Ferguson: Looking back on Cheek's great career in Toronto
12/7/2012 10:33:36 AM
It was almost fitting that the Blue Jays didn't do anything major at the Winter Meetings at Nashville this week. That meant all the attention was given to the announcement that Tom Cheek had finally won the Ford C. Frick Award for a Lifetime of Baseball Broadcasting Excellence.
I still wish there had been some way Tom could have received this incredible honour and been at Cooperstown to accept it before leaving us in October of 2005. But I know how much this means to his family, friends and colleagues and I trust many of them along with many fans will be on hand for the ceremony on the final weekend of July.
I can share a couple of the thosuands of stories about Tom that are etched in my mind. The first involves his incredible streak of 4,306 consecutive games called. Tom came very close to missing a game came once when he was on a West Coast swing. He was incredibly ill but rather than just stay in his room to rest, Tom stoked up on various medications and then covered his body with Vicks and heat linament. Then it was off to the hotel sauna room. Tom explained that he stayed there for much longer than any human should, determined to sweat the illness out of him. By the time he wandered out of the sauna, he was extremely light-headed and almost 'high' from all the vapours. But that night, he was indeed behind the mic for the Jays game. I must add that in later years, Tom expressed deep regret that he had missed so many important family events in his endevours to keep the streak intact.
The other story shows you just how much Tom cared about the fans. At the tail end of one season, the Blue Jays fan club had their annual year-end 'soiree'. As was the tradition, they wanted to honour the most exciting, if not favourite, Blue Jays opponent. Tom was hosting the affair and was asked if he could possibly line up Yankees great Reggie Jackson. The fans wanted to present 'Mr. October' with a gift which I believe was a watch. Initially, Reggie seemed to agree to show up, but on the night in question, he was a no-show. Tom was livid and mortified. He could have complained to the Yankees through the usual channels, but that wasn't Tom.
The next day, Tom went straight to the Yankees clubhouse, walked right up to Reggie and basically read him the riot act. He wasn't profane or screaming and yelling. He just told one of the greatest stars in the game that he basically had just spit in the face of the fans, who were only trying to be nice to him and show him some Blue Jays hospitality. At first, Reggie said nothing and just stared straight ahead. Finally he spit into a paper cup through the gap in his front teeth, looked at Tom and said "I'll take that under advisement".
I tell this story not to embarass a Hall of Famer, but to show you how Tom Cheek believed in doing the right thing and standing up for Blue Jays fans. Tom called the game the right way. He was passionate about the Blue Jays and, at times, acted as though he was part of the team. But being part of the Blue Jays family never became blatant homerism. Sure he was excited on air and conveyed that so well whenever the Blue Jays did something good or exciting but he was also fair to the other team and highlighted their great plays as well. He was also a great story teller and a magician at weaving his interesting and often humourous tales into the fabric of a game.
One of the my career highlights was being in the booth in Atlanta when the Jays won their first World Series in 1992. Jerry Howarth was due to call the final half inning in extra innings, but in one of the classiest moves I've ever seen, handed the mic back over to Tom so he could voice Blue Jays' history in the making.
I'll always remember the dinners in Florida during spring training at the condo with Tom and Shirley and in various restaurants around the Dunedin area. It was 14 years of magic in the broadcast booth with Tom and Jerry and our engineer for the bulk of that time, Bruce Brenner.
I know in my heart, I would have had a long career in this business whether I had done Blue Jays baseball or not. But my career never would have risen to the level it did without Tom Cheek's help, inspiration and friendship.
There are at least two other members of the Blue Jays family who deserve Hall of Fame recognition. Paul Beeston and Cito Gaston. I know they will both be there for Tom's big day. One day, they will have their own.