Seven years ago, Warren Sawkiw came back home to Toronto to live with his parents and get a real job. He was 30 years old. His nine-year apprenticeship in the minor leagues hadn't netted him a single day's service in the majors.
He was broke. He had no salable job skills. His marriage was ending.
Now, Warren Sawkiw (pronounced Saw-Cue) is one of the radio voices of the Blue Jays. And while he went from an unknown ex-jock to a big-league voice in just four years, the notion of an overnight success makes him laugh.
"I spent many a day riding the buses in the minor leagues, making $15 in meal money," he says, cheerfully. "If people want to say I haven't paid my dues, just look at the stops on the record."
There are pivotal points in every life and Warren Sawkiw's came in 1998, when he gave up trying to be a major leaguer.
Sawkiw finds himself at the top of the announcing food chain without any formal media training. The plan had been to play in the majors and then take the well-worn path between the dugout to the booth.
Instead, he missed a step and sometimes it will show. He is still working on the refinements of scoring a baseball game. "You never learn to score when you're a player," he says.
But Sawkiw is gifted with a resonant voice, a passion for the game and a willingness to work at it. He has a nice way about him.
"The impressive thing about Warren, and where he is way ahead of me at similar stages in our career, is that he has learned he doesn't need to work all his prepared material into the ballgame," said his broadcast partner Jerry Howarth.
Sawkiw's relative lack of experience means Howarth does the heavy lifting with nine innings of play-by-play. The Jays and Chicago Cubs are the only clubs in which the on-air guys don't share play-by-play. Sawkiw can drift in and out of the conversation and offer analysis.
That said, he did his time in the outback.
Drafted in the 20th round out of Wake Forest University by the Detroit Tigers, Sawkiw was the only Canadian chosen in 1990. He spent the majority of his time with the Tigers organization but was also a White Sox farmhand.
In 1995, without a big-league employer, he joined the Jays as a replacement player during the labour stoppage. He was paid $5,000 for the spring, sent to triple-A Syracuse and then double-A Knoxville. He was making only making $1,200 a month as a Northern League ballplayer.
"I wanted a chance to get back with an organization and I told the Jays I wanted to get back into a minor-league system," Sawkiw said. "I worked my tail off with them and I wouldn't be where I am without having done it."
Sawkiw's story is about maximizing opportunity. When he came back home, he went to Sheridan College in Oakville hoping to break into information technology.
He worked part time at a pool hall, got his diploma, met people, handed out business cards and met more people.
He got a job in the IT field and volunteered to work on Toronto's 2012 Olympic bid as a baseball athlete representative. He met Olympic officials and while touring media types through the SkyDome, ran into Blue Jays PR man Howard Starkman.
The two chatted about Sawkiw's short time with the Jays, and as he always does, Sawkiw followed up with a phone call. Turns out TSN was looking for help on the baseball side.
He ended up getting 10 games with the network as an analyst and worked with Rogers Cable doing a dozen Jays games when TSN stopped carrying the Expos. Sawkiw bounced to Sportsnet as a playoff analyst in 2003 and then landed a full-time gig as that network's analyst in 2004.
That positioned him for a move to radio. Tom Cheek, the longtime voice of the Jays, is being treated for a brain tumour.
Sawkiw still gets a rush when the team bus rides into big league ball park.
"You spend so much time trying to get somewhere and all you ever here is no, no, no, no," said the broadcast booth's overnight sensation. "It's just so great to finally hear 'yes.' "