Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Interview with Pat O'Conner, President of Minor League Baseball, Part 4

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

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 4 of our 4-part interview. Part 1 was Monday. Part 2 was on Tuesday, and Part 3 was featured on Wednesday.

An Interview with Pat O’Conner – President of Minor League Baseball

Bus Leagues: Before I go, I have a few miscellaneous questions. First, do you have a favorite league to visit during the year?

O'Conner: That is like asking a father which one of his kids he loves best.

There are two or three things that go on my calendar in January with respect to blocking time. I am huge fan of what we call our “marquee events”, which are the Triple-A All-Star Game and the Triple-A Championship Game. As long as I am able, and as long as there no unavoidable conflict, I think those are marquee events. We are not shy about telling Triple-A baseball that we think those are marquee events for all of Minor League Baseball. So I like to go to those.

Earlier, Steve (Densa – Media Relations Director) mentioned the “Appy League” tour. This is the purest form of baseball in the Minor Leagues. It is the Appalachian League and it is ten teams. All the teams are by the Major Leagues but owned by local, mostly not for profit, booster clubs and groups. I’ll go in and call the league president and say I can be there Thursday, I gotta leave Monday morning and that’s it. He takes care of the rest. It’s really great. We go and there are booster club picnics and we meet people. It is just the purest form of professional baseball. It is where kids go – literally kids 18, 19, 20 years old – to be indoctrinated into professional baseball. So that is a very special trip for me.

Outside of that, what I have found after almost three years is that getting there is getting increasing difficult, to travel 200-plus days. But being there is just as much fun as it ever was. So you work through getting there.

When I go to a game, I’ll do all the media that they need me to do, I’ll sit with the owners for a while, and then I come up missing for 20-30 minutes and I walk the ballpark. One, I want to see the ballpark through my eyes and two, I want to see the fans. It kinda validates what we do. So I think that within a favorite places, my favorite part of every trip is being in the ballpark and being with the fans, being with the players, and getting to know them, as well as saying hi to the staff and meeting them.

When I go to a city and I talk to an owner, there are two questions I’ll ask: one, I want to know what you’re biggest worry is everyday and two, what can we do for you? And from there, it takes care of itself.

Bus Leagues: You mentioned meeting the players. Is there a player – whether he made to the Majors or not – who really stood out to you?

O'Conner: Well, when I was in the Texas League in 1983, we had a shortstop, a 20-year old (ed. 19) Venezuelan named Ozzie Guillen. And every day they were home, Ozzie would spend 15 to 20 minutes in my office sitting right across my desk just like you are. And we would talk about anything and everything. And he did that every day. He went home that winter, worked with Luis Aparicio, came back, was traded to the White Sox, and the rest was history.

That’s something I will never forget.

I learned to eat payaya from Joaquin Andujar. He was on an injury rehab in Kissimmee and he said, “Have you ever had payaya?” I told him I didn’t know what it was. So he brought me some. Just little things like that.

I’ve got those stories. Some of them are funny. Some of them I don’t want to repeat, but they are all part of it.

When I ran a ballclub, I went into the manager’s office before and after every game. I’d ask, “what do you need?” and “what do you want to do?”. I would tell them before the first game of the season, “I am not going to question what you do, but I might come and ask you why you did it.”. So I can learn. Things like that.

I had a pitching coach when I was in Kissimmee named Jack Billingham. He lives over in New Symrna now with his wife. Just a quality guy. When you are there seven years together you form some special bonds.

Sal Butera was a manager of mine for years. Rick Sweet was a one year manager of mine. When I saw Sweet and he finished his second or third year in Louisville, he’ll come up, we’ll give our bear hug to each other, and he will say to whoever is in the room, “This is the best GM I ever had.”.

You don’t do this for 30 years and not have those kind of stories. Which one is my favorite depends on what mood I am in when you ask, I suppose.

Bus Leagues: What are some of your favorite promotions, either of this year or of the past?

O'Conner: I saw one this year that without a doubt moved me more I have been moved in the last thirty years. I was in Winston-Salem, and there are several clubs that do this, but I saw it in Winston-Salem. We are at the ballgame, and I am up in the suite with the owner and we just had a bite of lunch, and we were watching the game, and it was the third inning. I just happened to look down on the field and both teams were getting out of the dugout and standing on the foul lines. I was thinking that it was too early for “God Bless America” and I asked myself, “What are they doing?”.

Then they bring out this group from the home dugout and it has this little girl and she is obviously a cancer patient and her hair is all but gone. They make this announcement that with her is her treatment team from Wake Forest Medical College and that she is in fact in remission. And they talk about what she had been through and they recognize her parents and her brother and sister and her doctors and nurses and the treatment team. They play this music and the teams are on the lines watching this with the two managers at home plate.

Then this little girl runs down the first base line high-fiving the home team, jogs the bases, then goes down the third base line high-fiving the visiting team, and touches home plate. Now I walked away. I couldn’t stand it. It was the most moving emotional thing I had ever seen in my life.

She gets to home plate and in the meantime they had brought up an autographed bat and the two managers did a photo op, and then she goes off the field.

My first reaction as a purist was “What the hell are they stopping the game for?”. And I was all but in tears when she was done. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life. Absolutely.

And to see Class-A ballplayers who were obviously in to it, of course the ones that knew about it were obviously more so, but they all stood there, they all clapped while she was running, and they all gave her the high-five. To see anyone from 20-to-25 years old who you might envision not caring, or not understanding. It was the most amazing thing I had seen in 30 years. Without a doubt.

I used to think when I was in Vero Beach that the 100-foot long ice cream sundae was the coolest thing, you know? We’ve had the sumos and the other funny stuff. But I have to tell you, and maybe it is because of where I am in my life and my career, that that was the most amazing thing I had ever stood through in my entire life.

Bus Leauges: That is one of things I see. The players might not be there for very long, but the fans are. The communities are. And the families are. And they embrace the players for that year.

O'Conner: Exactly. I used to tell my players that from a management standpoint it’s not that I didn’t like them, it’s that I didn’t want to see them the next year. If they were there the next year, we didn’t do our job. Our job is to move them on.

The fans understand that. Sure they like the guy, but they are quite content with saying they knew him when he was here. Not, “I’ve known him for six years, he is a good friend of mine.” I want to see you when you come in to Atlanta and I can drive up there, or you come in as a visiting player to Tampa. Our fans understand that. When we do host families in some of our cities and we do those barbeques and picnics, those things last lifetimes. Those are friendships and relationships that last. I don’t what other sport or what other type of environment you can create those kind of lasting relationships.

Bus Leagues: My last question is: what do you love about baseball and what have you loved about it?

O'Conner: That there are 27 outs per side. It is very hard for me to sit and watch an entire baseball game. It’s not that I am not a fan. I am very much a fan of the game of baseball and the 27 outs per side. I can sit and watch a game.

Let me tell you a story: when we got into the umpire business in 1997, my world changed because I had to look at a ballgame differently. I used to watch games with umpire supervisors and they would say, “Did you see that?”.

I would say, “Yeah, he missed the cut-off man”.

They would reply with, “No, the umpire didn’t do this, that, or the other”.

But to sit and watch a baseball game is a work of art. To understand why he is holding his glove up to his mouth like that and the wheel play. The things you pick up after watching 2,000-plus baseball games in 30 years. It is especially difficult having gotten into the business in operations, it is difficult for me to sit there and watch a game because I never did that. I was always taught if you are going to run a ballpark, you have to be in the ballpark, and the only way to be in the ballpark is to move. So when I go to games with people, after three or four innings, chances are I am going to stretch my legs and take a walk.

But to go back to something you talked about with the fans. When I go out now, I’ll go and do the things I need and want to do. But I like to walk. Because there is that generational aspect. You will see kids, parents, and grandparents – sometimes in the same family unit – at these ballparks. And it validates everything we do. It makes every airplane flight worth it. And it makes every long day worth it when you see kids smiling, parents sharing quality time with their kids, and the seniors not being excluded. It’s a little Pollyannic but that’s part of our story, that’s part of our benefit to communities, and that’s part of our legacy.