CLEARWATER, Fla. — The first Blue Jays game of the year is always a great one, fake or otherwise, and the team opened its spring schedule as Snowmageddon hit their home base back in Toronto with a Darwin Barney-fuelled win over the neighbouring Philadelphia Phillies.
It’s always an honour to be behind the mic, whether I’m calling Grapefruit League games, regular season contests or even the playoffs, and a huge thrill to attempt to fill the shoes of one of my heroes, one who has been gone now for over a decade.
One of the rites of spring for me is an annual pilgrimage to Sylvan Abbey Memorial Gardens, the final resting place of Blue Jays broadcasting great and Hall of Famer Tom Cheek. The cemetery is only about a five-minute drive from Bright House Field, where the Phillies play their spring training games, and not 20 minutes from Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin.
Right on the northeastern edge of a pond sits a beautiful bench with simply "The Voice Of The Blue Jays" inscribed on the top, a pair of crossed bats with a baseball in the middle engraved at either end of the face of the bench, with "CHEEK" in the middle.
I’m not one who believes that the spirit of the departed exists only at their tombstones -- I feel like if I want to talk to Tom, I can do it anywhere and anytime -- but I still feel a pull to go and "see him" every spring, before embarking on another broadcast season. Partly to make sure everything looks good (I was pleased to see that someone had come by and left a golf ball at the foot of the bench, Tom loved to golf), partly so that I can take a picture for you all to see, and partly just to hang out with my old friend and mentor.
Tom Cheek brought baseball to life for Blue Jays fans not just in the early years, but also through the glory years and the decline that followed immediately after. All the stories have been told, but they deserve to be told again. He worked that first day in the snow at Exhibition Stadium, and didn’t miss a game -- regular season or playoffs -- for the next 26 seasons, going just over two months into his 27th with the streak still intact. It finally ended at 4306 consecutive regular-season games when Tom’s father passed away.
Not two weeks after that, on his 65th birthday as it turns out, Tom was on an operating table having brain surgery to attempt to remove the cancerous tumour that would kill him 18 months later.
I only got to spend two seasons and a bit in the booth with Tom Cheek, though I spent 24 years before that with him coming through my radio, instilling a love for baseball in me and teaching me how to call a game without either one of us knowing that he was doing it.
I greatly envy all those who got so much more, because those two-plus years I did get to spend beside Tom were an invaluable education in baseball, in broadcasting and in life.
I want to tell him again how much he meant to me and to all of us baseball fans across Canada, to let him know how meaningful it is to sit in his seat in the broadcast booth, working alongside his partner of almost a quarter-century, Jerry Howarth, how important that broadcast is to me, how I hope every day that I’m making him proud.
But instead, I’ll have to sadly settle for an annual visit to a beautiful bench by a pretty pond. Though I have to say it was eerie that as I drove off the cemetery grounds, I flipped on the radio and immediately heard the first notes of Don Henley’s "Boys Of Summer."
If Tom is indeed watching over us, here’s hoping Toronto’s boys of summer make him as proud this year as they did last. You know he’d want it that way.