A few weeks ago, Bus Leagues Baseball had the privilege of sitting down with the President of Minor League Baseball, Mr. Pat O’Conner at Minor League Baseball Headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mr. O’Conner was gracious enough to answer all of our questions and talk with us for nearly an hour.
This is Part 1 of our 4-part interview. Part 2 will run on Tuesday, Part 3 on Wednesday, and Part 4 on Thursday.
An Interview with Pat O’Conner – President of Minor League Baseball
Bus Leagues: You were the general manager of a few teams, assistant general manager, and head of Florida Operations for the Astros. From that position, you became Chief Operating Officer of Minor League Baseball. How was the transition from a local to a national perspective?
Pat O’Conner: Well, for me it was really a natural progression. In my career – and I advise young people on this even today – I never tried to make lateral moves. I always tried to make sure the next move was more responsibility, and broadened my interest and knowledge of the game. And the fact of the matter is when I was with the Astros, I had the opportunity to meet Mike Moore, who was at the time running the Tampa club. Mike came over under Sal Artiaga, who was president before him as his chief administrative officer. So when Mike got elected he approached me and the first time he approached me I was involved in some things with the Astros I just didn’t want to give up on, working for Dr. John McMullen. So he (Mike) came back.
So the transition was fairly seamless in that as I have moved forth in my career it was just a natural progression. I think that going from a local or regional league setting to a national setting the same principles apply, you just have to apply them over a broader field of clubs. You have more clubs, with more interests.
During my time with the Astros, I was very blessed to work with people who allowed me to experience all aspects of the game so I thought when I came to this job I brought a major league perspective and a minor league perspective – having run clubs and having been on the other side. So it really wasn’t that big of a challenge. And the business is the business. The budget was bigger, but it was still a budget. Employee relations were still employee relations, we just had a few more people to deal with. So I think from the inside out it was a multiple, not an exponential increase in work or in the kind of work.
As a central office serving clubs, when you ground yourself in the principle that we are here to serve the clubs, if you keep that approach – that we are thinking, working, doing for the clubs and do it as a club operator – then it goes together very well.
Bus Leagues: I know this is a very broad question, but what are your responsibilities as president?
O’Conner: I’m responsible for this office. Putting together the budget, executing the budget, staffing this office to meet the needs of the clubs. This is more of a constitutional responsibility. I have primary responsibility for all of our business with Major League Baseball, so I am the primary liaison with them on our Professional Baseball Agreement and any ancillary agreements that derive from that relationship – for example, our relationship with BAM, our relationship with licensing, our relationship with umpires, our relationship with security and investigations. I am the one who is ultimately accountable. Then I have a staff of roughly 40 who are responsible for carrying it out.
Then there is also the face of the organization aspect that is no delineated in the rules but I become the face and voice for what we are trying to accomplish.
Bus Leagues: What is your schedule throughout the year, both during the season and in the offseason?
O’Conner: On a day-to-day basis, we are, it’s fair to say, six months ahead of the calendar. So we have been working for the last three or four months on the Winter Meetings and the offseason plan, and we are deep into our budget for 2011.
As for my schedule, I’ll do somewhere between 180-200 days a year on the road. I travel that much. Like I leave Tuesday morning for the World Series and I’ll come back when it’s over. During the season, I try to be here half the time, week-in and week-out. But I try to make it to see at least one game in every league per year, and that’s 16 domestics and three foreign leagues. I don’t go to Venezuela and I sneak in and out of Mexico. So in a 22-week season, to get to 16 different destinations is somewhat of a challenge.
But when I am here, I try to keep reasonably normal office hours. But when I am on the road, it’s a laptop and a cell phone.
Bus Leagues: How many games do you attend?
O’Conner: I see about 30 a year. Somewhere between 30-35. I do a tour of one of our rookie leagues and I saw all 10 cities in three years. I’ll go in for a week and I will see games every night. It’s important for me to be there to show the support of this office to what they are doing and the recognition that they are a part of what we are trying to accomplish in a bigger scheme of things.
Bus Leagues: How is your relationship, having come from the Florida State League, with the FSL?
O’Conner: Oh, it’s fine. We’ve done some things through the years that I don’t think they are particularly fond of, with Vero Beach and some other things. But I was in the league at the time when Chuck Murphy was first elected, and there are board members on that board still who were there when I was there. So I think we have a very good relationship with them. Unfortunately, based on my travel and the close proximity to the Florida State League, I don’t do as much with the Florida State League as you might think, even though it is right here. Overall though, I think we are fine.
It is a great group of guys over there. I thought my time there, in the late 80s through the early 90s, was probably one of the better leagues that I was ever a part of or that was ever put together, when you consider where we were with facilities, where we were with a board of directors, and where we were with our direction, it was a really good group.
Bus Leagues: You mentioned Vero Beach. Now we have Vero Beach and Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, neither of which are being used as minor league facilities. What are your thoughts on the future of these locations?
O’Conner: Well, the Florida State League now has 12 teams and it is and always has been so closely tied to Spring Training sites, with the exception of Daytona, which has historical significance in the league and plays in the historic Jackie Robinson Field. But Daytona is probably the exception to the rule. Of the 12 clubs, nine of them are owned by the Major League operations so it is always going to be subject to the bigger picture, and that is Major League Baseball’s relationship to Florida in respect to Spring Training. And this is a very cyclical phenomenon of Major League clubs owning their teams or do they want to have affiliate relationships with their teams. Right now it is in a downswing, where teams said, “Let’s not own them”. We pulled two out in roughly 2000-2001 (ed note: the Kissimmee Cobras and the St. Petersburg Devil Rays).
St. Petersburg, because of the Rays, it’s not a good Florida State League market. It’s tough enough now competing with Dunedin, Clearwater, Tampa, Sarasota, and Bradenton. You know, the Rays owned the club and decided to sell it and you know it wasn’t a good marketing initiative for them to have it.
The facility in Vero Beach is available. Really, what determines success for a private-owned or a non-Major League owned club is the market. And that market is a little light. It is a smaller town and under a Major League-owned scenario, you can make it work because of all the ancillary benefits of housing your players there, training them there, you can set up a base of operations for rehabs, as well as for mini-camps, tryouts, and all of those kind of things. Without a Major League tenant, I think that Vero Beach is going to be without Minor League Baseball.
Bus Leagues: How has the hype of prospects such as Stephen Strasburg helped Minor League Baseball? For example, you are now seeing these prospects on SportsCenter.
O’Conner: I think you have identified how it helps us. It brings a level of awareness in a national forum. It brings the national spotlight to the individual cities and the concept of playing in the Minor Leagues. It is a tremendous reward and benefit to the local club and the local fans, to be able to see these guys when they come through.
They are generational-type players. Go back before Strasburg, I don’t know who the one before that was. You go back to years ago with (Dave) Winfield and (Bob) Horner and David Clyde and those kids. When they came into baseball, they went straight to the big leagues and it was a different world. But the impact is tremendous. It brings a level of media exposure, a level of hype –to use your words – that is very hard to duplicate that environment without that kind of element.
Bus Leagues: I noticed that there are sometimes Major League players performing rehab assignments during the Minor League playoffs. Does that somewhat alter the competitive balance?
O’Conner: It could. But if you have a Major League player who’s been on the shelf, how effective is he going to be when he comes back? In a perfect world, in a vacuum, yes, it probably does. You are bringing in a player of much higher caliber in a setting where you would expect him to do exceptionally well. Is that fair? It’s probably not fair from a competitive balance standpoint, but you can’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
One, I don’t know of any Major League organization that would DL and schedule to rehab a player to win a Minor League playoff game. Ok, so it is an unintended consequence to have that player involved in the playoffs. And you can’t always pick when players get hurt or when players are ready to rehab and come back.
The bigger picture is that Minor League Baseball, while it is affordable family entertainment in 160 cities around the country, has this inherent tie to Major League Baseball to be the research and development arm of their player development. Part of that by extension is rehabbing players. Our goal is to get and keep players in the big leagues. 90-95% of the time it is through the development ranks. A kid comes in, work his way up to Triple-A and then on to the big leagues. Occasionally there is the opportunity where there is a need. And quite honestly, geography and availability determine where most of those rehabs go. So it’s not that they will put a player in a playoff situation if they can help it, but sometimes that’s the only option available especially if that’s the only minor league team they have. You can throw all the simulated games, all the bullpens, and all the batting practice you want , if you are not competing in live competition, you are not able to test your hamstring, feel if your elbow is going to respond, and do the things that are necessary to get you back to the level.
So I think from a purist stand point, there are those who would say that we would rather they not be in there, but one, it adds excitement, and two, it serves a bigger purpose.
Part 2 tomorrow.