In Part II, veteran Blue Jays broadcaster Jerry Howarth talks with Baseball Prospectus' David Laurila about the last quarter-century of baseball in Toronto and Tom Cheek, his late partner in the booth, among other topics. You may view Part I of the interview here.
David Laurila: When the Blue Jays lost to the Royals in the 1985 ALCS, there were 7,000 fewer fans at Exhibition Stadium for Game Seven than there were for Game One. Why was that?
Jerry Howarth: The conditions were miserable. It was cold, school had started again, It was one of those situations where Exhibition Stadium just wasn’t fan-friendly, especially in April and May, and then again in October. You’re talking about September as well—frigid conditions—so there were reasons for it. At that time, the Blue Jays were also a young team feeling their way through Major League Baseball.
DL: Had baseball fully arrived in Toronto by 1985?
JH: I think that baseball arrived before the Blue Jays, really. I read a wonderful book by Louis Cauz, called “Baseball’s Back In Town.” Toronto has a rich baseball history going back to Babe Ruth’s one and only minor-league home run at Hanlan’s Point, and those terrific Toronto Maple Leafs teams at old Maple Leaf Stadium, winning the Governor’s Cup and having so many marquee players and managers go through there.
There was a little hiatus there—I think their last year was 1967 when they were the Triple-A club for the Red Sox—and then they had to wait for a team until 1977. But then they kind of grew. At that time, expansion teams couldn’t hire free agents, and they took their lumps for a number of years. But the team grew with the fans, and the fans grew with the team; it was kind of a nice marriage there. Pat Gillick began to see teams play consistently above .500 ball, and it all came together with that ’85 team. That was the beginning of winning it all in ’92 and ’93.
DL: Can you talk a little about the 1987 pennant race?
JH: That was a tough situation. The Blue Jays were so good that year, another very competitive team under Jimy Williams. They got down to playing seven of their last 10 games against the Detroit Tigers, and the first three, the Blue Jays won at Exhibition Stadium. On Sunday they had the lead by one run in the ninth inning, and Tom Henke came on and if he can get three outs there it was, game over. But Kirk Gibson ends up hitting a home run to tie it in the ninth inning and the Tigers went on win in the 11th.
And the Blue Jays needed that win, because after that Milwaukee came into Exhibition Stadium and swept them in three. At that time, Ernie Whitt got hurt, and Tony Fernandez had gotten hurt the day before, against the Tigers. Then the Blue Jays went to Detroit, needing one win to force a playoff, two to win it all, and they got beat in all three. The last game was 1-0 with Frank Tanana beating Jimmy Key on a Larry Herndon home run.
It was baseball at its best. All seven games [against the Tigers] were decided by one run, and all went down to the last pitch. Had it been a World Series it would have been one of the best World Series ever. But it was tough. It was a very difficult time for the Blue Jays in their history. I felt for Jimy Williams, who is pretty intense to begin with, and the team played with a little more tenseness than intensity. I don’t think they had a lot of fun, and looking back maybe they could have relaxed a little more. But I don’t want to take anything away from the Tigers, and Alan Trammell, and that whole group there. They did a great job winning it that year.
DL: How did moving to SkyDome impact the franchise?
JH: Well, it was terrific. Number one, it got them out of an old, antiquated Exhibition Stadium where, as I said, the weather was a factor. Of course, it did give the Blue Jays an opportunity to land an expansion team; that was the good part of Exhibition Stadium. But what happened was that the Blue Jays were at the right time with Pat Gillick, and a growing team that had won the division in ‘85, and fell just short in ‘87, and was competitive in ‘89.
When they opened it up [in 1989], the Blue Jays had 167 luxury boxes over the third and fourth levels, and they were anywhere from $100,000 a year to $250,000 a year, and the Blue Jays asked for, demanded, and got that money 10 years upfront. $100,000 became a million, and $250,000 became two-and-a-half million, and the checks all ended up on the desk of George Holm, who was the stadium’s operations director. That allowed the Blue Jays to add Dave Winfield and Jack Morris, and the next year Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart. They drew 50,000 a game and four million a year for three years. That revenue allowed the Blue Jays in those two years, ‘92 and ‘93, to have the highest payroll in all of Major League Baseball.
They were good, the time was right, and the SkyDome came along at the perfect time, revenue-wise. It was a perfect storm, and two World Series championships later you could see what that all meant.
DL: What did the 1994 strike mean to baseball in Toronto?
JH: It was devastating. In August, when the strike hit, the Blue Jays were in New York and nobody envisioned that it would end the season and that there would be no World Series. At that time, the Blue Jays had 26,000 season-ticket holders who, every year after the last pitch was thrown in the World Series, would have to have their money upfront for the next year, and that money flowed in. Well, at the end of the ‘94 season there was no World Series, there were no requests for World Series tickets, and there was no request for season-ticket holders to put their money upfront, because of that devastation.
There were replacement players playing in spring training [in 1995] and 26,000 season tickets went down to 13,000 in one year. Then it dropped to 8,000, and the Blue Jays have never recovered from that.
DL: How did the demise of the Montreal Expos impact baseball in Toronto?
JH: I’m not sure what impact it had. I know that it’s nice having two teams up there—a little rivalry—but they were so separate. They were in two different leagues, one in a French-speaking province and one in Toronto which has become such a wonderful multi-cultural city. The Expos… I felt for their team. They didn’t draw a lot, but they didn’t have the revenue to keep their players, either. At one time I saw 28 All-Stars around Major League Baseball who had played for the Expos, but now they were all with different teams.
I’m not sure if it had much of an impact on the Blue Jays at all. I think that the Blue Jays can stand on their own without Montreal, and they have for years.
DL: Does the immense popularity of hockey in Canada have much of an impact on the Blue Jays?
JH: I don’t think that it does, because when the Blue Jays were winning, the Maple Leafs were in the conference finals in 1993, the season where [Wayne] Gretzky had the memorable series against the Leafs and the high stick with [Doug] Gilmour, and the [Los Angeles] Kings went on to play the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup.
The Blue Jays were drawing 50,000 per night, not only at the end of the season, but the next April, too. So I don’t think it is a big factor. Toronto is a city that can, and showed for several years that they can, sell out baseball games 81 times, and still sell out Maple Leaf Gardens—at the time—for hockey. It’s just that the Blue Jays stock fell off, won-loss wise, and they haven’t recovered from that; they haven’t been to the playoffs since ’93.
They may or may not get back to the glory years, but I think baseball and hockey can certainly coexist, especially if the Blue Jays get back to where they were, getting to the playoffs, not necessarily year after year, but competing on a consistent basis and playing games that count in September. Then the fans will come back. Maybe not 50,000, but I can certainly envision 40,000 a night if the team comes back to what they were, and I think they will under Alex Anthopoulos.
DL: Who do you consider to be the most important player in Blue Jays history?
JH: Roberto Alomar. For me, next to Willie Mays—and I grew up in San Francisco watching Willie—he’s the best player I’ve ever seen. He’s a Hall of Famer who did everything. He had five tools and a sixth sense for the game as well. Roberto Alomar, to me, is the greatest Blue Jay ever to play the game and he was, again, in the right place at the right time.
If you’re talking about off the field, without question it would be Pat Gillick, the general manager who orchestrated it all. He put it together. He was a wonderful GM who listened and communicated, and the fruits of his labor were certainly borne out with those two World Series championships, and during that stretch, 11 straight years of winning more games than they lost.
DL: Who is the most underappreciated player in franchise history?
JH: Duane Ward. In 1992, he got the tough three, four, and five hitters in the eighth inning as the set-up man for Tom Henke. Then, after the 1992 season, when Tom left, Ward became the closer and again dominated. He helped give the Blue Jays two straight years with World Series championship rings, and to me, he was the most valuable player, along with Roberto Alomar, in both seasons.
At the end of that second year he had rotator-cuff surgery, and it was the most devastating injury the Blue Jays have ever had. They still haven’t recovered from that and had a closer who was anywhere close to Duane Ward. He would be the most underappreciated to me.
DL: Jose Bautista just broke the team’s single-season home run record. How meaningful is that?
JH: He’s a special young man who hasn’t changed a bit over the years that I‘ve known him. Everything came together for him. He was finally healthy, Cito Gaston believed in him and gave him confidence by playing him every day, and there was a spot open in right field when Alex Rios’ contract was claimed last year by the White Sox. And he learned how to hit, making some final some adjustments and putting that line-drive swing together and knowing which pitch to hit and when to hit it. He laid off pitches, too, and was second in the league in walks. What he did was special.
He’s the type of player that Alex Anthopoulos can build around. He’s only 29 years old, and from George Bell and the other great sluggers that the Blue Jays have had—Carlos Delgado comes to mind, and Shawn Green—maybe Jose Bautista can be that person you look at and say, “He was one of the building blocks and he’s still here years later, proving that Alex made the right call in signing him to a long-term contract.” I think that he can handle that without losing any of his passion, enthusiasm and desire to improve.
DL: To close, can you talk a little about your former long-time broadcast partner?
JH: Tom Cheek is the Blue Jays. He was there from Day One, in the snow, when they won 9-5 against the Chicago White Sox. For years he went to all of the affiliate stations when they were losing better than 100 games a year. He was a people person. He emceed all those lunches. He was there for the very lean times. He had a great passion for what he did. He was a sophisticated fan with a microphone in front of him, and when the Blue Jays lost he showed that. He was very disheartened, and so were the fans. When they won, he was elated, and so were the fans. He couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for an expansion team. He was somebody who loved the game, they loved him, and it was all capped with that memorable call of Joe Carter’s home run.
Tom, to this day, is the signature voice of the Blue Jays, and I think he’ll always be remembered as someone who was the Toronto Blue Jays for many, many fans. Not the players. He was someone who fans invited into their homes every day; he became part of their family and they loved him for all he did and how he called games.
DL: What was it like being in the booth with him after his cancer diagnosis?
JH: Well, it was very disheartening, because he had a passion for the game, and now he wasn’t going to be able to fulfill that passion. The cancer was something that was just so hard on him, and his family, but he battled through it. With that type of cancer, they said that his life expectancy was six to 16 months, and Tom lived 16 months. That tells you how hard he fought to continue to live and to broadcast, and to be a part of something he loved. He broadcast for 27-and-a-half years, and 4,306 consecutive games, and that was a lot of sacrifices made. He told me, “Jerry, maybe if I would have gone to my daughter’s graduation, or seen my sons graduate… I could have done it a little differently.” I remember one time he was at the airport, in Los Angeles, to go visit his mother, who was on her deathbed, and he came back and finished the game. Later, he was with his mom after she had passed away. But for him, the Blue Jays were his baby. From the time it snowed, when they were born, to those two World Series championships… what more can you say about that? He loved what he did, and it was a real shame that he couldn’t continue that, because he would still be doing it to this day.
DL: How do you hope to be remembered some day?
JH: Just as a professional who did his job to the best of his ability and enjoyed what he did. That’s it, really. Like I said, I have a real passion and love for this game.