By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
One of the best things about the game of baseball is its ability to connect generations. Jim Kurtz, a Buena resident closing in on 50 years of age, grew up in Absecon watching the exploits of his older brother, Rich, at Holy Spirit High School. He did his best to follow in those footsteps, graduating as a Spartan in 1991 after a successful high school career.
Fast-forward 30-plus years, and Jim Kurtz is getting a chance to see his sons, Jimmy, 20, and Joey, 18, live out their passion in high school and college baseball, and on the diamonds of the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League this summer.
And while the Kurtz name is well known in baseball circles along the shore, it’s now becoming a recognizable name in western Atlantic County. Jimmy had an outstanding high school career at Buena Regional High, spent a year at Mercer County College and now is playing for Rowan College of South Jersey-Cumberland. Joey graduated this spring from Buena, but will go back for one more year of high school baseball in 2023 while attending community college classes thanks to the “bridge year” that was awarded some high school players who missed out on a season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Both have been excelling this summer in the SJSSBL — a league designed for high school and college players that features 11 teams throughout Atlantic and Cape May counties. Joey recently was named the MVP of the league’s Second Annual All-Star Game, and Jimmy has been one of the top hitters for the Buena Blue Dawgs, the No. 2 seed in the league playoffs. The Dawgs host No. 3 Absecon tonight in Game 1 of the Best-of-3 semifinals.
“It’s always been sports with my family, and traveling a lot. I’ve always played with Jimmy’s age group and that was always a great experience playing with the older guys,” Joey said. “The competition (in this league) is great. I like it a lot. Usually, when you pitch in high school, there’s maybe four good batters and after that it’s like free outs, but in this league I have to fight for every out when I’m pitching, no matter who we’re playing. It’s a lot of fun. It’s so much fun, especially watching my dad hit home runs. I’m just trying to get my name out there, working hard. I know I need to put on some weight, keep progressing and see where that takes me.”
Jim Kurtz can still swing the bat a little bit, as evidenced by his regular-season home run in a Dawgs win over the Somers Point Captains. He’ll take a few at-bats here and there just to stay involved in the game. He’s also the head coach of the Blue Dawgs, and said it’s been a great experience being able to be on the bench all summer with his two sons.
“Nowadays, there are so many distractions and, looking at it as a father, there are so many things that kids can get into. The fact that they love being out here and having their heads on straight — a lot of that is due to the job me and their mom did raising them. They’ve always kept busy with sports. There are so many things out there for guys their age to get caught up in, but, fortunately, these guys have their heads on straight and are doing the right things. We couldn’t be luckier,” dad Jim said. “It goes back to having the right mix of guys — guys who are willing to come out and work. I couldn’t ask for more from these guys. They are unbelievably coachable. As much as I love coaching my kids, if this team wasn’t coachable it would be very difficult with everything else I have going on with work and other interests to make time for this. But I do everything in my power to get to these games because every one of these guys on this team is here for the right reasons.”
Jim said its cool to see his sons beginning to make a name for themselves, much like he and his brother did more than three decades ago. Rich Kurtz is a 1982 graduate of Holy Spirit.
“I think we are far enough removed, my brother and I. It was tougher for me, growing up in my brother’s shadow. Even though he is nine years older than me, he was still actively playing when I was trying to create my own identity. I’d go to games and watch him hitting balls over the lights and I’d be struggling to get a single, “ Jim said. “Living out in Buena, I really had no roots here. People here know these boys because of what they’ve done in the community and what they have accomplished on their own. We couldn’t have picked a better place and time for them to grow up because the talent level in baseball for their age group was really solid. Even though Buena is a small town, they got to play high level, high quality baseball in the town leagues growing up, and there were a lot of good coaches along the way. The youth leagues around here have really good coaches, and it created a great foundation for them.”
“We’re the first Kurtz’s in this area,” Jimmy said. “My dad and uncle grew up at the shore, but people still know who they are. At times I’d be playing at a school and people would say, ‘I know your uncle and dad.’ We feel like we have to live up to their names.”
Baseball has been a common theme throughout the lives of Jimmy and Joey, and some of their best memories revolve around ballparks they’ve been to, including a very special World Series Game 7. Jimmy said he’s able to better appreciate all the things his father did for him growing up now that he’s 20 years old.
“Now, I’m finally able to take it all in and appreciate it. In the moment, when you’re growing up, maybe you take it for granted. But going to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, going to California, Chicago — all these places to watch games and play baseball, you take it for granted in the moment but looking back (Joey and I) have gotten a chance to do some pretty cool things,” Jimmy said. “(Game 7) was amazing. The Cubs played Game 6 in Chicago and my dad asked us, ‘do you want to go to Chicago and watch Game 6? Or hope there is a Game 7 and go to that?’ It was tough, because we wanted to see a World Series game but we also wanted to see a Cubs win, too. We decided to go to Game 7, so we drove to Cleveland and it was a blur, but looking back at it with all the memories, videos and pictures, it was a really neat experience.”
Another great experience has been playing on a team with several former professional players, including the likes of Denny Brady, a Buena High alum who spent several seasons in the Los Angeles Angels’ minor-league system and throws in the low 90s as a pitcher. Joey said he’s been soaking up everything he can from Brady this summer in the SJSSBL.
“It’s great being able to pick his brain,” he said. “He’s always tweaking how I throw and that’s been helping a lot. He’s helped me so much with so many pointers.”
“It’s a great opportunity, being in a league like this that is so competitive with some of the top high school and college talent in the area — plus mixing in some guys with pro experience — for guys their age, they don’t even realize how valuable this is,” Jimmy said. “Back when I played, we went out and played with a bunch of guys we knew and loved it, but a league like this really gives you avenues and opportunities to not only pick the brains of the top guys but also see the work ethic of the guys who have college and pro experience. Everything they do behind the scenes — it’s a lot more than just going out and playing a game. It’s what you do when people aren’t watching. That old saying is 100 percent true, and you can see the difference and that’s what separates these guys. Being a father, it’s easy for me to tell them what to do and they already think they are doing things the right way, but when they see some of these guys who are little more experienced and get to talk to them and see what they’ve had to do to get to the level where they’ve been, it really hits home.”
Jimmy said he’s hoping his experience this summer will translate into a successful college career. He’s already missed one season because of covid and another because of injury, so his college career hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet.
“There are positives and negatives to (not being able to play). I understand the game a lot better now — it’s a lot different in college than high school. I feel like I have a better understanding of weight lifting and strength, and how that translates to the next level. I’m just trying to take advantage of things like that,” Jimmy said. “It’s really neat, especially for me. Being hurt all year in college, this is my first time back out here and playing alongside Joey and watching him pitching and having success, and seeing my dad go out there — it’s a little disheartening sometimes when I strike out and my dad hits a home run or gets a hit off the pitcher I struck out against. But it’s really neat. It’s fun and it’s something I’m not taking for granted. I’m trying to enjoy it and soak it all in, and trying to perform well at the same time. I don’t want him in my ear talking about how he’s doing better than me.”
Jimmy said he loves playing for a team coached by his father, and is trying to soak up every minute he, his dad and his brother get to spend out on a baseball diamond this summer.
“This is my first time really playing for him,” Jimmy said. “He was always around, helping out (other coaches) or just being on the sideline, but he was never running things. For him to be able to make decisions and talk to me about things I need to work on in the middle of the game, in the dugout, that goes a long way. It’s a really cool thing. I love having him in that position, and I wish he could coach me all the time.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays