Wilner: Preparation helped make Cheek great

July 26, 2013, 9:59 AM

TORONTO, Ont. – Even though I’ll be in Toronto broadcasting the Blue Jays’ series with the Houston Astros this weekend, my heart will be in Cooperstown, N.Y., as Tom Cheek will be honoured with the Ford C. Frick Award For Broadcasting Excellence on Hall of Fame Induction weekend.

I will be holding down the fort and doing the Friday and Saturday Blue Jays broadcasts on Sportsnet 590 The Fan alongside Jack Morris. I can’t think of a greater tribute to a man who meant so much to me, both on a personal and professional level, than to (hopefully) do him and his family proud in broadcasting those two games.

Friday night’s game will be the first time I’ve done the first inning of a regular-season major-league game since Aug. 29, 2004 – Tom Cheek Day at the ballpark. I had to start the game because Tom and Jerry Howarth couldn’t get back up from the field quickly enough after the ceremonies.

Over the years, I’ve written many tributes to Tom (you can find the latest here), but never really gone in depth about what made him such a terrific broadcaster. How about we do that here?

VOICE

Tom had the pipes. Boy, did he ever. That unmistakeable big, huge baritone let you know that Cheek was around well before he ever entered a room.

It was the perfect voice for a broadcaster, though the first time he met my oldest daughter (when she was a baby), that big, booming “hello” of his scared the heck out of her and made her cry.

For the rest of us, though, it was just fantastic. Tom loved to sing, and showed off his pipes that way, as well. Many’s the time I would walk into the booth to hear him belting out “King of the Road” (“TRAI-lers for sale or rent…”), and he always said that he wanted to sing the national anthems at the ballpark one day.

PREPARATION

Cheek did most of his broadcasting in the days before every stat was right at one’s fingertips. He never used a laptop or the internet during a game and while he made good use of the game notes each team provided, as did everyone, he also kept a book of his own.

And by book, I mean an actual book.

Tom had a little notebook that he carried with him in which every Blue Jays player had a page, and on that page he would write down every home run each player hit in a given season and when he hit it. Along with that, I’m pretty sure (memories fade, and I never asked him to show it to me) he wrote the inning in which the home run was hit, how many runners were on base and who the pitcher was.

Cheek wasn’t a guy who would spend hours poring over notes and statistics, preparing a lot of material that he’d be sure to use as the game progressed, but he had intimate knowledge of what was going on with the Blue Jays at all times, and spoke to opposition managers, coaches, broadcasters and players to find out what was going on with them.

SPONTANEITY

Not only did Tom not prepare specific material to use in the game, he also didn’t have a “signature call.” There was no “Holy cow” or “Oh, doctor” or “Going, going, gone.” The closest he probably came to having one was “Swing and a belt,” but that wasn’t a canned call, one that he would always break out at the appropriate moment. It was a spontaneous thing, as Cheek always let the game dictate what came out of his mouth, as opposed to working to find a way to get his signature call in there.

Noticeably, as well, one can’t use “swing and a belt” as one’s home run call since at the time you say that, you’re not 100 per cent sure the ball is going to leave the yard. He just said it when someone belted the ball.

Granted, he had some turns of phrase that he used often, like, “Katy bar the door” when the opposition was rallying or, “He took that one to Powder River” on an especially prodigious home run, but he was completely unprogrammed, realizing that each game told its own story, and never wanting to take attention away from it and put it on himself.

FEEL

Even though Tom worked almost exclusively on radio (he did a few TV games with fellow Hall-of-Famer Tony Kubek on SuperChannel back in the mid-‘80s), he wasn’t afraid to let the ballgame do the talking, and not just the crack of the bat and the cheering of the crowd.

Tom would occasionally say nothing for five or ten seconds, just letting the audience drink in the sounds of the ballpark that would come in through the crowd microphone. He used to call it “letting the broadcast breathe.”

Cheek had a great feel for when to pull back and when to ramp things up on the broadcast. He obviously wanted it to be a pleasant experience for the listener, knowing that baseball on the radio is often something that’s on in the background, but he got loud when it was time to get people’s ears to perk up.

LOVE

Above all else, Tom Cheek loved the game of baseball and he loved the Blue Jays, and both those things shone through in every game he broadcast. One simply cannot do what Tom did and sacrifice the things he did to put together a streak of over 27 years calling every single game if one is not desperately in love with the sport.

Cheek didn’t see the streak as any sort of huge deal; he just figured he was doing no more than showing up for his job.

While he did, though, the love for the game – and the team – came right through the radio at all times. Tom walked a fine line beautifully over the course of his career in Toronto. You could always tell he was rooting for the Blue Jays, that he loved the team and was emotionally invested in them doing well, but he was never a cheerleader, nor was he ever a homer.

It’s a tough thing to do, but Cheek did it and did it well, and I have no idea how.

Again, I wish I could be in Cooperstown this weekend, in order to pay tribute to a great man for all he did for me – both growing up listening to him and having the brief chance to share a broadcast booth with him – and to share the moment with his wonderful family.

I have 27 years to go before I catch Cheek as far as time in the Blue Jays’ play-by-play chair goes, though I’ll never touch the streak (mine is currently at only 38 games, having already been knocked out in June by laryngitis). But if I can become even half the broadcaster that Tom was, I’ll be sitting awfully pretty.

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