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  Sun, August 22, 2004


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Winning his battle
Cheek finished with cancer treatments
By MIKE ULMER, TORONTO SUN

Tom Cheek is on the phone, and he is feeling quite well, thank-you. His treatments at Princess Margaret Hospital to beat back the cancerous tissue in his brain are done for now. That means a break from the daily regimen of 23 1/2 pills and oral chemotherapy. He has returned to the broadcast booth for home games and speaks hopefully of working the Blue Jays' final trip of the season.

"I'm feeling better and I'm out there dealing with this thing," Cheek said. "You've got to keep going and you've got to keep on top of it."

Cheek was the only man on the planet who had seen every Blue Jays game. He worked 4,306 of them and there is a shocking incongruity to his illness.

His voice is the soundtrack to spring and summer, ever enduring, immune to the broader march of time.

"I could not begin to tell you the mail, the e-mail, the people who have called," he said. "So much of the correspondence begins with 'since I was a kid, you were the sound of summer.'"

"That's the thing about Tom," said Jerry Howarth, his broadcast partner for 23 years. "He has been such a central part of the Blue Jays, all of us thought he would broadcast into his 90s."

Cheek spent the day of his 65th birthday in surgery for the removal of a brain tumor. Doctors took most, but not all of it.

"If they had gone any deeper, I would have lost a lot of the powers of my body," he said.

The prognosis of cancer, especially a virulent cancer, cleaved Cheek from the rest of the world.

"I see people at the hospital, sometimes, unfortunately, very young people and for the first time in my life, I know what they're going through," he said. "But 99% of the people in the world don't know what you're going through. They can't."

But Cheek has seen a new reality of unspeakable hardship and incalculable kindness. With that has come a connection with the very rudiments of life, with pain, kindness, courage.

"I had been to Sick Kids Hospital and to Mount Sinai, but I never understood the kind of work that is being done and the people who are doing it, how dedicated they are to keeping you going as long as they can," he said. "It absolutely blows my mind. The people in those places have been so good to me. I've said to many of the nurses, 'I hope to never see you again, in this context, but I do hope I see you again.' "

They married my sister-in-law at the cancer ward. She was full of disease. The nurses were her attendants. She was confined to a wheelchair but she put her hand on the break when she got to the aisle and crossed the final yards on foot. She was never more alive than on that day and she never walked taller.

That is the wonder of cancer. You are not, in fact, alone at all. Instead, you are in the hold of something greater than yourself and you are still writing your story, only with a co-author, cancer.

And so, in the ruin of one of the most desultory baseball seasons ever, Tom Cheek will take the elevator to the broadcast booth when the Jays return next week and work his usual innings, the first, second, fifth, sixth and ninth.

There will be a little fuss made. The Jays will acknowledge his extraordinary service with pre-game ceremonies next Sunday.

Cheek just wants to go back to work and, who knows, maybe start a new streak.

"Being at the ballpark," he said, "is like taking one more pill without any side effects."

"You know, at one time I said, 'Lord, let me see my children grow up,'" said Tom Cheek, the voice of the Blue Jays now and forever.

"Now I'm bartering for my grandchildren."