By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
There are 188 minor-league baseball teams in the United States, give or take a few, and all believe themselves to be worthy of attention from the top levels of the Minor League Baseball organization.
The president and chief executive officer of that body, Pat O’Conner, said in a recent exclusive interview with the Daily Telegraph that the rookie leagues, such as the local Appalachian League circuit, have a claim to being special.
“I think because it’s where it all starts,” said the 31-year veteran of pro baseball front offices. “It’s where you get young executives, young players, young umpires, managers in many cases, off to their start in professional baseball.
“And I think if you’re going to be successful in this business, it’s critically important to get off on the right foot and learn the nuances and morays and the traditions of the sport.”
The Appy League outposts in Bluefield and Princeton, and other former coalfield clubs in places like Welch and Williamson, have been the launching point for hundreds of Major League Baseball standouts.
They had to start somewhere.
O’Conner said, “You can count on a couple of hands the number of players who haven’t played in the minors, or played in the low minors, on their way to the big leagues.”
The beginning levels of baseball, he said, are “really important to what we do, and it’s really an important starting point for these players. So we try not to overlook them, or take them for granted.”
Standing in the courtyard at Bowen Field, just back of the “Railbirds” bleachers, O’Conner said he has probably visited the historic state-line ballpark six times since becoming the 11th Minor League Baseball president in December 2007.
“When I became president, I vowed to get into every league, every (year),” he said. “It’s almost become a joke with (Appalachian League president) Lee Landers, that we have an Appy League tour every year, and I just entrust him and my assistant to schedule me for three or four days in the league.
“I hop in a car with Lee and we run around and see the league.”
His most recent trip covered the three teams in the northeast corner of the league. In a three-day span, he visited Pulaski, Va., Bluefield and Princeton. The general managers in Pulaski and Bluefield, Ryan Kiel and Jeff Gray, are both in their first year as GMs.
O’Conner said, “It really is good, to get in and see these people. In a lot of ways, it validates what we’re trying to do, from St. Petersburg, to be able to come down here and to see and to work with the young people, Jeff, and Ryan in Pulaski — and, of course, Jim Holland in Princeton.”
He was also pleased to share time again with Landers, who has run the Appalachian League since 1996 and received the Warren Giles Award for outstanding service as a minor league president in 2001.
Asked what Landers has meant to the rookie circuit, O’Conner said, “I think, in a word, stability. There’s a stability, a predictability. And I say that as a positive and not a negative. A calming influence. He’s great with young players. He’s great with young umpires.”
“When I go to bed at night, I worry about a lot, but the Appy League’s not one of them.”
A man does not spend 31 years involved in athletics without enjoying being in the playing arena. O’Conner reflected on what has made baseball a special focus for him.
“I think it’s the people,” he said. “You know, players as people, umpires as people, managers as people, fans as people. Seeing young people get into this business and work their way up. Seeing what it means to communities to rally around a team, and to rally around players.”
— Contact Tom Bone at