If you took MLB’s heavy desire to contract minor league baseball by a fourth from last fall, and combine it with the pandemic that saw this minor league season never start, you probably figured that MiLB’s fight against contraction was utterly doomed. With the announcement today that Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Connor will retire at the end of the year, even though he was just elected to another four-year term just this past December, it’s even more clear.
Before we get into the particulars, it is important to note that O’Connor was the subject of one of the more vile double-crosses in recent sports memory, though it came only after he partook in a vile act, himself. O’Connor lobbied hard, on behalf of Major League Baseball, for the Save America’s Pastime Act, which was part of a spending bill in spring of 2018. The legislation kept it legal for baseball to continue to pay minor leaguers the lint in their pockets and snot-filled cocktail napkins. O’Connor told every member of congress that would listen that it would save minor league teams from going out of existence, as it was a response to the unfair labor practices lawsuit that minor league players had filed.
Just more than a year later, O’Connor watched as Major League Baseball plotted to send a lot of those teams out of existence anyway. He essentially saved nothing but keeping minor leaguers from making a livable wage. Quite a legacy.
Which probably isn’t fair to O’Connor, who presided over unprecedented growth in his 13 years in charge of the minors. Last year, MiLB saw 41 million fans go through its gates. And O’Connor was instrumental in working with BAM-Tech to get more and more MiLB games streamed. That generated more revenue for minor league teams that they hadn’t seen before.
Still, what O’Connor is going to be remembered for is being the president when minor league baseball was mutated, or mutilated, by Rob Manfred and MLB owners. It’s widely been rumored that as part of the agreement between MLB and MiLB, the position of minor league president is going to be eliminated and the offices moved to New York under the same roof as Manfred’s office. The departure today would seem to confirm that.
Minor league owners have not exactly been thrilled with O’Connor’s shepherding through these negotiations with Manfred and MLB, including changing negotiating teams just last month, a move that many viewed as a step toward being more in line with getting MLB what they want instead of fighting for the minor league owners. News like this only makes it seem that MLB is going to get its way entirely or close to it.
Of course, it has to be asked what O’Connor could have really done. Had he put up a greater fight back in 2019, MLB simply could have let their agreement with Minor League Baseball run out and implement whatever system it pleased. Add the coronavirus pandemic into it, and MLB’s lack of desire to spend the lowered revenues they got as well as the minor league teams that may not survive, and it very well may have always ended like this. Minor League Baseball is just about as far away from a position of strength as the rings of Saturn.
What seems clear is that when the minor leagues do return, it’ll be with the 120 teams, four per MLB team, a 25 percent decrease from the current 160, and whatMajor League baseball has wanted. The real question is what will MLB do to help those markets that lose affiliation. Clearly there are some that don’t have the facilities that MLB desires, but at least some could be reconstituted as independent league teams, as MLB first proposed back when all this started last year. Will MLB help with that? Or will the desperate situation most everyone finds themselves in cause MLB to simply cast them adrift?
The former is just about the best anyone can hope for now.