O'Conner Seeks Assurances From Trustees
MiLB President Unsure Of Re-Election Bid
After guiding the minor leagues through the worst recession since the Great Depression, after spending roughly 200 days a year on the road traveling to various baseball outposts, and after introducing several new ideas aimed at raising the industry's profile nationally, Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner has one more task to take on in the coming weeks: Decide if he wants to do it for four more years.
O'Conner has until May 31 to inform to the National Association Board of Trustees if he plans to seek re-election. O'Conner is a baseball lifer who joined Minor League Baseball 19 years ago and spent 12 years as former president Mike Moore's right-hand man before replacing him in December 2007. Stepping away would be no easy task.
Yet he insists he has not committed to another term as president—especially when he is concerned that he and the board of trustees may not be on the same page. The board is made up of 17 members—one from each league and an at-large member—and is Minor League Baseball's chief governing board. In addition to approving policy, the board also determines the central office's budget each year.
"It is important to stop and do an inventory, personally and professionally, and see if this is something I want to continue doing," O'Conner said. "These things have shelf lives. I have been around for 19 years. That is a lot of exposure . . .
"It is important for me to make sure that I have unfettered support from the board. I'm not looking for a rubber stamp, but we haven't talked about direction or philosophy in a while. I think it is important that we do . . . What I am most interested in is the vision of the board and how does that compare to my vision."
O'Conner's vision has been to build Minor League Baseball as a brand, leading several endeavors that go beyond each team's individual market. While five members of the board of trustees said in interviews that they support O'Conner and are pleased with the direction of his leadership, they also questioned the viability of some of his big ideas.
"I'd say a B, or something like that," said Dave Walker, the president of the Burlington Bees (Midwest), of how he would grade O'Conner's term. "He is the person we need there. He certainly has the relationships with Major League Baseball, and the confidence and the respect of the minor leagues—and that is important if you are going to be the leader of it."
The sentiment seemed to be shared by Walker's colleagues, who noted O'Conner's work ethic and drive to build Minor League Baseball's brand and do whatever it takes to support all 160 teams. Just last month, Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball completed a six-year extension of the Professional Baseball Agreement, to run through the 2020 season. As part of the deal, O'Conner negotiated a delay in an agreed-upon increase in the ticket tax that minor league teams pay to the major leagues.
At the same time, though, some of O'Conner's pet projects—including big projects in Vero Beach, Fla., and Durham, N.C.—have been greeted more skeptically.
"He is very strong into things like baseball charities and diversity, and those are areas that minor league baseball had not grown into, and his energy is taking us into those things," Walker said. "I think they are well received, but not necessarily embraced to the degree that Pat would like to see them embraced."
O'Conner should get his opportunity to talk with the board of trustees during their annual meetings this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla. He expected to announce his decision on whether to seek re-election soon afterward.
"I am not going to intentionally drag it out," O'Conner said.
After the role of Minor League Baseball president became almost ceremonial in the final years of Moore's leadership, O'Conner's first three years as president have been decidedly activist. He helped teams get through the recession by urging them to keep ticket prices affordable and to remain active in their communities. He has stressed charitable endeavors for the industry as a whole, and particularly for teams to be actively involved with local charities.
"There aren't many things that Pat has gotten his hands on that haven't been terrific, and certainly one of them has been his leadership in making sure that we continue to provide a quality product at a reasonable price in tough times for everybody," said Sam Bernabe, the president of the Iowa Cubs (Pacific Coast) and chairman of the board of trustees. "He leaned on everyone to make sure we were doing the right things. He will always lean on the value-added things for the fans."
O'Conner has stressed diversity by trying to create ownership and operations opportunities for minorities. And he has raised awareness that those opportunities are available with such ideas as a speakers series at historically black colleges.
"Minor league baseball, in the next 30 years, will deal with a more diverse public," O'Conner said. "I think it behooves us to put ourselves in a position that we look more like, and act more like, the diverse world than less like it."
O'Conner also led the launch of the Baseball Internet Rights Co., helping to persuade all but six minor league teams to bundle their Websites under the umbrella of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, again to better market the industry as a whole. The project was greeted with skepticism by some teams that already had established a Web presence beyond what MLBAM could offer.
One of those teams was the Round Rock Express (Pacific Coast). Co-owner Reid Ryan said Round Rock was doing so much with its Website that switching to BIRCO was like "we were driving a Corvette and we would have to go back to a Hyundai." Ryan is on the board of trustees as a representative of the Corpus Christi Hooks (Texas), which Ryan-Sanders Baseball also owns.
Ryan said O'Conner challenged him to get involved and listened to his concerns, ultimately realizing that one size did not fill all. So BIRCO came up with three Website models for teams to select from. While the project has not generated as much money as some teams would have liked, board members expressed confidence in its long-term success.
"There were hopes that it could be further along than it is now. Certainly trying an endeavor like that in the midst of the economic times didn't help," Walker said. "Even though BAM was up and running at the major league level, I don't know if BAM or Minor League Baseball understood there is a difference between the two models. Those things take time to sort out and understand better."
Even Ryan has come around on the idea. "The plus side to us aggregating our rights is that together we are able to go out and get the bells and whistles that none of us could afford on our own," said Ryan, noting the streaming video that teams are able to offer. "The key to that is, we want the bells and whistles . . . but people in their own market have to have flexibility to do what they want because we are all locally based. The local businesses want a presence and we can't exclude them from the process."
Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern) president Frank Burke is not only a member of the board of trustees but also is the chairman of BIRCO. He said Minor League Baseball's work on the Web will pay dividends down the road—but he was less sanguine about some of O'Conner's other pet projects.
"Really it is just an acorn that is going to become a giant oak. I think BIRCO is coming into its own," Burke said. "I think some of the other projects Pat has launched have been worth trying, but we are not positive on them yet. I think he has done a good job navigating some rough waters that have nothing to do with his leadership but has a big impact on the industry."
One of the points of contention is Minor League Baseball's conversion of two iconic baseball locations into new uses: Dodgertown, the Dodgers' former spring training base in Vero Beach, Fla., and Durham Athletic Park, the former home of the Bulls in Durham, N.C. Minor League Baseball wants Vero Beach to become a destination sports complex for tournaments and training, while using the park in Durham as a training facility for umpires and ballpark operations. While neither has been financially successful in the first two years of operation, O'Conner believes they will be important to the sport's long-term growth.
"Our core business is always at home. It's the grassroots. But I think there is room to advance nationally the institution," O'Conner said. "Minor League Baseball should be like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It should demonstrate quality."
Vero Beach in particular has been a significant money loser since MiLB took it over in May 2009, paying $1 a year to lease the complex but covering the roughly $100,000 a month it costs to operate it. A sour economy made things tough to begin with, and then came an unsuccessful battle with the Dodgers over the right to use the Dodgertown name, so the 65-acre facility is now called Vero Beach Sports Village.
O'Conner says officials made mistakes in the first 18 months of operation. The delayed opening made it difficult to book events for the spring of 2010, and MiLB had to pay a third-party vendor to bring in games last year. This spring has been a different story. The complex is operating at full capacity, with 500 games scheduled throughout the summer.
"We're sold out," O'Conner said. "When I go down there now I have to stay off the grounds because there is no room."
The operation still faces challenges, and O'Conner recognizes that some people remain skeptical about its ultimate success.
"It is very important to me, but I'm a big boy and have been in this business long enough to know that you don't always get what you want," O'Conner said. "It is an institutional hub for us that I think long-term would be a huge asset to Minor League Baseball. My concern is can we weather it to get to the other side.
"I'm not blaming the board. We lost real money down there. There is a growing intolerance on the board to fund that. It is getting better, tons better, but there are certain elements on my board with no tolerance for red ink."
Several board members shared the optimism over Vero Beach's recent success, at the same time saying its long-term future will soon need to be addressed.
"It will be a matter of what the numbers say," Walker said. "We have been at it long enough that we need to be seeing positive results. I don't want to say we'll fold the tent, but we'll have to take a strong look if that is something we want to continue with."
Added Bernabe: "It is the board's job to keep an eye on what's going on, and if something is not going right we keep a closer eye on it. We still believe in it.
"We are trying to create something there that is not available anywhere else. And I think it will work. I think Pat and his staff will work their tails off to make it work."
And in spite of differences over individual issues, the overall opinion of the board seems to be that O'Conner's ideas and energy have been a boon for Minor League Baseball.
"I think Pat has done a real good job," said Mike Tamburro, president of the Pawtucket Red Sox (International). "He's an aggressive president. He has built some bridges. The new PBA is a remarkable accomplishment that I know he worked really hard on. He has done a great job extending relationships in the commissioner's office.
"His diversity initiative has been real good for minor league baseball. The charitable components that he has brought into this organization have been well received by the group as an organization. He has got us on the right course."
The only question remaining now is whether O'Conner still wants to be the captain.