Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The sound of summer

At long last, Tom Cheek, who passed away seven years ago, was honoured today with the Baseball Hall of Fame's 2013 Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence, meaning he will be enshrined posthumously in Cooperstown next summer. I wrote this simple eulogy below, on Saturday, October 22, 2005, thirteen days after Mr. Cheek's death.

It has been nearly two weeks since the passing of Tom Cheek, a man whose voice was familiar to millions across Canada as "the voice of Blue Jays baseball".

Nothing I type now will really add to the dignified tributes already spoken and written about Mr. Cheek over the past days. He was lauded as a model of consistency, the man who broadcast every single Blue Jays game on radio from the team's inception in 1977 until he finally missed a game in June, 2004, due to the death of his father. In that time, he called every regular season and post-season game, a total of 4,306 consecutive regular season plus 41 post-season broadcasts.

Yet his legacy is more than just about numbers. I surmise that many callers to all-sports radio talk shows feel the same way about Mr. Cheek as I do. His voice was the one we listened to as kids, learning about baseball and the slow ascent of the Toronto ball team. We listened to him when the late night West coast games began at 10.30pm, well past our bedtimes, with the radio turned down low, the blanket over our heads so that our parents would not know we were still up. His voice was one of reassurance, calm, continuity and instilled in us a sense that no matter how terrible a day it was, at work or at school, there was more to life than the grind of toiling for the Man.

Whether it was a portable radio on the deck at a summer barbecue, a car radio picking up a staticky signal during a rainstorm, or the alarm clock-radio transmitting the game, Mr. Cheek was always on the call, his manner of intonation perfectly matching the ebb and flow of the action, never embellishing or understating, always letting the inherent verve of baseball dictate his play-by-play.

Malignant brain cancer took him away from the broadcast booth indefinitely last summer, but it never diminished his optimistic disposition. He returned infrequently to call a few home games last season and was honored by the ballclub in an emotional ceremony in late August, 2004. That Sunday afternoon, he revealed to fans that he never really realized how much he meant to listeners and the general public, until he read a letter of support noting that, "ever since I was a kid, you have been the sound of summer".

Mr. Cheek was the sound of summer, of autumn and this winter will be bitterly cold knowing that the authoritative voice of baseball will not be waiting on the other side to formally introduce the springtime.