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Jan. 28, 2022

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Vancouver native heading effort to bring MLB to Portland

Former Nike executive survived tornado of 1972

By , Columbian Staff Writer
6 Photos
Craig Cheek, 56, is a Vancouver native and the president of the Portland Diamond Project, a group trying to bring Major League Baseball to Portland.
Craig Cheek, 56, is a Vancouver native and the president of the Portland Diamond Project, a group trying to bring Major League Baseball to Portland. (Portland Diamond Project) Photo Gallery

Craig Cheek knew even in his retirement he’d hardly be dormant.

Even before stepping down as a vice president at Nike two years ago after 26 years with the athletic apparel giant, the Vancouver native was planning his next move.

Cheek, 56, is now the founder and president of the Portland Diamond Project, heading the most recent, and perhaps most organized, effort to bring a Major League Baseball team to Portland.

His vision? Get fans, investors and MLB brass to see the Portland he sees: a vibrant, rapidly growing city primed for another professional sports team.

And a yet-unnamed waterfront lot poised to be the city’s next hub of growth.

Cheek’s career took him to Los Angeles, Portland and all around the world as he rose through the ranks in 26 years at Nike, but he spent his formative years in Vancouver, where he was a fixture in the early days of Alcoa Little League baseball and a three-sport athlete at Fort Vancouver High School.

In his post-career, he’s determined to do what others have tried — and failed — for years: bringing another major professional team to Portland.

“Yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t have those dreams as a kid of what your life could be and what you could be a part of,” Cheek told The Columbian in an hourlong sit-down, a few miles from where he grew up. “When my baseball career fizzled out in college (he pitched for Washington State), I still wanted to be aligned in sports.”

Nearly four decades later, he sees Vancouver and Clark County as a part of a prospective MLB fanbase.

“I grew up believing that Vancouver was just a great sports town,” he said. “If it’s the Mariners, great, if it’s the Timbers, great. They’ll go across borders to support their teams. … sports is just a big part of the fabric of the community.”

Baseball has always been Cheek’s favorite sport. He hearkens back to playing baseball with childhood friend John Click, brother of longtime Portland TV anchor Carl Click. Their father, Bill Click, coached Cheek’s little league team. Cheek points to coaches such as Ed Barnes, who coached his Alcoa Stars Little League team, or the late-Gary Boggs, a former 34-year football coach at Fort Vancouver, as key influencers in his life as a young athlete.

Their impact lasts even to this day.

“I can still trace back to those coaches and go, ‘I’m glad I got nudged to get into sports,'” Cheek said.

Tornado survivor

When he thinks of his childhood in Vancouver, he can’t help but think back to when he was 9 years old caught in the crosshairs of a tragic day in Vancouver history.

As a student at Peter S. Ogden Elementary School, Cheek survived the single-deadliest natural disaster in Vancouver history when a tornado tore the roof off his classroom and killed six people at a bowling alley down the road in 1972.

It’s perhaps Cheek’s most vivid memory from his childhood. As his class evacuated to a field adjacent to the school amid screaming winds, Cheek went to bolt under a car for cover.

He’s pictured twice in The Columbian on April 6, 1972, his head bandaged up in St. Joe’s hospital. He was released from the hospital on the same day with no life-threatening injuries, but Cheek developed blurred vision, which he credits to the impact of being thrown head-first into a car. He eventually required contacts. Once he was prescribed, he said, his athletic career took off.

Wanda Cheek, Craig’s mother, recalls the nurse who tended to him saying his first reaction when he got to the hospital was concern over ruining his brand new waffle stomper shoes. To this day, that still makes her laugh.

Cheek is the third of four children. His mother — who jokingly insists she’d be “well-off” had she been paid for every game of Craig’s she attended — still lives in Vancouver, along with his older sisters Deborah, 60, and Lorinda, 62. His younger brother, Chris, 55, is a deputy sheriff in Clackamas County, Ore., and a trained opera singer.

Background, vision

During his 26 years at Nike, he eventually worked his way up to an executive position overseeing sportswear operations in China and North America. He also spent time as the liaison to MLB, and he familiarized himself with the league.

He estimates it will cost $2.2 billion in total between purchasing a team and building a stadium. The group vows to request no additional support from the local government in its efforts to build a stadium district, beyond a $150 million bond that exists from perhaps the strongest bid for MLB to Portland in 2004, and continues to seek private investors.

The Portland Diamond Project’s vision for Portland includes a new district centered around a 32,000 seat baseball stadium, but also includes housing developments and restaurants to a waterfront setting that Cheek already dubs “the Diamond District.”

A trend in Major League Baseball suggests a surrounding district — not just a ballpark — is the model organizations are following.

The group is looking at multiple sites along the Portland waterfront and is “pretty confident” in landing a site in 4 to 6 weeks. In April, they announced formal offers on two pieces of land — the ESCO industrial site in Northwest Portland, and Portland Public School Headquarters at the Rose Quarter near the Northeast waterfront. The management group said it has made an offer on a third site outside the Portland city limits. ESCO was purchased for $1.3 billion by a Scottish company, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive. Cheek said the company is still interested in meeting with Portland Diamond Project.

Willamette Week reported in late May that the Diamond Project approached the Port of Portland about its Terminal-2 site, a facility near the Northwest bank of the Willamette River. The Diamond Project said that site shows “a lot of promise.”

The group said it hopes to invite Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to Portland (they’ve previously met, and communicate regularly, per Cheek), but not until a site is secured.

Getting attention

Meanwhile, the effort gained buzz nationally since announcing Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Ciara are part-owners and investors on June 1.

(Wilson is also an investor in the Sonics Arena Group, an effort to bring an NBA and NHL team to Seattle.)

The group saw the announcement as an opportunity to elevate its message to Wilson and Ciara’s tens of millions of followers across social media platforms, and the responses flowed in. Portland Diamond Project sold $30,000 worth of merchandise in less than a week, selling its online store out of its hats and T-shirts (Cheek said all profits will go to underserved youth in greater Portland and Southwest Washington, but did not specify where).

For Cheek, it was validating to see that response to a project that has operated the majority of its lifetime behind closed doors, insulated from public opinion. After announcing the Wilsons as investors, Cheek said Major League Baseball reached out to congratulate Portland Diamond Project, and said Russell and Ciara are a “fantastic add to your team.”

According to Cheek, Portland has a “1-in-4, 1-in-5 shot” of landing a team. Jayson Stark, a baseball writer for The Athletic, recently dubbed Portland as the most likely expansion selection, and cited a baseball official saying its “the most organized of all the cities bidding for a team.”

“The city is responding, Major League Baseball is responding, and we’re meeting the perfect opportunity,” he said.

Cheek hopes, perhaps optimistically, the first pitch will be thrown out on Opening Day 2022.

“That’s the sense of urgency we have and we know that’s the sense of urgency MLB has,” Cheek said.

As for the remaining funding needed, Cheek would not confirm or deny whether Portland Diamond Project had reached out to Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

“We honestly haven’t had a meeting,” he said, “but we know (Phil and Penny Knight) are watching.”

Cheek added: “If you know us, we love to disrupt, surprise people, under-promise and over-deliver … there’s some cool things in the works.”

Columbian Staff Writer