This suspense-free edition of the democratic process occurred Dec. 7 at the annual Baseball Winter Meetings in Dallas. O'Conner, running unopposed, was unanimously approved by each of the 16 league representatives in attendance. He'll now serve another four-year term, continuing his reign as the 11th president in the 111-year history of the NAPBL (the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, commonly referred to as "Minor League Baseball").
"It's very gratifying as this is a validation of the direction we've taken over the last four years," said O'Conner, who previously served as vice president under his predecessor Mike Moore. "I've enjoyed being president the last four years, and we've weathered trying times with significant success. I'm looking forward to the next four."
It is O'Conner's job to set the tone for the entire industry and one of his most consistent messages has been the importance of keeping Minor League Baseball affordable for all fans. In a rough economy this is especially important, and O'Conner often encourages teams to make $5 tickets a priority.
"On average, we fill 55 percent of our seats in a given year. We have room for new customers, new faces in the ballpark. If every club in Minor League Baseball does not have a ticket for $5 or less, they ought to put one in place immediately," he stated in his opening address at the 2009 Winter Meetings, a remark typical of his overall philosophy.
This need to bring "new faces and new customers" through the gates has been one of the motivating factors of O'Conner's Diversity Initiative, an ongoing attempt to increase the number of minorities in Minor League front offices as well as in the stands. This initiative is as pragmatic as it is progressive, the desire for inclusiveness coupled with the realization that, in order to remain healthy and vital, Minor League Baseball has to be responsive to the shifting demographics of the American landscape.
"I don't think that's an area where you can ever move far enough, fast enough," said O'Conner.
Another first-term initiative that O'Conner mentions with particular pride is the increased emphasis on both regional and national charitable efforts, many of which involved raising funds for Minor League communities affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding and tornadoes.
"Especially through the next four years, we need to continue to build a charity network that is responsive to the needs of our communities," he said.
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"Thinking back on it, the bundling of our internet rights was a significant accomplishment, and one we accomplished together," said O'Conner. "We did it with the support of everyone, from the commissioner to [former Major League Baseball COO and President] Bob DuPuy to [MLBAM CEO and President] Bob Bowman to the clubs themselves."
But Minor League Baseball is nothing if not a reflection of America, and forging consensus across a broad swath of the country can be a fraught process. After all, a Triple-A team playing in a major urban market is liable to have far different needs, perspectives and priorities than a Rookie-level franchise operating in a rural area 2,500 miles away.
"One thing I very much appreciate in this industry is that there is always a common understanding that we want to get to 'yes,'" said O'Conner. "That attitude is pervasive, and it carries the day. It's all about meeting people's needs, and at the end of the day doing what works for as many people as possible."
The past four years, of course, have not been without setbacks, and two of the more challenging initiatives involved a pair of satellite operations established under O'Conner's leadership. In April 2009, Minor League Baseball took over the daily operations of Vero Beach's "Dodgertown" (the sprawling Spring Training complex first established by Branch Rickey in the 1940s), marketing it as a place in which to conduct sports occupation training clinics, tournaments and offseason practice sessions.
But obstacles such as an oft-contentious relationship with Indian River County (which owns the facility) and the inability to retain the Dodgertown name (it was changed to Vero Beach Sports Complex) resulted in operating losses. This past November, the lease was transferred to a new entity led by former Dodgers president Peter O'Malley, although Minor League Baseball will be remain involved in a more limited capacity.
A similar, albeit smaller scale, arrangement in Durham, in which Minor League Baseball assumed the operation of historic Durham Athletic Park, also met with underwhelming results. On Jan. 1, the hometown Durham Bulls took over the day-to-day operations from Minor League Baseball.
"[Vero Beach Sports Complex and Durham Athletic Park] were valuable projects to undertake, but upon reflection, we'd do things differently in some cases," said O'Conner.
Partially because of these experiences, O'Conner maintains that he is going into his second term with a somewhat lower-key approach.
"If I had to offer constructive criticism of myself, it's that we tried to do too much too fast. So now it's time to circle the wagons a little bit," he said. "I'm proud of every initiative that we introduced, but let's go back and fortify them. It's time to concentrate on what we have, instead of spreading ourselves too thin."
When O'Conner joined the staff of Minor League Baseball two decades ago, it was during a time of significant turmoil and transition. Relations between Minor and Major League Baseball were fraught, due to disagreements over key issues such as revenue sharing, facility standards and affiliation agreements.
"The '91 and '92 seasons were tense and pressure-filled -- we were a phone call away from breaking off all ties [with Major League Baseball]," recalled O'Conner. "That's what's amazing -- to realize how close we were to professional Armageddon, and to compare that to where we are today."
"Where we are today" is a period of sustained peace and prosperity, as evidenced by the recent extension of the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) through the 2020 season. The PBA guarantees industry stability, most crucially via its assurance that Major League Baseball will field at least 160 Minor League teams.
"Over the last 20 years, it's amazing how much more we know and understand about Major League Baseball, and how much more they know and understand about us," said O'Conner. "That solid, collegiate working environment is the most important thing we have. It's at the core of what we do and who we are, and everything else flows from there."
And perhaps this, above all, is what shapes O'Conner's attitude as he enters his second term.
"Sometimes the last 20 years feels as though it encompasses three lifetimes, and other times I can't believe how fast it's gone. But in that time, we've made incredible gains both as individual clubs and as an industry," he said. "We're not going to rest on our laurels. We'll keep doing what we've been doing, but more of it and a little better."