MiLB president O’Conner elected to fourth term amid fractious MLB talks

Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Conner, now set to retire at the end of 2020. (Getty Images)

Pat O’Conner was re-elected unanimously December 10 to another four-year term as president of Minor League Baseball Tuesday during the second full day of the annual Winter Meetings in San Diego.

The term will be O’Conner’s fourth after he signaled his intent to run again earlier this year, and continues an overall tenure in the affiliated minors now deep into its fourth decade.

But now the real fun begins.

“That’s what they tell me,” the 61-year-old O’Conner says with a laugh.

MiLB feeling the pressure

O’Conner has less than a year to negotiate a new working agreement, called the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) with Major League Baseball, regarding the relationship with his 160 teams, spanning all the way from the Triple-A level to Rookie ball.

MLB has threatened to remove the affiliation status of 42 franchises in a dramatic overhaul proposal that already has members of Congress up in arms, as well as Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who met with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred about the issue last week.

“Moving forward we have to get a deal that’s fair and reasonable and we’re going to have repair the fracture in trust and partnership” O’Conner says. “I don’t feel very much like a partner right now.”

The two sides had a negotiating session on December 6, O’Conner said to SportBusiness in a lengthy one-on-one interview after the election, during which each of the individual minor leagues cast a vote. Only the Mexican League was not in attendance.

“We had a [bargaining session] on Friday. I wasn’t in it. I sent in a negotiating team on Friday,” he says. “It’s one of those deals where we have a big gap to fill. It’s somewhere between tense and contentious. But we’re committed to getting a deal done. They’re committed to getting a deal done. And it’s going to be a long slog. We have a lot to do. We’re committed to doing it, but it’s not going to happen quick.”

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks at the National Press Club July 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

O’Conner has had his current position since 2007, and his new term taking him through 2023 will tie him in length of tenure with George Trautman, who also served 16 years as president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, MiLB’s organizational predecessor. Only Michael H. Sexton, who led the NABPL for 22 years primarily during the 1910s and ‘20s, had a longer tenure at the top.

But O’Conner has been in and around Minor League Baseball for more than 36 years, essentially all of his adult life and including stints as a minor league general manager. That experience, other executives say, makes him ideally equipped to continue leading the organization both through the current, fractious PBA talks and overall.

“There’s no doubt about it, he is the perfect guy,” says Tim Purpura, current president of the Texas League and former the general manager of the Houston Astros. “And he has had long relationships with the Major League folks in New York. He’s a very loyal person to his clubs and his leagues and we all appreciate that. But we’ll see [about the PBA talks].”

MLB’s proposal came as a shock to O’Conner when it was first detailed to him last month. But he says he wasn’t initially brought into the loop by MLB executives before the intended provisions leaked publicly. 

“I’m not telling them how to do their business, but we were never consulted,” he says. “I would preferred to have them tell us, ‘Here’s our issues. How do we solve these problems?’”

Rookie leagues under threat

Aside from the elimination of MLB affiliations for the 42 teams, the plan also called for a major reorganization that would eliminate the Rookie Leagues entirely, geographically realign the remaining clubs, shift the amateur draft from June to August, and send those just-selected players into what amounts to analytical boot camps run by MLB clubs instead.

In a fiery speech on December 9 at the Winter Meetings, O’Conner told his constituents that “big storm clouds are on the horizon.”

“We cannot allow ourselves to be splintered for this next deal,” he said. “No one’s future is safe unless all our futures are safe. If the process takes us against our will from 160 to 120, what’s going to stop us from being taken to 90? Or 60? Or we lose control altogether?”

That message continues a long-running theme of the “Power of One” that O’Conner has preached for years, and has been the underpinning of a steady pooling of organizational assets to build a national sales and content business. 

But this time, the “Power of One” is about the very survival for a quarter of the affiliated minors. And speaking further with SportBusiness, O’Conner seemed equally perplexed.

“You know, I made the comment that I don’t know what would disappoint more, if the this was a bluff [by MLB], or that they really want to do it,” he says. “I don’t know why they’d want to bluff or play that game with me, or us. During the 27 years I’ve been in the central office I’ve tried to be a good partner. I’ve tried to work with them at every turn.

“We’ve done experimental rules. We’ve moved teams at their request. So, I don’t understand their motives,” O’Conner said. 

Finding ‘solutions’

MLB has said repeatedly their proposal is driven primarily by a desire to improve facility conditions and travel for player prospects.

After Manfred met with Sanders, MLB released a statement saying that “it is committed to negotiating with Minor League Baseball to find solutions that balance the competing interests of local communities, MLB clubs, minor league owners and the young players who pursue their dream of becoming professional baseball players.”

MLB also said that it “understands we have an obligation to local communities to ensure that public money spent on minor league stadiums is done so prudently and for the benefit of all citizens.”

O’Conner said he went to Congress and also released MLB’s proposal to the 160 clubs because he had “a moral responsibility and fiduciary responsibility as president.” He said that once it was out there he “could not be responsible for what 160 people do with it.”

“It’s only a secret until you tell somebody. And I was obligated to tell somebody,” he said.

From there, Congress quickly blasted MLB’s proposal.

“And you know, going to Congress, I wanted to have those people informed of the potential consequences,” O’Conner says. “They’re not going to negotiate our deal for us, and I told them that. Congress has done a lot of things for baseball over the last 75, 100 years. I’m not looking to undo that because that’s going to hurt us as much as it’s going to hurt them. I just want to level the playing field.”

Of course, Congress can always use the cudgel of removing MLB’s limited anti-trust exemption. And they have done that before, as recently as 15 years ago when multiple hearings on both the House and Senate sides about steroid use in the sport ultimately led to the MLB and the MLB Players Association to create a far more robust drug testing program.

O’Conner also says the 42 clubs on MLB’s list were not given any type of reasonable opportunity to improve their facility condition issues which the league has said are problematic.

“Ripping the game out of 42 communities without giving them a chance to improve the circumstances, I just don’t think it’s fair. It don’t think it’s right,” he says. “The issue of, well those clubs lose money, well they’re not losing [MLB’s] money.”

What does MLB’s money pay for?

MLB typically pays the player and coaching salaries and for equipment at their minor league affiliates, while the minor league team owner handles all over operational expenses, including facility upkeep and travel.

And then there is the grassroots element. Nearly every US sports property says it wants to have more community outreach and appeal more to families and children in order to help develop the next generation of fans. Arguably no property does each of those things more than MiLB.

“[Some of] these clubs only draw 500 fans. Well, those 500 fans are important,” O’Conner says. “We’ve done some research and we’re comfortable saying that taking out those 42 teams is going to remove 14 million self-identified fans from baseball. And these are fans that can’t get to a Major League park in most cases, this is the next generation of fans. We’re not talking about a broken system and we’re not talking about an under-capitalized system.”

The next year should indeed be a doozy.

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