Eh Game

Tom Cheek enshrined in Cooperstown: Ford C. Frick Award celebrates a master craftsman

The late Tom Cheek, seen at ceremonies honouring him in 2004. (CP)

You may have heard it dozens of times already since that October night in 1993. You may have heard it hundreds of times.

Tell me, though, that when you listened again to the biggest call of the iconic Tom Cheek's sterling play by play career, that it wasn't different for you today.

Two on, bottom of the ninth, Joe Carter at the plate. I knew exactly what was coming and exactly when. When that entirely predictable moment arrived, I felt something that I hadn't before. I got slightly choked up and, yes, a tiny bit of water glazed my eyes. I'd never felt that way about "the call" before. First time I'd heard it, it was sensationally electric. Many, many times after that, it still carried its voltage, albeit a slowly diminishing amount as time passed by. Always, first as a young broadcaster and then later as an experienced one, that call filled me with an inspired awe.

But choked up? Tearing up? Never. Not until today.

Today, with the announcement that the late Tom Cheek had finally, finally, been named a recipient of major league baseball's highest broadcast honour - The Ford C. Frick Award - that once in a lifetime home run call became almost entirely about the man making that call, as opposed to the man who belted that home run or the moment itself.

I felt proud. Why?

I barely knew Tom Cheek, interviewing him often over the phone and chatting with him in person on a few scattered occasions. He was always friendly, always engaging and always gracious. That drawl-laden, "aw shucks" charm never went missing. First time I'd ever interviewed the man was as a host at a London, Ontario radio station, back in the year of that famous home run call, 1993. My memories of the conversation are a little foggy, with one exception. I'd heard Tom say, on a number of home run calls through the years that the batter had taken the pitcher "to Powder River" and I was desperate to know what exactly that meant. "You know," I recall him saying, "I'm not really sure. Picked it up somewhere. Sounds good, doesn't it?"

Sure did. That was the thing with Tom Cheek. I don't believe there was a contrived play by play bone in his body. He just instinctively knew what sounded good. His note perfect call of Carter's home run couldn't possibly have been rehearsed. Yet, it came out magnificently. Maybe even because it wasn't rehearsed.

I'm sure my limited experiences engaging in conversation with the man informed my feelings today but I suspect there was so much more at play here.

Just like everybody else who's hearing "touch 'em all, Joe, you'll never hit a bigger home run in your life" a little differently now, I'm sure it's because I knew Tom Cheek well, long before I ever met him.

Tom Cheek was my baseball spirit guide, really.

Beginning with the birth of the Blue Jays in 1977 and for 4,306 consecutive games following that, Tom Cheek was quite simply the vocal embodiment of the game and the team. There was more to it than that, though.

In 1977, I was 12 years old, going on 13. In a time when very few games were actually on television, Tom Cheek painted the pictures of a fledgling team trying to find its wings. Playing catch in the backyard, the radio was always on and we all felt a little closer to being big leaguers with the folksy descriptions of Mr. Cheek punctuating every smack of the mitt.

If you're old enough to remember the birth of the Blue Jays, surely you have memories like that. Or of Sunday afternoon barbecues with family and friends happily and noisily buzzing around. As the burgers were being flipped, a radio on the deck or perched facing outward in the kitchen window, there was Tom Cheek, the voice of more than just baseball. He was a tangential narrator of your fondest summer memories.

The ease with which he inserted himself into those memories is simply a gift not shared by many broadcasters. The lazy, pedestrian nature of a typical baseball game allowed for that and Tom Cheek merged the game with storytelling so seamlessly. I remember so often chuckling, not just at a good yarn that he was spinning, but in the beautiful manner in which he could do it while weaving in and out of his descriptions of the game unfolding before him. He might start to tell you how he and Whitey Herzog had a little lunch in the hotel restaurant the day before and then casually slip in a "the two-two pitch is fouled off by Bosetti..." before getting right back to recounting the wisdom that Herzog had cheerfully dispensed over a corned beef sandwich.

Contrast that with Mr. Cheek's ability to go from low key to animated in a split second, without hyperbole or phony majesty and you have a portrait of a once in a generation broadcast artist.

Listen, again, to the 1993 call, this time from the beginning of the bottom of the ninth inning, into the mayhem of a frenzied Skydome and then beyond. It's a perfect blend of matter of fact description and narrative-building instantaneously rendered into a few seconds that live forever and not just because Joe Carter hit a walk-off home run to win the World Series. It is a moment met perfectly by a master craftsman.

That much we already knew, yes.

The surprising part is how that famous call takes on new meaning in the hearts of baseball fans today.

For Blue Jay followers, taken from the snow of Doug Ault's home run heroics on opening day in 1977 through the team's most memorable moment in 1993 and then farther, Tom Cheek's Ford C. Frick Award means so much more than a long overdue endorsement of a broadcaster's importance and talent. It's an emotional moment of pride felt for a longtime adopted family member.

Unless you can tell me that listening to Tom Cheek's call of Joe Carter's home run wasn't different for you today.

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