played against Matt in college, and with him for six years in the summers in the Maryland Industrial League. It is perhaps the most hallowed compliment in sports: to be a great teammate.

“Matt Kurkjian,” Coach Natoli says, “is the greatest teammate ever.”

When Matt heard he was asked to throw out the first ball, it confused him. Matt’s ALS has robbed him of the strength and dexterity of his thumb and index finger on each hand. He had to re-learn how to throw a baseball — jarring for a man who was born to throw a baseball. So ahead of the game, I played catch with him in the front yard (how many times did we do that as kids?). He wrapped his three remaining working fingers around the ball, and within only a few minutes, he was throwing like a ballplayer.

When we got to the field at Mount Saint Mary’s, Matt was surprised to see his partner, Katherine, his son, Michael, and his daughter, Lane. My daughter, Kelly, was there, also, as was our close family friend, Mike Toomey, a former player, coach and scout (and one of the best baseball men I have ever met). Matt asked, “Why are they here?”

A few minutes before first pitch, Coach Natoli presented Matt with a CU jersey. On the back were Matt’s name and the number he wore in college: M. Kurkjian 2. It was an emotional moment. Matt was startled, but flattered and deeply honored. He put on the jersey, walked to the mound and, from the dirt at the front of the mound, threw an athletic strike to the plate to senior catcher Tyler Shaffer. So, typical Matt — he refused to fail on a baseball diamond.

And then came one of the most wonderful, most powerful moments I’ve witnessed in 44 years of covering baseball: As he walked off the mound, Matt looked to his right, and the members of his family were all wearing identical CU jerseys with M. Kurkjian 2 written on the back. He looked further to his right and all 47 players on the Catholic University team were lined up, all wearing CU jerseys: M. Kurkjian 2. What a tribute. Matt burst into tears, it was the first time I had seen him cry since his ALS diagnosis. He hugged his family as he wept. He hugged coach Natoli. “This is the best ever,” he said. “I can’t believe they did this for me.”

Matt’s days at CU were the greatest days of his life.

Now he was looking at every player on the CU team wearing a jersey with his name and his number on it. And CU, wearing those jerseys for both games of a doubleheader, naturally won both games. That’s how baseball works.

And then Coach Natoli did it again on April 2. He had Matt throw out the first ball at a doubleheader at CU against Juniata College: another athletic strike, this one to Coach Natoli. Only this time, most of the players from the 1977 championship team were there standing right next to Matt. It was almost as uplifting as the first ball ceremony in October because this time, he was surrounded by his teammates, his boys, CU’s most decorated team.

“Matt is my best friend,” teammate Mark Travaglini said that day. “Matt is an even better teammate.”

This is why baseball is such a beautiful game. It recognizes the big moments. It celebrates its players — honors them. It makes sure they know how many people care. This is what CU baseball has been doing for my family for 50 years.

Our family kept Matt’s diagnosis quiet for several months. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him, or feeling sad when they thought about him. But in February, my son, Jeff, a country music radio show host, and I spoke at an ALS fundraiser in Las Vegas. That day, I received a call from the father of Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty, Mike Piscotty, whose wife, Gretchin, died of ALS in 2019. I received a call from Mike Crawford, the father of San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has had a long friendship with the Piscotties and joined their fight. Those are two of so many families in baseball that want to bring awareness, and eventually a cure, to this horrible disease.

At the fundraiser that night, I met Teresa Thurtle, the ALS TDI (Therapy Development Institute) ambassador. She, too, offered any help she could to my family. She lost her father and her grandmother to ALS. Both were 49.

“This is the worst disease to be a part of,” she told me. “But it has the best support system to be a part of.”

Since his diagnosis, Matt and I have heard from many offering help, including former minor league outfielder Drew Robinson, who, in 2020, survived a suicide attempt, and now helps others cope with mental health, illness and tragedy. I spoke with basketball writer Tom Haberstroh, whose mom, Patty, has ALS. Tom had a huge role in making Lou Gehrig Day an annual event in Major League Baseball. ALS patient Chris Snow, a former baseball writer and now an executive for the Calgary Flames, told my brother, “whatever you need, call me, any time.” I hear often from my friend, Chicago Cubs/ESPN broadcaster Jon Sciambi, who runs Project Main St., which supports ALS patients. Jon lost his best friend, Tim Sheehy, to ALS in 2007.

Someday, I will lose my brother and best friend to ALS. My life, and the lives of our entire family, will never be the same. July 12, 2021, changed everything.

I would give anything to have my brother healthy again. But I will never forget the love and support he has received from family, friends and strangers. I will never forget what Coach Natoli has done for my brother and our family. I will never forget Coach Natoli’s words.

Greatest teammate I’ve ever had.

Greatest teammate ever.

That’s my brother and best friend, Matt: The Pride of the Kurkjians.




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