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  Wed, June 16, 2004


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Cheek always up for challenge
As Bob Elliott has found out over the years, Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek is a true professional
By BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

Tom Cheek and baseball on radio go together like Blue and Jays.

In this the Jays' 28th season, Cheek, who always let the players make news, made some when he missed a game on June 3 after his father, also named Tom, died in Salinas, Calif., at age 86.

It marked the first time in club history -- a streak that included 4,036 regular season and 41 post-season games -- when Cheek wasn't behind the mike of a Jays broadcast.

Now, Cheek is being talked about, prayed for and spoken about more often than the players he tells us about as they race around the green carpet at the SkyDome.

BRAIN TUMOUR

Cheek underwent surgery on Sunday, his 65th birthday, to remove a brain tumour.

One thing we know about Cheek is that he's a battler, a competitor. We saw him golf at George Bell's tournament as Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 1990.

A friendly get together for charity, we were told. Cheek was into it like it was Game 7 of the World Series or the Ryder Cup.

The tall drink of water has a strong support staff in his wife Shirley, their children Tom Jr., Lisa and Jeff, who pitched in the Jays system and six grandchildren.

If you listened to Cheek at home on The Fan or if you saw Cheek work, he was unflappable.

First time we ever saw him was in September of 1985 when he strode over to Boston Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fisher and asked, after clicking on tape recorder and pointing his mike: "Bill, tell us about the arms the Sox recalled for September."

Fisher replied: "Well, we got one in a trade and the rest weren't in minor-league camp. I've never seen any one of them."

Cheek clicked off his machine, thanked Fisher and was on his way.

The only thing that could ruffle his feathers was golf. The Jays were in Kansas City in 1989 and as was the norm, Cheek left his booth after the first two innings to talk with the Toronto writers in the press box.

"Well, I golfed today and I now know why they call the course Deer Creek," Cheek announced in his deep baritone.

"See a lot of deer Tom?" Alan Ryan of the Toronto Star asked.

"NO!" Cheek said, "my ball was in the creek almost every other hole."

Cheek has been a husband, a father, a grandfather, a dedicated professional and a golfer in his 65 years.

It all started at a 30,000-watt radio station in Burlington, Vt., with a work ethic seldom seen. This was pre-internet days, so when Cheek filled in doing Montreal Expos games, he did prep work.

He'd go to the Little Professor Book Shop and buy the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Los Angeles Times to get a better idea of what was going on with the Expos' next opponent.

When he wasn't working, he'd sit in an empty booth with his tape recorder and broadcast the game for a very important and critical audience of one -- himself. It was an hour's drive from Champlain bridge to his home.

"I'd listen to myself on tape, driving home," Cheek told us this spring, "and many a night I'd pound on the steering wheel asking, 'why did you say that?'"

Cheek worked the early Jays years with Early Wynn, brought in at Bill Vecck's suggestion, and with Jerry Howarth for the previous 23 years.

Former Jays general manager Gord Ash always called him the Lou Gehrig story of broadcasters.

Cheek had some near misses, but always made the park.

"If you're on the road and not feeling well you're better off at the park," Cheek said this spring.

Maybe in most cases. This time, Thomas, stay home and get well.

We miss you already. We've haven't heard you sing a Neil Diamond song patrolling the SkyDome halls since Thursday.