Monday, October 09, 2006

BLOG BLAST PAST, NO. 8: REMEMBERING THE GREAT TOM CHEEK, VOICE OF THE JAYS

Today is the first anniversary of the death of Blue Jays radio announcer Tom Cheek, so a Blog Blast Past in order.

Tom was like family for a lot of people. I remember that in the days after he died, having acquaintances whom I seldom ever heard talk about baseball mentioning how it hit them hard, how they were taken back to listening to Jays games on their car radio back in the glory days, when baseball had as much of a hold on the hearts and minds of Ontario sports fans as hockey.

I teared up listening in the car when the Jays honoured Tom in August 2004. I recall being on the highway near Hagersville, Ont., on a sunny spring day in 2005, on the way to T.O. to watch the Jays home opener with good friend Neil Acharya, and hearing a catch in Cheek's longtime broadcast partner Jerry Howarth's voice as he told a Fan 590 interviewer that Tom "wasn't doing well." There came the waterworks again. When the Yankees lost this weekend, it meant that all-time crybaby suck Mike Mussina still doesn't have a World Series ring, which serves him right for complaining about the Cheek ceremony back in '04. (Why that story hasn't dogged Mussina more is baffling.)

Hopefully, that introduces it well enough. Here's the post that appeared one week after Tom's death:

IT'S TAKEN ME A WEEK to sort out my thoughts on The Voice of the Blue Jays, Tom Cheek, who died last Sunday after a 16-month battle with brain cancer.

Greater minds such as the Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt, the Toronto Sun's Bob Elliott as well as the Star's Dave Perkins and Geoff Baker knew the man and rose to the occasion. They all wrote fitting tributes that told the story of how the man lived and how he died without over-squeezing the Kleenex.

As someone who grew up in small-town Ontario loving sports but not being very good at playing them, Tom was one of my heroes.

Today, as someone who's on a low rung of the sports media, he's still a hero to me: I keep reminding myself that he worked in smaller markets until the age of 37, when the Jays hired him to be their first announcer.

If you didn't know who Tom Cheek was, think of your favourite baseball team and its announcers. Imagine if they had been at the mike since Day 1 of the franchise, never missing a broadcast for 27-plus seasons, 4,306 games in a row plus another 41 in the playoffs.

The Jays have had their share of good players through the years. Unlike other expansion franchises -- think of George Brett in Kansas City or Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio in Houston -- they have never had a player who was the face of the franchise. Tom slipped into that role before the team ever took the field. Some of the more vivid images from the book he released after the Jays' first World Series title in 1992 date back to the winter of '77, before the first season, when the rookie announcer and manager Roy Hartsfield were travelling to small Canadian towns as part of the Blue Jays' offseason caravan, flying in old planes and in equally dodgy weather conditions. As Cheek wrote, "There were times I wondered if the first announcer and the first manager of the Blue Jays were going to make it to Opening Day."

Enduring experiences such as that was just one example of Cheek's dedication. You don't last 27 years with one team if you're not talented and well-liked, and Cheek was both. As the Star's Chris Zelkovich wrote, it's a terrible oversight that he hasn't been put into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

I've always thought the radio announcer's role was to be a knowledgeable fan, someone who knows the team inside and out, knows when it should be praised and knows when it should be criticized. The criteria for a play-by-play or colour man is straightforward: "Would I want to sit next to him or her at a game?" Some announcers grate on the nerves by sounding disinterested, talking too much, being over-the-top or coming off as smug or a know-it-all. Cheek was always engaged, calling the game, as Zelkovich put it, "simply and honestly."

As the Woodstock Sentinel-Review editorialized, journalism schools should use Cheek as an example to follow. He had the right make-up to get through the long season year after year, making baseball interesting and putting listeners on a first-name basis with the Blue Jays. Jesse, George and Rance in one generation; Devo and Robbie later on; Carlos, Orlando and Doc more recently.

That's why a lot of Canadians, some of whom maybe hadn't tuned into a Blue Jays broadcast since the glory years of 1992-93, had to admit Cheek's death hit them harder than they might have expected. He was so consistently good we took him for granted, assuming he would always be at the mike.

For the Canadians who have the odd affliction of preferring baseball over hockey, Tom Cheek is the Toronto Blue Jays.

What I wouldn't have given to watch one game with him.

Related: Tom Cheek Wikipedia page
Previous Blog Blasts Past: Movie Love Interests, Girlfriend-Friendly Sports Movies, Garth Snow This To Your Friends, The One and Only Warren Zevon, Damn Vikings, Me 'N' Adnan V.

Back with more later. Send your thoughts to neatesager@yahoo.ca.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Tom & Jerry will always be Blue Jays Baseball - an amazing broadcast duo they made.

I was never a big ball fan but I could listen to Jays radio pre-game to post-game with more excitement than being at the old Skydome or watching the game on tv.

Their's something special about sports radio play-by-play announcers that television will never match; and what an amazing voice of the late great Tom Cheek