Image credit: Pat O'Conner
Due to the timing of Pat O’Conner’s departure as president of Minor League Baseball, his retirement is intertwined with the 2020 Professional Baseball Agreement that will likely result in the dissolution of the current MiLB structure.
But when looking at O’Conner’s legacy in his 28 years at MiLB, previous PBA negotiations are one of his most significant contributions to the success of the minor leagues.
When O’Conner arrived at MiLB as chief operating officer in 1993, it was on the heels of a difficult 1990 PBA negotiation that left MiLB owners unhappy with the agreement and their relationship with Major League Baseball. With an opt-out provision looming in the PBA, MiLB and MLB negotiators appeared likely to resume the fight in the near future.
MLB’s labor negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1994-1995 led MLB and MiLB to decide not to re-open the PBA talks at that time. Soon thereafter, PBA negotiations slid into the background, not to return to the foreground until 2019.
With O’Conner playing a large role, MiLB’s negotiations with MLB on PBA renewals and extensions became almost unnoticed due to the lack of rancor involved.
During that time, MiLB teams went from being mom-and-pop operations that lived a hand-to-mouth existence to multi-million dollar operations. It was nearly 30 years of peace between MLB and MiLB that laid the foundation for that growth.
“How the PBA renewals and extensions have been handled in recent times … Pat had a relationship with (MLB executive vice president) Jimmie Lee Solomon that allowed that to happen,” International League president Randy Mobley said. “The two of them were able to address issues. I hope that is something the membership doesn’t forget.”
Over O’Conner’s tenure, MiLB and MLB negotiated three Professional Baseball Agreements that kept the structure of the minors largely unchanged. During that stretch of PBA peace, MiLB’s cumulative attendance grew from 33 million in the early 1990s to more than 40 million fans year after year in the 21st century. MiLB’s attendance set a record with a cumulative attendance of 43,263,740 fans in 2008. It has topped 40 million fans every year since 2005.
“I can’t imagine there is anyone who has had more influence on the game at the minor league level than Pat,” said Iowa Cubs president and long-time MiLB Board of Trustees president Sam Bernabe.
Multiple MiLB owners also said that O’Conner did much to modernize MiLB’s operations. O’Conner went from being MiLB president Mike Moore’s second-in-command to MiLB president in 2007. Under O’Conner, MiLB teams packaged digital rights for the first time. MiLB also set up group licensing to an extent that had not existed before.
O’Conner also began MiLB’s diversity initiatives. At his direction, MiLB began a speakers’ series at historically black colleges and universities to help bring awareness to career opportunities and internships with MiLB teams.
O’Conner departs as the fifth-longest tenured MiLB President. He was re-elected to the post by the membership in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
“He’s a dominant guy. That often leads to changes that are important to make. I’ll always respect him for his ability to control the room with an idea he is working on,” Bernabe said.
“Pat loves the game of baseball. I would like to think that is still a significant part of what each of us bring to the office every day in this day and age,” Mobley said. “I’m not sure that it is. He loves the game of baseball and loves to see the impact that game can have in our communities. I think that’s for me one of the foundational elements for him.”