TORONTO – It was a winter day in 1989 when I first met Tom Cheek. He was sitting with his knees hunched up on the corner of a desk in his cramped office behind home plate at Exhibition Stadium, with sunlight streaming through the window onto the dusty floor.
In those days just about every member of the media had to figure out their own schedule for visiting players or coaches, so there was no way to predict who would be there during any particular afternoon. Still, we all had a pretty good idea of who the most available guys would be on any given day.
No, renewal of a tradition
Tom Cheek was such a guy, and that January I was lucky to catch him in. He didn’t have much time but we managed to talk about his plans for the upcoming season, which would be his last.
“This will be my 20th year with the team,” he said. “They tell me they don’t plan on letting anybody else pass me.” This turned out to be true as not only did Tom end up being surpassed by no other broadcaster in terms of longevity with one North American professional baseball organization – he still holds that record today – but nobody has ever come even close to passing him.
In fact, since his death in 2002 there has been nobody else even on the Blue Jays broadcast team to wear a headset for more than five consecutive seasons.
The image of Tom sitting behind the plate, his knees up on that desk, and the sunlight warming the dusty air is one I have carried with me through three different decades to get a sense of what has made him so special. It’s not just that he was the voice of my baseball-watching youth – he still is – or even just because he was always so much more than other broadcasters.
It’s also because it somehow got through to him that none of this really mattered when compared with the chance to be able to share something important about your life, or somebody else’s. So many Blue Jays’ players over the years gave us some sign of who they were out there on the field:
Another time in another room with Tom, I asked him how much longer he thought he would keep doing this broadcasting thing. At that point, he was already 68 and it was starting to feel like the end of his career might be approaching faster than expected.
He told me that if everything went well maybe two or three more years. “But what will you do?” I wondered aloud. With some resignation in his voice, he said something along the lines of not really knowing but that it probably wouldn’t be anything as fun as running around behind home plate at baseball games all summer long.
Then again none of us really knows what will happen next in our lives, so I could see his point. Somehow though it didn’t seem right that he would be done with all this fun stuff.
Contrast that view with the one from my office as I write these words on March 1st of 2015. It’s a warm day and black clouds are gathering over Toronto, threatening to return snow at any moment.
The Blue Jays’ managers and coaches sit along the third-base line watching batting practice through a steady downpour while Tom sits alone under an umbrella behind home plate, looking more comfortable than anybody else as they wait for things to dry out a bit.
He is still there – 20 years later! – even though he already announced earlier in 2014 that this would be his final season in the booth. It felt like he wasn’t even going to have a chance to say goodbye, or thank you for listening, but now that this last spring is here it’s clear that things will be different than I imagined them being back then.
Tom told me years ago about an epic rainstorm during the playoffs involving mud on the field and a pig running loose in the outfield – I don’t think it was actually a pig but hey, it could have been!
Anyway, as we waited there under our umbrellas for play to resume Tom began telling me all about that game: how Joe Carter hit two homers and drove in eight runs while Ozzie Silna sat off to one side with his hat on, pleased to see his Toronto Argonauts up 8-0 against the Edmonton Eskimos; how the umpires called for a short break undercover but nobody moved because they were all watching something out in that outfield; and how once they finally went out there they too came back with mud on their shirts.
The game was delayed twice more before finally being called off around 7:00 pm as darkness settled over Exhibition Stadium. The Blue Jays made an announcement over the loudspeaker telling people to head home but promising to make it up to them by playing a doubleheader the following day instead.
Tom said he felt like all of Toronto had been sitting right along beside him through every one of those delays, ready and willing to stay put.