Joey Cheek Speaks At Sally League All-Star Luncheon

By Jeff Mils, Greensboro News & Record | June 21, 2018, 10:05 p.m. (ET)

Below is an article pulled from the Greensboro News & Record. To read it in its original format, click here.

The 56 young men, All-Stars one and all, sat on the top level of the Greensboro Coliseum’s Terrace and listened to the Olympic medalist’s words about sports and life.

And although Greensboro native Joey Cheek was a speedskater and not a baseball player, he connected the dots for the players a few hours before the 59th South Atlantic League All-Star Game at First National Bank Field.

“I envy what you’re going through right now,” Cheek said. “It is so fantastic to be still young and strong and chasing this dream, this thing you grew up wanting to do.”

Cheek, the 38-year-old keynote speaker at the Sally League All-Star Luncheon on Tuesday afternoon, can relate.

Because before he was a three-time medalist at two Olympic Games, he was a 14-year-old kid inspired by watching Dan Janssen win his gold medal on TV. And he was a inline skater making the change to ice. And he was living in an apartment with no furniture in Milwaukee and failing to qualify for the 1998 Olympics.

“In some ways, being an aspirational Olympian I would imagine is somewhat similar to playing in the minor leagues,” Cheek said. “You’ve got talent. People know that you’re good. People know you could be great, and they’re investing in you, but you’re still kind of hunting to make it to the big show.”

It’s the hunt that matters, Cheek told the players.

“The memories of us being broke and young as speedskaters traveling the country are my absolute favorite memories now,” he said. “I’ve got a career now that was very, very successful, but as I get older, those memories of times with friends, those are the things I go back to more and more, while I care less and less about the performances.”

And there were a lifetime of memories up on the dais with Cheek, as three men were inducted into the 114-member South Atlantic League Hall of Fame.

Ken Free was a star baseball player as a young man who became a college administrator and commissioner of the MEAC. His playing days in the minor leagues in the days of segregation in North Carolina earned him his plaque.

Back then, Free said, people asked why the big man didn’t hit more home runs.

“I’m a line-drive hitter,” Free said. “And when you learn the game playing in a cow pasture, you can’t hit home runs with 500-foot fly balls. All the brothers in the outfield could catch those. You had to learn how to put top-spin on that baseball, hit those line drives between the outfielders. I’d be wasting my talent trying to hit home runs.”

Jim Melvin, the former Greensboro mayor, was honored for organizing the group that bought the franchise that became the Hoppers, keeping minor league baseball in the city.

He spoke to the league’s owners and front office personnel in the crowd.

“This business, it’s really not about baseball. It took me a while to learn that,” Melvin said. “What you’re in is hosting family entertainment. And when you stand at the back of your stadium and think about the millions of fans who come in there over the years, when you see the little kids with their gloves, the memories you’re building are absolutely priceless.”

Donald Moore, the Hoppers president and general manager since 2002 and a four-time Sally League executive of the year, was also honored.

“Pretty much everything we do here has a community-first approach,” Moore said. “We are unique to minor league baseball in that we own our stadium. We’ve paid over $3 million in property taxes since we moved in. And we’ve given over $2.5 million to local charities.”

And Moore insisted he didn’t do it alone, singling out longtime front office staffers Katie Dannemiller, Tim Vangel, Amanda Williams and Todd Olson in his remarks.

“I learned very quickly,” Moore said, “that I could accomplish great things if I surrounded myself with great people. And that I did. … And we have something to be proud of.”