TORONTO, Ont. – Even before the Blue Jays took the field to try in vain to extend their home-winning streak to eight games, it was a special night at Rogers Centre.
The voice of the Blue Jays, the late, great Tom Cheek, was honoured in a pre-game ceremony during which the scoreboard played a video that featured many of Cheek’s great calls of significant moments in Jays’ history. From Doug Ault’s first home run in franchise history to George Bell’s catch off Ron Hassey as the Blue Jays clinched the A.L. East for the first time in 1985 to Dave Stieb’s no-hitter to Joe Carter’s historic home run, with several in between.
Hearing Tom Cheek’s voice ring out once again at Rogers Centre was fantastic. It brought back so many memories of both my two and a half years in the booth with him and the 25 years prior, growing up listening to him call Blue Jays games.
It’s a big month for the Cheek family, hence the pre-game ceremony. Tom was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., this past weekend, and at the end of July he’ll posthumously receive the Ford C. Frick Award for Broadcasting Excellence and take his long-deserved place in the Broadcasters’ Wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Cheek went from Burlington, Vt., to Burlington, Ont., and in so doing became the voice of summer, the voice of baseball for an entire nation. Amazingly, he worked 4,306 consecutive regular-season games without ever missing a day of work – a streak that doesn’t count innumerable Spring Training, post-season and all-star games. And I say this as someone who is currently working on a consecutive games-called streak that numbers a whopping 20, having been knocked out by laryngitis last month.
He’ll always be remembered for his famous "Touch ‘em all, Joe, you’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life" call, but there are a couple of other things that stand out for me. Three, actually, but he made me swear never to tell anybody about one of them, so I won’t.
I will say that one moment absolutely put me on the path to be currently broadcasting play-by-play for the Blue Jays and spoke volumes about Tom’s kind heart, generosity of spirit and real genuineness as a human being.
As for the other two, well, one of them took place in the Blue Jays’ dugout on Tom Cheek day, which was Aug. 29, 2004. Tom had already fallen ill and had unsuccessful surgery to attempt to remove his brain tumour two months earlier, but he was back in the booth with Jerry and me, calling home games. That was the day the Blue Jays put his name and number, 4306, on the Level of Excellence.
He knew there was going to be a ceremony, but he didn’t know about the Level of Excellence, and we were talking as he sat in the dugout before the game, looking out onto the field. His gaze wandered up, and he noticed that a portion of the facing of the 500 level was covered by a blue tarp. It was amazing to see the look of recognition, and then of genuine embarrassment move across his face. He kept saying "You have GOT to be kidding me," because he honestly didn’t believe that just showing up to work every day deserved such major praise. I hope he knew how much he meant to the Blue Jays and to his loyal listeners, because to us he was so much more than someone who never called in sick.
The other great memory I have speaks to his playful nature. When Tom was around, we would spend the first segment of the pre-game show talking baseball for ten minutes or so, and he used to always compliment me on my knowledge of young players and prospects across the big leagues.
On one show, he asked me about some hot young up-and-comer whose name I didn’t recognize. As I thought for a few seconds about what to say, I saw a grin start to creep across his face – he couldn’t hold it in – and having realized he was kidding, I said "You made that up!"
He had, and he just laughed.
It truly was the greatest honour of my career to have spent time learning at the feet of a master such as Tom Cheek, and it will always be one of the greatest experiences in my life that I got the chance to know such a kind, humble, truly wonderful human being.
We all miss you, Tom. Congratulations.