Photo: Chris Lake
Former president of Minor League Baseball Pat O'Conner
St. Petersburg; age 62
Shutting down the season because of the pandemic — intellectually, that was one of the easiest decisions I’ve had to make. I hate what happened, but I have no qualms with what happened because shutting down was in everyone’s best interest. We couldn’t bubble the Minor Leagues. We couldn’t ensure safety. It was gut-wrenching emotionally. I was physically upset over it, but we didn’t have any choice.
In high school, I was a very average baseball player. I tell people I played college baseball very poorly and that’s why I wear a suit now and not a uniform.
I don’t mind being at the beach, but I don’t like being on the beach. I don’t like sand. So put me in a cabana and give me something cold to drink. And I have fair skin, so give me plenty of sunscreen, and I’ll go to the beach. But don’t expect me to get on the beach.
There’s going to be less affiliated baseball. Major League Baseball has made that decision. They’re going to cut 40 teams. I worry for the Minor League experience. Major League Baseball intends to brand the teams as Major League Baseball subsidiaries. I worry about that. It’s clearly not good for the game, in my opinion. I don’t think it’s good for the country. It’s certainly not good for the 40 cities that will lose teams, and I think many of the 120 teams that will survive are going to struggle.
My parents were workaholics. My mother was a farmer’s daughter, and so I got to spend time on the farm with grandma and grandpa. My dad used to drive a horse-transportation van, so I grew up around horses. When I went to Wittenberg University, I went as pre-vet. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I realized in chemistry 101 that the veterinary thing was just not going to work out.
It’s possible to run a fan-friendly, family-oriented, fun business and make money doing it. When I look at our clubs, I think the most successful clubs keep customer service, fan interaction and fan experience No. 1. People who put financial gain ahead of experience often struggle because they inherently make decisions on the bottom half of the P&L, the expense side, where you’re cutting expenses, and you’re pressing the top half of the budget, raising prices.
I’m not progressive, but I don’t think I’m so stuffy that I won’t accept new things. I developed a PowerPoint presentation about a year and a half ago and ran up and down the halls thumping my chest that I finally did a PowerPoint, and the guys are looking at me like, PowerPoint? We don’t even use that anymore.
When I was riding to the park on my bike as a 9 or 10-year-old, or when I was playing center field at Grove City High School or left field for Wittenberg University, I didn’t dream about being president of Minor League Baseball. That’s not an aspiration. But in Vero Beach, that first year I got a job working in the business side of baseball, it dawned on me that I can do this, that I can have a career in baseball.
I never chased money. I know a lot of people who make a lot of money who are miserable.
Dodgertown is where I got my start. It’s now called the Jackie Robinson Training Complex. I’m very fond of Vero Beach. I will drive to Vero Beach just to have dinner.
The appetite for baseball will resume. Minor League Baseball and its people are extremely resilient. There are questions about what a 2021 season would look like. Hopefully, 2022 will be an opportunity to start to rebuild. I’ve had a lot of executives and owners tell me that it could very well be 2023 or 2024 before they get out from under the economic impact of COVID-19.
I had three years left on my contract, but I decided to retire. I’m not going to stay just to get a check or fight what is the undeniable path baseball is on. The sport has been too good to me. For the better part of 40 years, I gave Minor League Baseball everything I had, and everything I have today has virtually come to me through Minor League Baseball, so I think we’re kind of even, and I can walk away with my head up.
Florida does a very good job of attracting and managing the number of tourists who come here. I spent 6½ years in Kissimmee and the Disney traffic and all that. You just have to manage to work around it. You have to understand that the things that are so good about this area are why those people are here.
I’m a firm believer that if you are going to lead from the top, you have to get your information from the bottom. The boots on the ground, the people who are doing it, you have to listen to them.
When we went through the 2008, 2009 financial crisis, people were hurting. When you would go to a Minor League park, when you’d see people walk in, you could see them exhale. It was palpable. And that’s what will happen post-pandemic. Minor League Baseball will play a central role in helping this country heal.
Read more in Florida Trend's February issue.
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