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  Mon, August 30, 2004


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Cheek earns a place on level of excellence
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

Tom Cheek had a speech ready. Okay, so maybe it wasn't a speech because Tom Cheek doesn't make speeches. He tells stories for a living and he's pretty good at it.

In any event, he was ready yesterday, the day the Blue Jays had set aside to honour his amazing streak of broadcasting 4,306 consecutive games, to tell everybody a story about how poorly his streak compares to that of Cal Ripken.

"I had a few lines ready because I needed to explain to people that there really isn't any way to compare a guy who broadcasts games to a guy who plays them.

"I know what Cal went through with people throwing 95-m.p.h. fastballs and runners coming in trying to take him out.

"In my case, the best I can say is that I was never in a hotel elevator that broke down or never had a cab driver who didn't know where the ball park was."

He had a few more self-effacing zingers ready, but when he arrived at the SkyDome yesterday morning and spent some time on the field, Cheek noticed there was a new name under wraps on the Blue Jays' level of excellence, right between Dave Stieb and Pat Gillick. All of a sudden, he realized, the Jays had upped the ante.

When Cheek rose to speak during the tribute, there were not many dry eyes in the house. It had nothing to do with the streak and everything to do with the battle Cheek is waging with brain cancer, a battle he casually refers to as "my little dilemma."

He made no attempt to skirt the issue of his illness. A few days after Cheek took his first day off since the Jays were born in 1977 to bury his 87-year-old father, Cheek found himself, on his 65th birthday, in an operating room at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

"We're doing the best we can to stay ahead of it," he said. "I can't tell you how much all your thoughts and prayers have meant to me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you and God bless you."

Cheek may trivialize his ironman streak, but how many people do you know who haven't taken a day off in nearly three decades?

"I had a couple of times when I was sick where I would have been a lot smarter to take a day off and get better," he said. "But so often you're on the road and the only place I wanted to be was at the ball park."

The one decision he has agonized over and still, to this day, regrets, involved the graduation of his daughter, Lisa, from college.

"I was going to go to it, but she said: 'Dad, I'm going to walk across the stage and grab a piece of paper and walk out. Mom's going to be there, so don't worry about it and don't miss the broadcast because of it.'

"So I went to work, and I spent that night watching a ball game and thinking about her. And I still think about it and I should have been there. She laughs at me but it has always bothered me."

Cheek has undergone treatment for the past couple of months and will continue into the fall. He has been back in the broadcast booth during recent homestands and he believes that has been the greatest therapy of all.

"At one time I was taking 23 1/2 pills a day," he said. "Now that I get to come back to the ballpark and talk to the fans on the radio, it's like taking another pill, with no side effects, that brings immediate relief."

Judging from the mail he has received, the feeling is mutual and the outpouring of emotion has crystallized for Cheek the connection between a baseball broadcaster and the team's fans.

"So many of the letters start off with the theme: 'Ever since I was a kid, you have been the sound of summer,' " he said. "That never occurred to me before but, clearly, that's how many people feel. Now I guess I do understand the connection."

He also understands that, in the world of medicine, just as in baseball, there is great uncertainty.

"The kind of tumour I have doesn't really have a happy outcome," he said. "But a doctor friend of mine confronted me on the way out of the ball park one day. He got right up in my face, nose to nose. He said: 'Everything in this life has exceptions. Don't you ever forget that.' "

Cheek won't forget. And if he doesn't, then neither should the rest of us.