“Yes sir, it’s time for Blue Jays baseball. I’m Tom Cheek …”
It was never my mom or dad who tucked me in to bed—it was Tom and Jerry. Not the cat and mouse of course, but the Blue Jays’ play-by-play commentators Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth. I was a boy in Toronto, hunkered down in the top bunk, and the games were my bedtime stories—Dave Stieb, Tony Fernandez, Lloyd Moseby and George Bell replaced the characters in Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. These tales played out over 4,306 baseball-nights (and weekend afternoons) from April 7, 1977 to June 3, 2004, and they were read to us by Tom Cheek from Pensacola, Florida, who passed away October 9.
In the tributes that have poured in over the past few weeks, many are remembering the famous calls. The word “mob” seems to be one of Cheek’s favourites—he uses it as both noun and verb. And his most famous line, “Touch ’em all, Joe,” has been described as being one of the greatest calls in baseball history—but of course since it took place in Canada, Joe Carter’s walk-off World Series-winning home run doesn’t get all the respect it deserves. Tom Cheek’s earnest enthusiasm in calling that home run wasn’t a bias for the home team, though he was clearly a Blue Jay fan through-and-through (how could he notbe?). He was a professional, one of the best at his job, but in this instant he recognized something special—it was one of those universal moments baseball seems to offer us on a semi-regular basis.
I loved baseball when I was a kid. I don’t get into it much now, but back then I played, read, watched and listened to as much baseball as I could. While I was never all that good—I fielded a ground ball with my mouth at my first-ever practice with the Trinity-Bellwoods Tykes—I was persistent. I reached my peak at the age of twelve, with a .600 batting average in the High Park Little League.
One of my favourite books at the time, Great Moments in Baseball, told the tales of some of the best-remembered players, games and plays of the great American pastime. One of these was Bobby Thompson’s walk-off home run to clinch the pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. This homer, in typical New York fashion (the Giants had defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers) was known as “The Shot Heard Round The World.” If this book were written today, I believe Joe Carter’s belt should be included, and Tom Cheek’s radio call of that moment should be the one that is remembered. Even the television highlights of that home run now use Cheek’s radio call for the audio.
It was not uncommon for my dad to turn down the sound on the TV and listen to Tom and Jerry while watching the game. The specificity—dare I say, poetry—of the radio play-by-play was so much more informative and atmospheric. They used to sell little AM radios with the Jays’ logo on them, and the stands at Exhibition Stadium would be dotted with little old men hunched over their scorecards, listening to the game through their earpieces. Oddly, I remember thinking that one day I would be a little old man, listening to my radio and marking down the balls and strikes in my little notebook. Of course, I never imagined this without Tom Cheek’s voice being a part of it. What other voice could there be?
On those long summer nights as I lay awake after the game was over, instead of counting sheep I would replay the games in my head. I imagined the best Blue Jays lineup (I would never start Garth Iorg at third base—always Rance Mulliniks), and correct the mistakes of then-manager Jimy “One-M” Williams. After I had stacked the deck I let the game play out in my mind and it would be Tom Cheek’s voice that would provide the play-by-play. It was the only voice I knew that could say things like “Back, back, way back … and gone!” in a soothing, put-me-to-sleep kind of way.
When Tom finally missed a game, it was to go to his father’s funeral. Later that year a tumour was found in his brain. He had an operation to have it removed but it only held off the inevitable—like walking Robbie Alomar to get to Paul Molitor. This year he returned to the broadcast booth to call one half-inning of the Jays’ season opener in Florida. He had moved to nearby Oldsmar, Florida to rest and try to recover. This would be his last game. He spent this summer fighting cancer instead of calling baseball and, appropriately, his season ended this October, with the leaves turning and the time for those special moments about to end.