MiLB President: Vero Beach Sports Village must evolve to survive

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Minor League Baseball’s President Pat O’Conner has been in a constant battle between his heart and his head concerning the future success of Dodgertown.

He knows the future for Dodgertown will be hosting any who want to train and use the facility — officially known now as Vero Beach Sports Village — for baseball, softball, soccer, football, lacrosse, tennis, swimming, umpire school and now even a boot camp for mascots.

But it is clear O’Conner wants to preserve some measure of Dodgertown and what used to be known as the Dodger way of doing things.

O’Conner talks openly of the relationship he wants to have with the community saying that Minor League Baseball has adopted Dodgertown Elementary, just as the Walter O’Malley family Dodgers did all those years ago.

And he recalls a meeting with someone in Vero Beach where he was asked if the facility would still host the St. Helen’s Harvest Festival.

“I told him absolutely and he asked if I knew what it was,” O’Conner said. “I told him, ‘I don’t know what it is, but if it is important enough for you to ask about then it is important to us.'”

O’Conner comes by his understanding of Dodgertown honestly. He got his start in professional sports 29 years ago as an intern with the Florida State League’s Vero Beach Dodgers. He is also a businessman, managing a $750 million a year operation that among other things oversees 20 minor leagues and over 250 clubs in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Minor League Baseball agreed last year to lease Dodgertown from the county for $1 a year in exchange for picking up the estimated $100,000 a month operating costs. Those expenses kicked in at the start of the year and MiLB must have sports teams using the facility to cover the operation.

And O’Conner knows full well he needs to market Vero Beach Sports Village if he is to attract the high school, college, little league, softball, soccer, lacrosse and even football teams he wants to bring to Vero Beach. Marketing is one of the things Minor League Baseball does best.

In any given year up to 15 of its teams go through a re-branding to remain relevant in their communities.

But even there he may have let his heart get in the way.

O’Conner, named MiLB president in 2008, wanted to market the facility as Dodgertown. Negotiations went on for months, but the Dodgers were in the process of using the Dodgertown moniker throughout the facilities within its organization and balked at allowing it to be used in the place where the name originated. And then current owners Frank and Jamie McCourt became involved in a nasty divorce with the Dodgers one of the more contentious issues.

The talks ground to a halt.

“It became apparent the value we were going to be able to extract from Dodgertown was so limited and watered down that it wasn’t worth taking on their terms,” he said.

He admits the time lost likely cost the operation money.

“We are probably six months behind where we thought we would be and a lot of that is self-inflicted,” he said. “We made a conscious decision to wait on the name and we understand what that did to us.”

So the operation has moved forward, wanting to preserve what it can of the Dodger legacy, but making plans to sell the 65-acre complex as an all inclusive place to hold all kinds of athletic tournaments, training camps and anything else for groups that might need a place to meet and train and bond.

In fact, the Sports Village recently hosted the Chinese National baseball team – managed by former major-leaguer Tom Lawless and pitching coach Scott McGregor – as they prepared for the Asian Games this month.

So his staff brainstormed and came up with the Vero Beach Sports Village.

“We thought destination first, Vero Beach everyone knows where that is if we couldn’t use Dodgertown,” O’Conner said. “For this business model to be successful it has to cross over gender, age and sport. It is not a baseball village, it is not football, it is a sports village. It is village because we are self contained and it is a communal concept.”

While O’Conner has a grand vision for the Sports Village it must be successful if it is to survive.

And there is still work to do on that front.

Plans are underway to turn one of the practice fields into a soccer field that can also contain lacrosse games and negotiations are nearly completed with the city and county to take the dormant nine-hole golf course and use part of it to build a cloverleaf of fields that can host little league and softball tournaments.

At present all five fields, including Holman Stadium, and two half-fields are built to major league specifications.

They currently can’t host “small ball” and softball tournaments for kids.

Minor League baseball is convinced that is the key to turning around the $100,000 a month they are currently losing in upkeep.

“We cannot be successful without this,” MiLB vice president Craig Callan told county commissioners recently. “Without this Minor League Baseball will fail in Vero Beach.”

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