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O'Neil conference, MLB share goals on diversity

@betelhem_ashame
November 11, 2019

NEW YORK -- Over the weekend, the Buck O’Neil Professional Scouts & Coaches Association -- a group dedicated to providing opportunities for scouts and coaches from minority backgrounds to connect through networking, mentorship and professional development while also giving back to underserved communities -- held its annual conference in its

NEW YORK -- Over the weekend, the Buck O’Neil Professional Scouts & Coaches Association -- a group dedicated to providing opportunities for scouts and coaches from minority backgrounds to connect through networking, mentorship and professional development while also giving back to underserved communities -- held its annual conference in its most prestigious location yet.

With an invitation from Commissioner Rob Manfred, the association -- celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding -- headed to the Office of the Commissioner for a closed-door meeting featuring visits from deputy commissioner of baseball administration Dan Halem, deputy commissioner of business and media Tony Petitti and executive vice president of baseball and softball development Tony Reagins, among others. While Friday was all business as the association tackled ways to aid Major League Baseball’s growing efforts to improve diversity and inclusion across the sport’s front offices and diamonds, the group took some time off Saturday to tour MLB Network’s studios in Secaucus, N.J., with a special guest appearance by Emmy Award-winning analyst Harold Reynolds.

It was the first trip the association had made to MLB’s New York headquarters to witness the heart of the operation, even though most of its members have worked in the sport for multiple decades. Many even knew the namesake O’Neil personally before he passed away in 2006 at the age of 94. President Steve Williams, director of professional scouting for the Pirates, and vice president Danny Montgomery, special assistant to the general manager for the Rockies, who have each been in the business for more than 30 years, attested to the gravity of the occasion.

O’Neil, a pioneer for underrepresented groups in the sport from his playing days in the Negro Leagues to his time as a scout for the Cubs and the Royals, was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, won MLB’s first Beacon of Life Award and even had the Hall of Fame’s Lifetime Achievement Award named after him. His enduring legacy in the minds of those who carry on his mantle became even more apparent at the conference.

“Where we’ve been, Major League Baseball is starting to go as well,” Williams said. “We can tell them what we’ve had to battle and go through, and it’s open and honest from us because we don’t have an agenda. I’m not worried about my next position; I’m worried about these young guys.

“[Montgomery and I] have been in baseball a long time. We’re on the downside of our careers. What we want to do is to continue to talk about what Buck has done opening doors for us and continue to open doors [for others].”

With Petitti, the conversation centered on MLB’s commitment to growing the game across the country and how the association can be a part of that initiative. Given the rise of organized youth programs increasing participation in the sport, Petitti wanted to ensure that kids from a minority background who might be interested aren’t left out due to a lack of resources.

“That was something we really needed to hear,” Williams said. “We have a lot of staff members doing a lot of things all over the country in underserved communities, and commitment from Major League Baseball to those communities is big for them. It continues to allow them to do what they do well and gives them more motivation to do it.”

With Halem, the conversation shifted to MLB’s investment in bringing diverse candidates into corporate roles across the 30 clubs and within the Commissioner’s Office. Acknowledging both the desire and the struggles of accomplishing that, Halem opened the floor to the association as well, wanting the members to be involved, given their firsthand experience.

The group happily obliged, coming up with recommendations such as putting together webinars, holding informational sessions and providing guidance for the interview process, so much so that Halem asked them to bring their concerns to him directly in the future so he could attempt to fulfill their needs. That stuck out to the association’s leadership because of how necessary access is to their mission.

“As eye-opening as it was for us as a group, it was eye-opening for them, because I think they were surprised by how far ahead we were in developing the next phase of guys in this group,” Montgomery said. “We just needed this forum to finally come [here], put this all in front of them and be able to say, ‘Hey, if you’re looking for guys, we’ve got guys already that we feel like are qualified.’

“All the ideas that came out of yesterday, Dan was extremely happy with some of the suggestions that were brought up. I know he’ll follow through, believe me.”

Tyrone Brooks, MLB’s first senior director of the front office and field staff diversity pipeline program -- an initiative started by Manfred in 2016 to identify, develop and grow the pool of qualified minority and female candidates for on-field and baseball operations positions throughout the industry -- kept that momentum going as the moderator of a panel discussion on career development.

Brooks has also been part of the association since its very beginning back in 1999, and he emphasized how much it helped him move up the ladder in the sport.

“You cannot do it alone in this game,” Brooks said. “The game is something where we’ve all had the ability to love the game, play the game as kids, and now we have a chance to do this for a living. It’s really a blessing. If we can help each other get to the highest levels, that’s what we’re focused on. There are a lot of people who, when we first started, were strictly scouts, and now they’ve been able to move themselves into front office roles and be in positions of leadership. And that’s a big part of what [this] is about.

“Here at Major League Baseball, if you aspire to do great things in this game, we want to help you, put you on the map, so you’re getting the exposure you need to get to that opportunity. [We want to] provide resources you may need to help yourself in terms of your career and how you can take control of it and put yourself in position to be a leader of our game moving forward.”

His message hit home for the association and its leadership as a fitting summary of the mutually beneficial relationship that can and should coexist between the two parties. In their eyes, the conference marked a turning point for the betterment of itself and MLB.

“That whole operation from the top down … we all realized that there’s a different vibe to this scheme of what they’re trying to get done to have inclusion be part of their history,” Montgomery said. “And I think that means a lot to these guys, period.”

“Now we have a better forum, a better partnership to go, ‘Hey, these guys need this. How can we get it to them?’” Williams added. “‘How can we continue to develop more people and give them opportunities?’”

Betelhem Ashame is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.