Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Voice of a Nation

An outpouring of emotion from the Jays blogging community concerning Tom Cheek’s having been passed over for the Ford C. Frick Award in favour of Seattle’s Dave Niehaus. I can’t say that Niehaus isn’t deserving; I suspect he means as much to Mariners fans as Cheek did (and still does) to Jays fans. All I know for certain is the wave of nostalgia I’ve experienced while reading all those heartfelt reminiscences of Cheek’s work.

What comes most immediately to mind is those years when the Blue Jays were Canada’s team in a way that they haven’t been since, and likely never will be again. Beginning in about 1989, with the opening of SkyDome, the team was big news. And when they charged into the World Series in 1992, they were the topic on everyone’s lips. The pastor at my family’s church spoke about them on a weekly basis; family friends who had never shown an interest suddenly engaged me in conversation about the Jays; blue caps sprouted in the schoolyard like mushrooms. I was too young and unsophisticated a fan to resent all those late on the bandwagon; I was just happy for the collective rejoicing I felt taking place around me. Newscasts led with the team’s progress through the playoffs, the players’ names became as familiar as family. And Cheek brought it all to us.

It was still a radio age, in a sense. AM stations from coast to coast picked up Jays broadcasts, and Ottawa was no different. I had a crappy old clock radio next to my bed, and most nights during the summer I’d go to bed listening to a game. Often as not I’d wake up in the middle of the night, the game long over, and the station softly playing tinny oldies. In a way, I like to think that Cheek’s calls made their way into my dreams. It was certainly his voice I heard when I’d put on my cap and glove and practice diving catches by jumping onto my bed.

But back to that period – I’d put it between ’89 and the strike in ’94 – when the Blue Jays were the thing a whole country could get behind. I watched World Series games with friends who never gave a damn about baseball, and I saw the genuine excitement on their faces. I remember walking the streets of my suburban childhood neighbourhood after game 6 in Atlanta, a couple of friends and I, imploring motorists to honk their horns, and finding them surprisingly willing. I remember “Touch ‘em all, Joe!” (though I must have heard that call after the fact, since I – like everyone else north of 49 – was watching that game 6 on TV). The Blue Jays were everywhere then, a soft spot in a nation’s collective heart, an entity warmly regarded and largely beyond reproach. The sport grew – minor league teams north of the border flourished, participation in the sport rose. There was a marked lack of cynicism about sports in general then (at least compared to now), and the Jays reflected a rampant optimism at large in the world. They were world-beaters, a scrappy unit with a purpose and a voice – Cheek’s – and they were impossible not to love.

But that was then. Athletes aren’t heroes anymore, not the way they used to be. They breed suspicion and doubt, not hope and inspiration. Teams are cash cows, owners are corrupt, and we seem to have accepted the role of sport as entertainment, not as grand expression of civic or national aspiration. Canadians are more and more ambivalent toward baseball now, maybe because of labour strife, maybe because of steroids, maybe because we’ve been told ad infinitum that hockey is our game, maybe for some other reason. The Expos are long gone, the last AAA team just left town, and Jays tickets are easy to get. As a baseball fan, it’s all a little hard to take, but just the sound of Tom Cheek’s voice brings me right back to that other time, when it mattered here. It won’t be that way again here, no matter how successful the Blue Jays are; that uniformity of opinion is a thing of that past, of a time embodied for me by the voice of Tom Cheek.

I think Tom Cheek belongs in the Hall of Fame for all the right reasons – longevity, the quality of his work, his connection to the fans – but in the end it won’t matter if he’s enshrined or not, because he’s permanently etched into my mind and the minds of millions of Canadians, and he always will be. Baseball, maybe more than any other game, is a game of memory. Cheek's voice charges right to all those incredible memories, it disarms me and makes me a kid again. That’s a gift that doesn’t require institutional recognition, just a hell of a lot of gratitude.

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