Blue Jays honour legendary broadcaster Cheek
Frick Award winner's family on hand, son throws ceremonial first pitch
TORONTO -- "Touch 'em all."
The words were famously uttered by longtime Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek when Joe Carter hit the home run that allowed the 1993 Blue Jays to walk off with their second consecutive World Series championship victory.
But there is more to the story of Cheek than just that one iconic phrase.
The same three words epitomize the life that he led and the way that he went about his business. Cheek touched the lives of so many when he brought baseball to Toronto.
"He was the first announcer," Cheek's play-by-play partner Jerry Howarth said. "The crowds fell in love with him from the very beginning. … He just had a love for what he did. He loved baseball, but he loved the Blue Jays. When you're the first announcer for that baby, that's your family. The fans really got to know Tom personally. He was always down on the field and they grew to love him and his enthusiasm for the game. And that voice, that baritone voice. Nobody had a voice like Tom's."
Cheek will take his deserved place in Cooperstown later this month as this year's Ford C. Frick Award winner. The honour follows his induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame over the Canada Day weekend and a tribute on Tuesday night from the team that he spent the majority of his career with.
"It's emotional for me because it's eight years later and I was emotional that Tom wasn't here to see his tribute," Tom's wife Shirley Cheek said. "He'd be so humbled by it. But also to know that the fans still support Tom after all these years, it just amazes me. He would be so proud to know that that was happening."
Shirley was joined on the Rogers Centre field before Toronto's game against the Detroit Tigers by her three children (Tom, Jeff and Lisa) and Howarth. Together, they listened to Tom's voice on just a few of the calls he made throughout his Blue Jays tenure before Jeff threw out the game's ceremonial first pitch.
"It's a time to celebrate his career," Howarth said. "He was the voice of the Blue Jays and he was a sophisticated fan. Everybody wanted to be Tom behind the mic because he was what the fans wanted. When they were doing well, he was so happy you could tell it in his voice. When they weren't doing too well, you could also sense he was disappointed and so were the fans."
This posthumous wave of recognition for the former voice of the Blue Jays has been bittersweet. While Cheek's legacy continues to grow, he is not able to share in the celebration of his life. At Saturday's induction in St. Marys, Ontario, Cheek's youngest son Jeff was dealt the great privilege of delivering his father's acceptance speech.
"He was who he was on the radio -- a great guy with a big heart," Jeff said. "Dad taught us a lot about life … treat everyone with respect; never be afraid to laugh at yourself. We all mess up but learn from our mistakes and try to be a good citizen. Follow your heart and strive for greatness -- that was our dad."
Tom Cheek personified greatness, but he never seemed to know it. Even on a day of his honouring that he was able to take part in nine years ago, Toronto broadcaster Mike Wilner remembers how in awe Cheek was, that he had such an effect on so many people for what he considered just doing his job.
"He was exceedingly modest about what he did," Wilner said. "I remember sitting in the dugout with him on the Tom Cheek Day, Aug. 29, 2004, when they put his name up on the Level of Excellence [at SkyDome].
"We were just sitting there talking and he looked up and there was a part of the Level of Excellence that had been draped over. This kind of look of recognition came over him, that he knew what was about to happen and he just could not believe it. … He really thought he just showed up for work every day and he didn't think there was anything special about it."
Cheek's name has its place on Toronto's Level of Excellence next to the number 4,306. The digits represent the number of consecutive regular-season Blue Jays games that he called. While the streak is one attribute widely associated with his legacy, it is certainly not the only reason he is remembered.
"The streak did not define our dad," Jeff Cheek said. "He was a Toronto Blue Jay 24/7, 12 months out of the year. The offseason included the Jays caravan where he and some players would travel all throughout Canada talking about Blue Jays baseball.
"He would travel coast to coast from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. He had many nights of white-knuckle flying, flying into places like Medicine Hat, Alberta, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and Timmins, Ontario in January. It did not matter if you were the CEO, a salesman, a kid or a third-shift worker, our dad would talk baseball with you."
Added Wilner: "It's bigger than the 4,306. Showing up for every day for 27 1/2 years and never missing a game, and Spring Training, postseason, playoffs -- none of those count in that number either. But it was that he kind of brought baseball to Canada; at least to Toronto. … He introduced the game to millions and millions of people. He was our only connection to it and he showed us what it was like.
"You'd turn on the radio and hear Tom Cheek's voice and you would know it was summer, you know the weather is getting nicer. It's just a comforting feeling. He was the voice of summer for an entire country for 27 1/2 years which is an amazing thing."
It was never amazing to Cheek. Coming to work wasn't anything out of the ordinary. He didn't know anything different.
"He just loved to show up for the job every day," Shirley said. "I remember Pat Gillick asking him, 'Tom, you're not feeling good, what are you trying to prove?' But Tom didn't feel he was trying to prove anything. Even though he didn't feel well, he thought, this is my job and this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is where I should be."
Alexis Brudnicki is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.