Thursday, November 01, 2007


The late, great Voice of the Blue Jays, Tom Cheek, is on the fan ballot once again for the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He should have been inducted while he was still with us in both voice and spirit, but you can help by voting once per day this month in order to get him on the final ballot. Here's the post that was written following his death in October 2005.

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.

(Much obliged to The Tao of Stieb for the reminder. Along with Cheek, fellow former Blue Jays and Expos announcers such as Jacques Doucet, Jerry Howarth, Tony Kubek, Buck Martinez, Dan Shulman and Dave Van Horne are also on the fan ballot. You can vote for three each time.)

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