By: Dan Grant
‘Wake up Daniel! Wake up, Wake up, Wake up!!!’
I have to cop to something right now that a lot of people don’t know. It’s something my mom and maybe a handful of other people know. It’s a shameful secret for a Toronto sports fan, particularly one who loves the Blue Jays as much as I do.
I missed Joe Carter’s home run.
And I remember exactly where I was when it happened, which is the worst part.
I was eight years old and my baseball fandom that season had been elevated from simply watching games with my mom or dad and not really knowing what was going on, to watching games all the time and arguing to stay up late so that I could see as much as possible. The Blue Jays World Series win in 1992, coupled with my getting just that little bit older, pushed me to the place where I really understood and cared about a sports team day in and day out for the first time. This basically never stopped, leading as it did into the 1993-94 Toronto Maple Leafs, whom I will never forget, and the expansion Raptors waiting to satiate my burgeoning sports hunger.
But when Carter hit that home run, I was watching the game in my basement at our first house, lying on the couch. I’d likely been out playing ball hockey all day. I was allowed to stay up for the game, which went way past my normal bed time. And I conked out. It was just me and my mom watching the game, my younger brother was already sleeping and I passed out. Which led to my mom yelling and jumping up and down and waking me up and us being so happy and excited. It wasn’t until later I realized the significance of what I had missed.
I’ve mentioned the immortal ‘bed time’ a couple times so far and that really is something that led me to my relationship with Tom Cheek.
As a young, passionate Blue Jays fan, I wanted to watch every minute, but the majority of Blue Jays games went until 10:00pm or later. Sure I could watch the weekend matinees and I enjoyed them but often, during prime time, I was heading to bed around the fourth or the fifth inning, at which point I’d pretend to go to sleep and then turn on my radio, making sure to keep the volume down so that I didn’t get ‘caught’. I don’t think anyone really minded but I did always feel the need to be covert about it.
It was here that I found Tom and Jerry. Not the cat and mouse, but the famous iron man Blue Jays radio announcers, Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth. Their knowledge and passion for baseball, as well as their constant presence is something that I can point to as one of the turning points for me as a sports fan. I’ve mentioned listening to baseball on the radio as one of my favourite things in the world to people before and I usually get a look that borders on incredulity. That look seems to say ‘Dan, I like you but I would literally rather be covered in paper cuts’.
It’s hard for me to explain the romance of it to them and what it means to me. The Blue Jays were something I could do with both my mom and dad, which was important to eight year old me, particularly as they were divorced. The Blue Jays were something my dad loved, which was even more important, as any eight year old boy wants to impress his father. So I threw myself in head first, consciously or not, memorizing stats, reading histories and generally doing things that other eight or nine year olds weren’t doing. I had baseball trivia tear-off calendars, I read fictional sports books by Matt Christopher and others. I was drafting my dad’s fantasy baseball team for him over the phone by the time I was 12. I did anything to deepen my knowledge of the game.
The biggest part of this, beyond the stats and the histories, was catching every game, so I could talk about them with my dad. And from 1977-2004, if you were catching every Blue Jays game and listening on the radio, you were listening to Tom Cheek. And even though I missed Joe Carter’s home run on television I heard Tom’s famous call over and over again, in commericals and on the post-World Series video that we had, and after a while, I didn’t feel like I missed anything at all. I fell asleep to Tom and Jerry more times than I can count and that builds a certain close relationship, even if it’s one sided.
Tom Cheek won the Ford C. Frick award yesterday and will be forever immortalized in Cooperstown as one of baseball’s great announcers. With Robby Alomar last year and now Cheek, the Blue Jays are gaining a sense of permanency as a franchise, historically speaking. But it’s Cheek that means more to me personally. I was happy to see Robby go in but he was always going to be remembered as an all-time great player. Cheek ran the risk of disappearing into obscurity among the baseball community if he didn’t win this award. Can you name the announcers from other teams beyond maybe a couple? Can you name announcers who stopped announcing 7 years ago for other teams? Me neither. That’s why it means so much. Tom Cheek has been recognized and he absolutely, unequivocally deserves it.
Born in Florida, Cheek began his career working as a DJ in Pittsburgh in 1962 and gradually moved in to sports for the University of Vermont, inching his way closer to Canada. In the early 70’s, he began doing guest announcing roles for the Montreal Expo’s working alongside Hall of Fame announcer Dave Van Horne. When Toronto landed their expansion team for the 1977 season, they wanted a play by play guy and they went with someone that some Canadians were already familiar with. Cheek was there from day one. From opening day 1977 until mid-season 2004, Cheek never missed a game. Howarth was there most of the time, from 1981 on, but as a normal person does, he occasionally had a sick day or another engagement. Not Cheek.
For an astounding 4,306 consecutive games, plus an additional 41 playoff games, he was there. To put that in perspective, that’s some 1,500 more games that Cal Ripken’s iron man streak on the field. He was there on Opening Day in 1977 when Doug Ault hit two home runs and the Jays won in the snow. He was there in 1985 when the Jays won their first division title and then blew a 3-0 leading to eventual World Series champion Kansas City in the ALCS. He was there for the legendary stretch collapse of 1987 when the Jays had a 7 game lead on the Tigers with a month to go, only to lose out. And he was there for the first title in 1992 and the affirmation in 1993. He was there for George Bell’s MVP season in 1987. He was there for Hentgen’s Cy Young and Dave Stieb’s no hitter. He was always there. Only the death of his father ended the streak, as he missed two games in June 2004. Later in the same month, he had a brain tumour removed and he lost his battle with cancer in 2005, at the young age of 66.
I remember when he died. He had already been honoured by the team with a ‘4306’ banner raised to the Level of Excellence – the equivalent of having his number retired. There were tributes abound, many of which are resurfacing today. It was really an outpouring of gratitude for a team that had started as a joke, quickly rose to being an upstart, were prematurely labelled underachievers and then finally became champions. This man had been their voice through it all and even stuck around for the lean post World Series years. Each and every fan had listened to Tom on the radio at some point, had heard his level, measured assessments of the situations and his quick, dry banter with Jerry. It was the first time a public figure who really meant anything to me personally had passed away and I was surprised by the amount of emotion that I felt. That I still feel.
We feel the most strongly about things from our childhood, good or bad. For me, the voices of Tom and Jerry will always mean the summer time. They’ll always mean listening to the Jays in the car with my mom or to games in my room with the lights out. They’ll mean listening to the West coast road trips while I was in high school, those games not ending until 1 or 2 in the morning. They’ll mean being able to fall asleep while listening, not because I was bored or tired but because I had nothing else to do except relax in the summertime and half-listen to the game. They’ll always be perfect and I’ll always miss them.
Congratulations, Tom. Take your home run trot. And wherever you are, make sure you touch em’ all.
For more, you can listen to a compilation of Tom Cheek’s greatest calls here.