TORONTO (Nov. 17) — God–friggin’ dammit!
For the second time in just more than a decade, cancer has reared its despicable head in the Toronto Blue Jays radio booth. Only this time, we’re anticipating a far–better result. Eleven years–and–a–bit since Tom Cheek succumbed to a malignancy in his brain, Jerry Howarth has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Thankfully, the growth was detected early by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Jerry will undergo surgery next week. If he’s so fortunate — and we’re all praying — the cancer will not have spread and Howarth will make a full recovery. Prostate cancers that are local or regional (without metastasizing) have a five–year survival rate of nearly 100 percent. Early detection could well put Jerry in that category.
JERRY HOWARTH (RIGHT) POSES WITH BLUE JAYS TV BROADCASTER BUCK MARTINEZ.
His long–ago partner — Cheek — never stood a chance.
When engineer Bruce Brenner of the Blue Jays radio network observed Tom scuffling to write his first paragraph for a game broadcast in 2004, he quickly summoned team doctor, Ron Taylor. Brenner and Taylor watched in horror as Cheek repeatedly began writing and then angrily scrunching up balls of paper and throwing them in a waste–basket. What had been routine for decades was no longer possible. Taylor gently approached Cheek and said it was necessary for him to visit the hospital. Immediately. Howarth handled that night’s game by himself as Taylor ushered Cheek to Mount Sinai Hospital on University Ave., roughly three kilometers north of Rogers Centre. An MRI revealed a large tumor near the frontal lobe of Tom’s brain.
Among the frontal lobe tasks is short–term memory.
Tom underwent surgery on June 12, 2004 and doctors removed “all we could” of the tumor — the deadly glioblastoma multiforme, with a median survival rate of only 12 months. After recovering from the operation, Cheek returned to the booth while undergoing chemotherapy and called a number of Blue Jays home home games in the final 1½ months of the Major League season. He fared particularly well during the winter of 2004–05 and was preparing for spring training in late–February when the cancer inevitably recurred.
A second operation bought Cheek three or four extra months with his family and friends. Early in the 2005 season, the Blue Jays honored their original radio voice with a “Tom Cheek Day”. Prior to a home game, Tom spoke valiantly, yet with obvious resignation, to a large crowd. He knew his time was short. TV cameras caught Blue Jays president Paul Beeston sobbing uncontrollably in his private box. I last saw Tom in a luxury suite at Rogers Centre during a July Blue Jays game. At one moment of our conversation, he pointed outward and asked me, “Berger, what’s the… ah… oh jeez… the, y’know…?” What he wanted to say, that his brain wouldn’t allow, was “attendance”. I kissed Tom; told him I loved him, and left the box with tears welling.
I knew I would never again see the wonderful man–of–a–golden–heart with whom I had worked for 17 years at the radio station, and with whom I’d collaborated on an autobiography after the Blue Jays first of consecutive World Series championships in 1992. Tom died three months later, aged 66, on Oct. 9, 2005. He is immortalized for an astonishing 27–year streak of never missing a Blue Jays broadcast (Apr. 7, 1977 to June 3, 2004) and for his iconic narration in the seconds after Joe Carter hit the World Series–winning home run off Mitch Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies — at SkyDome — Oct. 23, 1993.
“Touch ’em all, Joe!” Tom famously crooned, “you’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life.”
TOM’S SPOT (ABOVE) ON THE BLUE JAYS LEVEL OF EXCELLENCE AT ROGERS CENTRE — COMMEMORATING HIS REMARKABLE STREAK OF CONSECUTIVE GAMES CALLED ON RADIO. AND THE BOOK (BELOW) THAT HE AND I COLLABORATED ON DURING THE WORLD SERIES WINTER OF 1992–93.
The Tom and Jerry era of Blue Jays baseball encompassed the glory years of the franchise — including all playoff and World Series games from 1985 to 1993. I’ll never forget standing behind them in the visitors’ radio booth at old Fulton–County Stadium in Atlanta as the Jays closed in on their first world championship.
It was Game 6 of the ’92 Series against the Atlanta Braves and Toronto had taken a 4–2 lead in the top of the 11th inning on a double to left by Dave Winfield. Tom’s eyes were the size of saucers when Howarth threw back to him to call the bottom of the inning, even though it was Jerry’s turn to do play–by–play in their broadcast rotation. “As we came out of the commercial break,” Tom recalled in our book, “Jerry unexpectedly passed the baton to me in deference, he said, to my having witnessed every inning of every game in Blue Jays history. It was a classy and unselfish move on Jerry’s part — one that was totally unsolicited.”
Moments later — as Otis Nixon bunted a ball back to Jays’ reliever Mike Timlin, who tossed to Joe Carter at first base for the final out — Tom nearly leaned out of the booth while exclaiming, for the first time, “the Blue Jays are World Series champions!” He and Jerry looked at each other in utter amazement; I can see that, in my mind’s eye, all these years later. A truly signature moment in Toronto sports history.
Two weeks earlier, I had been standing beside Jerry next to the visitors’ dugout in the Oakland Coliseum when Roberto Alomar belted his now–legendary home run off Dennis Eckersely in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. We were waiting outside the Blue Jays clubhouse with Oakland ahead by a couple of runs to begin the ninth inning. Eckerlsey — the game’s premier closer — was a tidy 81–1 in his previous 82–such situations. But, when Devon White led off the top of the ninth with a triple, Jerry said, “Let’s go down and watch from the dugout.” Not 15 seconds later did Alomar — 30 feet in front of us — take Eckersley over the right–field wall to tie a match the Blue Jays would ultimately win in extra innings.
MY OL’ PAL JERRY IS LIKELY IN THE MARKET FOR A GOOD BELLY–LAUGH SINCE RECEIVING HIS CANCER DIAGNOSIS. PERHAPS THIS WILL PROVIDE IT. FROM 1983.
I’ve known Jerry since the middle–80’s. In my first year (1988) at what is now Sportsnet–590, I handled weekend sportscasts at the top of the hour, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. I lost count of the times Jerry would call me after one of my five–minute broadcasts with a good word… and encouragement that meant so much. He’s been a wonderful friend and mentor in all the subsequent years. And now, fate has decreed that he battle cancer. Shit! That demonic, infernal disease plays no favorites with gender, ethnicity or age.
And yet every strand of my DNA tells me Jerry will pass this test with flying colors. That the early detection will show nothing beyond a localized tumor and the voice of the Blue Jays will be in the booth — feeling and looking fit — when spring training rolls around in February.
It cannot unfold the same way twice in the Jays’ radio booth.
It just can’t.