LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For the second straight year, Baseball America took time at the Winter Meetings to sit down with Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner. Most notable among the 40-minute discussion was O'Conner's belief that the players deserve higher wages, but not the Fair Labor Standards Act protection they are seeking via a lawsuit currently working its way through the courts.
Beyond that, we discussed what might happen if Major League Baseball decides to expand, the reduction of schedules in the minor leagues, the possibility of interleague play, the need for a new stadium in Richmond and, of course, Tim Tebow.
Here is the transcript of that interview.
JN: Overall, how do you rate this year in the minor leagues?
POC: 2017 was a good year for us. It wasn't a great year, it was a good year. It seems like a little bit of a broken record, but we were really impacted by the rain this past year. And I always talk about there being two or three things that determine what kind of season you're going to have: One is weather, two is your team and three is what kind of business you run, and we can't control the first two. But I made some comments Monday that said what Mother Nature taketh, Tim Tebow giveth. Tebow was a saving grace for the global result. But it was a good year. You just can't do anything about the weather. You can sit around and lick your lips and crack your knuckles and worry about it. It was a good year for us, it's still too early for us to get the financial numbers, but I expect them to be good. I think that we're at a point where we're not opening that many new stadiums, which used to always give you a point or two, or a chance at a point or two. We're a slow, measured, steady growth and we just need to keep heading that way. I'm very optimistic about the future with the advent of the Tickets.com opportunity. We need to start growing our business in real terms and I'm not looking for huge chunks, huge jumps, just nice, steady gain.
JN: Did you get a chance to go see a game or a series where Tebow played?
POC: I didn't. With scheduling, I just could not personally get there. I saw plenty of video and I talked to plenty of people who experienced it. I remember last year at the meetings in Baltimore, I did an interview with Sande Charles and she asked me about Tim Tebow, and I said 'I don't know the man,' --I still have not met Tim-- 'but I expect everything I know about him for him to be a good teammate, a good ambassador for Minor League Baseball, great to the fans and I hope that he has athletic success.' That's pretty much what happened. The stories you saw about Tebow, the things he was doing with our fans, reports about his interaction with his teammates. I checked with a few teams who were the visiting team for Tim, and it was consistent and the reports were consistent. Never asked for much. Never was demanding. Didn't have an entourage. Would come and tell you the first day he got there, (he'd) do 15 minutes about his whole transition to baseball thing. I want to do it in the dugout, weather permitting. I don't want to burden my teammates. I want to do 15 minutes, bring everybody you want. I'll talk to the media the rest of the series, but it's about the game. It wasn't a demand, but it was respectful for him to do it that way. He signed autographs everywhere. He had a couple of people with him, from what I understand, to just help him take care of things. I mean, the guy runs a company or two, a foundation or two, and it was anything but an entourage. I never heard anybody say that he demanded one thing. Great teammate in the clubhouse, just really committed to trying to get better. That's the best we could ask for.
JN: Did you expect the kind of attendance boosts he provided?
POC: I did because of the regionality of it. He played most of his season in the Southeast Conference territory, and he finished his season in Florida. I expected good numbers. There's the Tim Tebow lovers, and then there are those who are curious. If you add that combination up and you see what you get. I think it was very positive. I think it was very positive for the game overall, and I know it was positive for Minor League Baseball. I told Sande Charles a year ago, 'I welcome him with open arms because I think he's going to be a great addition to what he do.' The athletic aspect of it, that's between him and the Mets. But from everything I can tell, he's welcome in minor league baseball all he wants.
JN: He certainly performed better than anybody in our office expected
POC: In low (Class) A ball, the ball's all over the place. You get him to the Florida State League and the ball's closer to the plate and God knows what will happen if he's fortunate enough to either play half a year in high (Class) A and then go to Double-A (next year). The pitching's tougher, but it's always more around the plate. If you haven't measured or calibrated your strike zone, it'll be nice to get it a little closer to the plate where he'll have a better shot at it.
JN: You mentioned the rain. How involved were you in the cancellation or readjustment of the playoffs this year in the South Atlantic, Florida State, Southern and Carolina Leagues?
POC: Not at all. I talked to some people because I was curious. Player safety is paramount. I thought every league that played or didn't play made the right decision. It was thoughtful. It was not made in a vacuum, and I think player safety was paramount. Player and fan and employee safety was paramount. I didn't get involved in it.
JN: Those rain dates didn't affect the overall attendance numbers, did they?
POC: No. Look, playoffs in the minor leagues are very, very tough (to promote), as you know. You can't promote too far in advance unless you have a split-season and you know you're going to play. Some leagues have gone to a hard scheduling where the first-half winner gets the home advantage, so you may know one game you're going to do. But look, school is back in session, Friday night football and college football. It's just not conducive. School's back in session, the whole nine yards. It's tough. Even if it wasn't tough, I'm confident that all of our leagues would have made the same decision. They're not going to make a decision that's influenced by finances at the risk of player and fan and staff safety.
JN: You mentioned split-season leagues. Has there ever been consideration to all the leagues going to a split-season schedule?
POC: We're a states rights organization. That's between them and their farm directors. I am a fan of the split-season in Minor League Baseball. I think it just naturally coincides with the June draft and it gives a chance maybe for a club to get a mulligan or a reset. I think the partners in the league should make that decision. We'll govern schedule aspects of doubleheaders and things that are player related, number of games, start date, end date, start times on travel and different things like that, but that's a decision that I think is best made local, at the league level
JN: What kind of advantages do you see in a full-season league?
POC: Tradition. It's going to emulate and mirror what happens at the big leagues. Some just prefer that and want to play straight through. I grew up professionally in leagues that always had split-seasons. Full-season is great if you get out of the gate hot and by the Fourth of July you're 20 games up--the view from 20 games out is not so good. I think that you can play more games that mean more to the players with a split-season, and you can play more games that mean something to the fans, and I just like that. I think that in Minor League Baseball, especially at high (Class) A and below, those leagues are more influenced by the draft. In Triple-A you're influenced by the big league team taking guys up and down.
JN: We're going to 140 games this year in all full-season leagues in 2018. Is that the lowest you'll see it going?
POC: That's the lowest that MLB can force us to take it. I think that player health, player safety, health and well-being, rest and recovery periods, all of that stuff is in discussion at a greater level that I've seen in 25 years that I've heard of it. We have a PBA coming up in the next two years. It can't go lower under the current agreement, let's say that, at full-season levels, and obviously at short-season. I don't anticipate anything (lower) under this current agreement. It's too early to tell what the next agreement might bring.
JN: With that PBA coming up, then, what do you want to achieve?
POC: I think that for the health and well-being of the game and my membership in MLB, I think that we want to have an agreement that offers stability over the longest possible term. I think it's important to know what their roster slots are going to be, and by that I mean how many teams are going to be involved and where they are. I think it's important for our clubs to know if you have make facility adjustments or if you have to do different things, the ability to stretch that out with amortization and depreciation and to sell that over a longer period of time is to your advantage. I just like the stability. We've been together since 1901--it's really not a question of 'if'--the relationship has never been better than it is today. So what we have to determine is: What, and for how long. I'm just a fan of stability. If, for instance, we do one before the PBA expires in 2020, I would want to add several years to the back end so we have a good long run. The unknown is the toughest thing in baseball and in business, the instability of not knowing where you're going to operate, how you're going to be expected to operate. It's tough for our clubs to make investments in human resources and physical plant resources without the luxury of time.
JN: With that in mind, would there be a tweaking of the way the affiliation shuffle works?
POC: Possibly. We've talked a lot of about that. ... It's not perfect. There are aspects to it that I really don't like, but I have yet to find somebody who's got a viable alternative. And I'm not being critical. It's fine to say it stinks, maybe it does stink. Well, what do you want to do instead? Well, I don't know. From that perspective, what we're looking at is a PBA that has not really been addressed critically in over 10 years, certain aspects of it since it was originally drafted 25 years ago, like facility standards. So we owe it to each other to just put everything on the table that is an issue and sort through it. You have to stop and look at how much the game's changed in the last 25 years. You now have strength and conditioning coaches. You now have videographers. You now have nutritionists. And those people need space that was not contemplated when the new facility standards were adopted in the early 90s. Now, the issue is: I don't think there are too many facilities that were built so when you looked at the blueprints there were four rooms that said 'blank for a reason' or 'vacant for future use.' So we've got some logistical issues to discuss. There is the philosophy of, we need space to accommodate these people. OK, how are we going to go about doing that?
JN: Is that also true when it comes to upgrading and updating the transportation situation, with bigger busses or more busses?
POC: Yeah, but I mean, usually what you find is you have a 45-passenger bus. If you want more room, you just get a second one. A lot of our clubs, especially at Triple-A, are traveling with two busses now. ... There's only so many ways, and it takes so long to get from point A to point B. So we have to look at what we can look at, and the problem--especially since between 9/11 and the economy--a lot of airlines in cities that we serve, they fly 50-seat jets. We can get the team on there, but we can't get the equipment on there. It makes the plane too heavy; they won't fly it. The PCL has a travel committee that addresses and tries to envision those problems. It's not something we take lightly, but it's something that would be great if everybody would just charter. Well, it's cost prohibitive. You just can't charter. So we continue to look at it, always looking for better ways, quicker ways, safer ways, to get guys from point A to point B.
JN: I'm sure you saw Tracy Ringolsby's story a few months ago about possible MLB expansion. With that in mind, have you started looking at potential cities for the minor league teams to play in if expansion comes to pass?
POC: Well, no. No. The problem is, if you start looking at sites, you create a brushfire that you lose control of. I am not as confident as Tracy that it's imminent. The thing that we talk about is the reality of--depending on where they expand, and if history is going to be our guide, and history being that the two clubs will have five or six teams each--I need anywhere from 10 to 14 teams. If the expansion is in two of our markets, not only do I have replace them, I've got to give each team five or six affiliates. And I've got to tell you, I don't have 12 cities. I don't have 12 cities on a list that I can, in my wildest dreams, make up. So I don't think (expansion) is imminent. I do think it will happen, but I don't think it's imminent. I'm not convinced that, from a big league perspectives, it's not going to involve some international (sites) based on where the commissioner wants the game to go. That would mitigate some of our concern about the number of cities we need. But I've got to tell you, we have conversations constantly with Major League Baseball and they know the predicament that creates for us, so they're not going to come in and say 'Oh, by the way, we're going to expand next year.'
JN: You guys have a Mexican League team that's going to play in both Mexico and Texas next year. Is that a precursor of something bigger to come, where we might see a minor league team not in the continental United States or Canada?
POC: I think it's more likely that the Mexican League come north than we go south. For a lot of reasons, to have one of our teams down there creates a real travel problem for its league partners. The Mexican League seems to think it can mitigate some of that and have it not be a problem for them. I think, as opposed to that, what you're more likely to see is maybe some friendlies or maybe some creative plans to incorporate the Mexican League in something crowning a king of a certain level of baseball or something like that. Globalization is important. I don't think that we need to participate in international play to achieve that, but any way we could aid or assist in that, I'd certainly be willing to try to do that.
JN: So you might be able to see, say, a team in the Texas League play a team in the Mexican League in a friendly?
POC: In a friendly, yeah. ... The whole issue, and not to divert from the national conversation, is just the way the geography has worked out over time. Interlocking schedules at multiple levels is doable from a geographic perspective. Now, we have to cross over the philosophical issue of: Do we want something that creates imbalance in the schedule? When I ran baseball clubs, I was never hung up on a balanced schedule. I never gave my fans that much credit that they knew who was coming and how many times. My people were interested in 70 nights of baseball. You don't want to play the same team 40 times, but only reporters who know what in the world is going on or real, true baseball fans are the ones who are going to realize that Charleston is coming up (to Greensboro) for the first time in five years.
JN: That kind of dovetails into where I wanted to go next. It's always been on the backburner, but there's a possibility of interleague play between the Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues.
POC: I think because of the rules and regulations and the player qualifications and the perception--and I think it's a reality--of the (difference in) the level of play that you've got to stay with Class A Advanced with Class A Advanced and Class A with Class A. Again, I can't imagine farm directors would disapprove, but with the consent of all the stakeholders, I'm not going to tell them they can't do it. ... If two teams are close in the leagues (say, Lexington and Bowling Green), don't play them 20 times. Duck in there and play one, or if you can sister-city it and it makes sense. I can tell you that there are comments, and I've heard them, that say 'Why am I driving through two Sally League cities to get to my next Carolina League game? Why aren't these two cities in the Carolina League and that one in the Sally?' That's a historical issue, and it's now a franchise value and a cost of doing business issue. It's not as easy as telling one team, 'Oh, you're not in that league any more, you're in this one."
JN: Where are we in terms of Richmond getting a new stadium?
POC: Ask them. And I don't mean to be so facetious, but the last report I had was that VCU and the Richmond Flying Squirrels had been working very cooperatively and collaboratively on a new facility. I am guardedly optimistic, but I was talking early today with someone and saying that I was guardedly optimistic 11 years ago when I let them go there and relocate with the promise of a new ballpark. The consoling thing is that Lou DiBella, the ownership group, Todd Parnell and that staff have done a fantastic job. They've maintained their same affiliate, they're drawing people. They've made The Diamond as attractive as it can possibly be. They've made the best of that situation, and in some respects, I think, probably hurt their cause because they're doing so well that people might say 'Why do you need a new ballpark? Look, you're leading the league in attendance and this, that and the other.' They need a new ballpark. That ballpark, I was just getting into baseball for real with the Sporting News when The Diamond broke in. She has served her useful purpose. Her time has come and gone. To be honest, what I worry about in Richmond is waking up one day and seeing on my phone that a chunk of concrete has fallen from up and fallen on somebody and hurt them. And that's not being wildly imaginative. It's just a physical plant problem, and it's just what age does.
JN: Going back to the affiliation shuffle, a lot of teams have been taking themselves out of that mix by buying their affiliates. What do you make of that trend?
POC: I mean, I don't think they'll ever take it out of central office control, I mean Park Avenue (MLB headquarters) and St. Pete (MiLB headquarters). Let's face it: Of the 30 affiliated teams, there are 24 teams that sort it out fairly consistently, there are three that are kind of stable and subject to change and there are three that are always going to be moving. The last six don't really envision getting into the top 24, that's not their goal. Their goal is to not stay in the last three. And so there's places you run to and there's places you run from, and conversely, from our standpoint, there are some major league affiliates that are better than others. There's some you want and some you don't. ... I am not opposed to a new system, but I'm just not smart enough right now to figure it out. And I'm open to discussing what is fair and equitable. I do think that whatever happens, characteristics of it have to be choice. This purchasing (of affiliates) is starting to limit the choice, which I think is critically important and why you saw the commissioner, with my agreement, go to 51 percent equity if a major league club wants to buy in. So we're not going to eliminate it, but we're going to throw an anchor out where one of my clubs might sell 25 percent and put that money in its pocket. That, to me, is buying the PDC. Fifty-one percent, to me, is buying the ballclub.
JN: I imagine we're in the same limbo we were last year with Senne lawsuit considering it's still tied up in appeals.
POC: Yeah, there were two and one (Miranda v. Selig) was dismissed. And I haven't read the decision and haven't talked to my lawyers ... Supreme court refused to hear the appeal, which is, in effect, killing it. And they cited antitrust reasons. And the gratifying thing thing for us--and here's where I'm speculating--is that the Curt Flood Act, which we helped get into place in the early 90s, early to mid-90s, which protected antitrust, which preserved antitrust protection for the minor leagues, was cited in the lawsuit. It's been cited several times in the last nine months. So it's amazing that something that's 25 years old is still serving its purpose
JN: I've seen Stan Brand and other people characterize minor league players as apprentices or interns. Do you agree with that characterization?
POC: Well, yeah. In a technical, legal sense we can debate what that title is. I don't think that minor league baseball is a career choice for a player. Anecdotally, I tell people all the time, if I'm a scouting director and I sign a player and ask him, 'Son, OK, what's your career goal?' (and he says) 'I want to be a career minor leaguer.' We're tearing the contract up. You're not here to stay long. When I ran ball clubs, my opening comment to my clubs, my opening comments to my clubs is 'I'm glad each and every one of you are here and I hope I don't see any of you next year because you've gone to play in Double-A.' So, look, the average life or the average career of a minor leaguer is less than three years. I do think that it's time for an adjustment in salary, but the issue of putting them into an FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act)-protected position where they're entitled to minimum wage and overtime is complicated.
POC: What's a (minor leaguer's) workday look like, Josh?
JN: It's long. It's very long.
POC: But is it? OK, you come in at 2:00. You don't have to be there till 3:00, but you come in at 2:00. From 2:00-3:00, you play cards. And at 3:00 you go out for infield or extra hitting or whatever, and then you come back and you take an hour. While the other team's hitting, you take an hour and you get a sandwich that I (the club) pay for and you eat it. Are you working?
JN: Perhaps not, but at a lot of places where workers are paid an hourly wage, lunch breaks are paid.
POC: But not in all cases. There are people who clock in and clock out for lunch. My point is: We know what minimum wage is, that's easy.
JN: It varies from state to state.
POC: Yeah, but you can go to the national level and keep everybody happy. How do you figure out overtime?
JN: Is there not a medium somewhere between making them full-time hourly workers and raising the pay.
POC: That's it. Like I said, I think it's time for an adjustment, and that's it. This is not a career choice, and people want to debate about the fact that McDonald's worker make more than minor league baseball players, and that's a fact. But I don't think that somewhere there's a major league in French fry prep that makes $550,000 (as its) minimum wage or starting wage.
JN: If that's the analogy, then the top is the manager of the McDonald's?
POC: How about the analogy that you're chasing the brass ring and this is not a profession. I think an adjustment's due, no question about it. And I wouldn't be surprised if in this process you didn't see one.
JN: Over the last couple of years we've seen the branding trend get crazier and crazier. Where do you think it's going, and does it positively or negatively affect in-park attendance?
POC: I give everybody the credit that the re-branding is done in an effort to improve business. E-commerce, merchandise, tickets. You sell tickets and people show up (which means) food and beverage. I think it's going to continue, and it's going to continue because of the success of it. We've launched 10 radically different logos and nicknames in the last three or four years.
JN: And that's just the permanent ones, not even counting the one-offs
POC: But from the permanent standpoint I can't think of one that's been a miserable failure. Look, I told you last year: I used to have opinions and I used to voice them and I used to say 'Well, I don't think that (logo) ought to come in' and I'd look next spring and it's on the top 25 list, so I got out of the business of passing judgment, but I do give our clubs the credit. Is it about drawing people to the park? Absolutely. It's part of the brand and the branding process. We have gotten very sophisticated and very creative. In my mind, maybe sometimes we cross the line, but every time I think we do the public embraces it. I think the market will tell us when we've gone too far and we've had enough.
JN: We went back and forth in the office about the Baby Cakes name. Some people hated it. Others liked it. Then it won our first LogoMania contest.
POC: In the first place, I didn't know what a Baby Cake was. So when they started explaining it to me, I said 'OK, at least I see the regionality. In New Orleans they know what it is, so, OK." And then they come out with that cool, nasty baby logo. He looks angry, so, OK. And then it wins LogoMania, it's in the Top 25 and people down there embrace it. My concern was more stoic and historical. You tell me you're going to put Triple-A professional athletes in a uniform that says Baby Cakes? Then I go to the Congressional baseball game, and Cedric Richmond, who's from Baton Rouge, is in full regalia--he's the pitcher for the Democrats--complete, top-to-bottom, Baby Cakes.
JN: Did you have a favorite?
POC: Well, you're going to get me in trouble. That's like asking which kid do you love the most. No, but I liked the Rumble Ponies, I liked the Jumbo Shrimp and I became very fond of the Baby Cakes. It grew on me.
JN: We talked about the diversity push at the Minor League Promo Seminar. How is that effort going?
POC: It's slow but steady. I think at this meeting we've noticed and it was clear to us there was more interest from the clubs and action from the clubs. This is a--and I don't mean a social cultural--but this is a cultural shift. There's a shift in awareness, a shift in what we need to do and why we need to do it. This is not an equal-opportunity motive, it's not any kind of NA-sanctioned program. This is about our business in the future. This is about our business moving forward. The world is changing, and I think our clubs have always heard me because I keep saying it, but I think they're starting to listen and get it and understand. I'm not looking to change our demographic profile in two years, but we have to start the process. ... As I look at this company, I am pleased with the effort I'm starting to see. Now, we've got to translate effort to results, and that's my job: to keep on them and keep offering better ways and easier ways and better ways and more efficient ways for us to keep accomplishing our goals. ... My job is not to sit in St. Pete and issue mandates and issue edicts and tell them what to do, it's to help make them create an environment where they can excel and do the best they can do.