LAS VEGAS -- Pat O'Conner's first season as president of Minor League Baseball wasn't an easy one.
From flooding in the Midwest and hurricanes in the Southeast to widespread economic turmoil throughout the nation, the 2008 campaign was filled with a wide variety of challenges. Nonetheless, the sport topped the 43 million mark in overall attendance for the first time. During Monday's Opening Session speech at the Baseball Winter Meetings, O'Connor took time to celebrate this success.
"We experienced quite a ride in 2008," said O'Conner, who took over for previous president Mike Moore on Jan. 1 after serving 13 years as vice president. "A summer filled with great plays, natural disasters, and yet, ultimately an all-time attendance record. We had one great year in 2008."
Minor League Baseball is aiming to achieve similar success in '09, despite the bleak state of the U.S. economy.
"We are not recession-proof, but we are recession-resistant," he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. "When it comes to the ability to withstand hard times, we have a very high tolerance. And this is because of the grass-roots nature of the industry. Our teams strive to be the pillars of their communities."
As such an integral and long-established aspect of American culture, Minor League Baseball is better positioned to weather the current economic storm than most entertainment-based industries. Nonetheless, complacency is not an option, and this is a point that O'Conner drove home during Monday morning's opening remarks.
"Remember that the six most expensive words in business are: 'We've always done it that way,'" he remarked, quoting motivational speaker Catherine DeVrye. "Moving forward, we will not always do it the same way, because we will be challenged like never before. Dealing with our environment will test our mettle and require us to plan and prepare for our future."
To that end, O'Conner has introduced three industry-wide initiatives which will serve as key components of the '09 campaign. The first is a "Team Green" program, in which clubs will work vigorously toward environmental sustainability. Many clubs -- most notably the Lake Elsinore Storm -- have been on this path for quite some time, and "Going Green" theme nights were staged in ballparks across the country last season.
"There are three benefits to doing this," O'Conner said. "First, this is an issue of social responsibility, and we are expected to be leaders when it comes to that. There's also a strong economic element, in that many environmental initiatives end up saving money in the long run. Finally, this creates a wide array of new business opportunities, in that it will result in teams working with vendors and sponsors."
The next initiative outlined by O'Conner is development of a strategic partnership with the National Youth Baseball Organization, which represents over eight million youth baseball players. This symbiotic relationship would be as pragmatic as it is altruistic.
"Minor League Baseball is not just responsible for the next generation of players; it is responsible for the next generation of fans," O'Conner said. "The more kids play baseball, the more they extend their knowledge base. We see this as a crucial part of fan development."
Finally, during the '09 season Minor League Baseball will implement a wide-ranging diversity program geared toward increasing the numbers of minority employees and minority-owned businesses within the industry.
"As a $750 million enterprise, Minor League Baseball is worthy of national programs to secure the best prices, the best products and the best services through a comprehensive program," said O'Conner during Monday's opening address. "This is not a set-aside or quota, but an invitation to participate, the commercial equivalent of rolling out the welcome mat to new potential providers of the goods and services we need."
Taken together, the head of Minor League Baseball expects these three industry-wide programs to further solidify the Minors as a healthy, forward-thinking industry. Still, O'Conner is aware that when it comes to '09 specifically, the economy will trump all else. As part of the ongoing battle for the ever-shrinking entertainment dollar, teams will have to rely on their abilities to serve as an oasis of calm amidst an otherwise tumultuous American landscape.
"One of the best things we can do for our fans is to provide that outlet, somewhere they can go for three hours in order to get away from everything else," said O'Conner. "Sometimes that's the greatest contribution that we are able to give.
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com.