By Bob Elliott
NASHVILLE - When you couldn’t get a ticket to the SkyDome, he painted pictures so vivid you felt like you were 10 rows behind home plate.
When you wondered why on earth that happened, he explained it in a concise manner.
When the Toronto Blue Jays had added radio outlets coast to coast, deep into September, he was at the mike.
The late Tom Cheek, the original voice of the Blue Jays, after years on the final ballot, was named the winner of the 2013 Ford C. Frick Award on Wednesday morn. His memory will be honoured when his wife, Shirley, steps to the podium on Hall of Fame weekend, July 26-29, in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Hall of Fame CEO Jeff Idelson informed Shirley of the long-awaited news while she was at the doctor’s office in Oldsmar, Fla., having some routine blood work done.
Shirley phoned their three children -- Lisa, who works at The Bay in Oakville, Tom, Jr. 46, in Woodford, Va., and Geoff, 42 in Waxhaw, N.C.
Fans and media have been pushing, lobbying and voting for Cheek since his death Oct. 9, 2005. He called 4,306 regular-season games -- from April 7, 1977 through June 2, 2004, taking time off only for his father’s funeral and on June 13, 2004, his 65th birthday, and when he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor.
And Cheek-backers, led by former partners Jerry Howarth, Buck Martinez and Mike Wilner, celebrated.
Cheek was a disc jockey in Plattsburgh, N.Y., a sports director in Burlington, Vt., and the University of Vermont Catamounts hockey broadcaster.
He was also the man who would utter the most famous words in Jays history.
“Touch ‘em all, Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life.”
Those were Cheek’s words at 11:38 p.m., on Oct. 23 as Joe Carter hit a three-run homer off Mitch Williams to give the Jays the 1993 World Series.
Touch ‘em all, Joe.
“That’s the icebreaker,” said Carter from Leawood, Kan. “I can be at the grocery store, or in the Plaza area, run into someone from Toronto and we’ll talk.”
Carter broadcasted Chicago Cubs games and knows how quickly things can happen.
“Go back to Al Michaels’ ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ during the Lake Placid Olympics, Tom’s call is like that. Tom absolutely nailed the home run call,” Carter said. “You can’t script those moments.
“We’d talked about it after and he told me: ‘I saw you jump and was worried you’d miss first. That’s why I said: ‘Touch ‘em all.’ I wanted to make sure you touched every base.’ That was Tom's experience coming through.”
It’s been a good week for the Cheek family: Induction to the Vermont Broadcasters Hall of Fame on Saturday and now winning the Frick.
“The emcee said: “Okay, sit back, close your eyes and listen,” and they played a clip that the Blue Jays had sent of Tom’s call,” said Shirley. “We had 18 people there and, at $25 a head, it was an open bar for an hour, hors d’oeuvres, a gift box with a pewter snowflake, filet mignon with a lobster tail.
For Cheek, the road to Toronto from Vermont went through Montreal. During the Montreal Expos winter caravans, broadcaster Dave Van Horne would travel with players on visits to both Plattsburgh and Burlington. Cheek served as the co-emcee with Van Horne.
“Tom was a well-known in the Champlain Valley, so when the Expos discussed bringing someone in for (their radio broadcasts) when I went to TV, we looked no further than Tom,” said Van Horne. “Russ Taylor knew him as well, and was comfortable with the choice.
“Tom was offered, and accepted, the job, launching his career as a Major League Baseball broadcaster.”
Len Bramson ran the ad agency in Montreal that sold Expos air-time. He knew Tom’s work and when Bramson moved to Toronto to head up the Jays’ radio broadcast, he interviewed many for the job, including Van Horne and Duke Snider, according to Van Horne.
“Len said, in regard to the Montreal broadcasters, the Jays should have ‘their own’ voice, so Tom was tabbed for the job,” Van Horne said. “Len told me years later, Tom was the only choice in his mind, even though he had respect for the job Duke and I were doing in Montreal.”
It is an emotional time when you hear of a friend being honoured. Especially when you can’t phone him to congratulate him.
I called Saint Shirley on Wednesday and her message machine clicked on:
“Great news Shirley, congratulations. Can you please give me a ...”
And then ... I couldn’t speak any more.
Well done, Thomas.