After five-plus years as an executive with the Miami Marlins, Caroline O’Connor has developed strong ties to her adopted community. But in early February, the baseball executive reconnected with her New Jersey roots when she caught fellow Freehold native Bruce Springsteen in concert.
O’Connor wasn’t just looking for a reminder of home at the Hollywood, Florida show. She has always been a Springsteen fan, and anyone in need of proof can reference the pilgrimage she and her husband, Derek, made the day they were married in Asbury Park. “We took some of our wedding photos outside the Stone Pony,” she remembers.
The legendary Shore venue helped Springsteen launch his career, and it made a perfect addition to the newlyweds’ photo album. O’Connor may be living in South Florida, but her time in the Garden State and the surrounding area aided her trailblazing career.
For a while, it appeared as if O’Connor would never leave New Jersey, but her life took a sharp turn in 2017 when she joined the Marlins’ front office. Another life—and industry—milestone occurred last November when O’Connor, 46, became the second female president of business operations for a Major League Baseball team (the Seattle Mariners hired Catie Griggs to the same role in July 2022). By taking the job, O’Connor joined a select but growing group of high-ranking women in the male-dominated world of professional sports. And with Ridgewood High School graduate Kim Ng already serving as Miami’s general manager, the Marlins are believed to be the first major United States sports franchise with women operating the entirety of a team’s day-to-day business.
Although O’Connor does not necessarily consider herself a pioneer, she understands the grand-scheme importance of her job. Still, she looks forward to the day when a woman’s elevation to a position of influence won’t make news simply because of her gender.
“I think most of the people who know me know that I don’t like a lot of attention,” she says. “I’m overwhelmed by it. It’s great recognition, but it would be nice to see this become commonplace.”
Ng, who became the first female general manager in the history of major North American men’s pro team sports in 2020, lauds O’Connor as “proactive,” “detail-oriented” and “incredibly thorough.”
O’Connor developed those traits growing up near Fort Monmouth, where her father, a West Point graduate who reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was stationed. There was discipline in the house, but also plenty of fun.
“I had a great family life in New Jersey,” says O’Connor, the sixth of eight children, including four older brothers. “We were outdoors a lot and went to the park often. I loved going to the Shore, Ocean Grove.
“It was great, an idyllic childhood.”
After graduating from Freehold Township High School in 1995, O’Connor earned a B.A. in Computer Information Systems at Rutgers-Newark. While there, she took the PATH train into New York for a two-year internship at Bloomberg. Even though O’Connor played basketball, tennis, soccer and softball as a kid, she did not continue her on-field career at Rutgers and only engaged in some casual tennis and jogging after graduation. She grew up a Yankees fan, but that was the extent of her baseball interest. “I never thought I would work in sports,” O’Connor says. “I don’t know why. I don’t think I knew about the business of sports and what happened behind the scenes.”
From 2000-17, she held executive positions at IBM, UBS and Morgan Stanley in New York City. During that time, O’Connor worked with members of a team headed by Bruce Sherman, who bought the Marlins in September 2017. That group included Yankees legend Derek Jeter, who recruited O’Connor to join the team that October as a senior vice president. In 2019 she became Miami’s chief operating officer.
While the Marlins reached the playoffs during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, they have mostly struggled on the field during O’Connor’s tenure. They have made strides off it, however.
The franchise has always had a hard time drawing fans, but Miami’s 2022 attendance was 12 percent higher than it was in 2019—the last time there was open seating for an entire season—even though the Fish finished 32 games out of first place. O’Connor has led efforts to improve baseball facilities in South Florida and helped beef up the Marlins’ presence in the talent-rich Dominican Republic. Miami recently hosted the World Baseball Classic, an international World Cup-like tournament watched by baseball fans all over the globe.
O’Connor played an instrumental part in starting and growing the Marlins’ tee-ball program, a huge success that included her younger son, James. She and her husband have another boy, Jonathan.
“We feel like we’re building momentum,” O’Connor says. “When you walk on the streets, you see kids wearing Marlins jerseys. Our Little League program has more than 200 teams playing in it.”
Adds Ng: “Caroline cares deeply about the community, and that is very impactful.”
When the Raiders named Amy Trask their chief executive officer in 1997, she became the first woman in NFL history to hold a position of such stature. The move attracted attention, but the team was more concerned with Trask’s talents than her gender. “The players want to know if you are going to be a teammate who can help them win,” she says.
Trask left the Raiders in 2013 after being described as “the glue” that helped keep the team together. Trask now works as an attorney, author and host on CBS Sports Network, and she is considered something of a godmother to women looking to build careers in sports.
“Teams who want to win are going to get the best people to help them win,” she says. “They don’t worry about individualities.”
Trask admits there remains some resistance to hiring women within men’s pro sports. But with each step forward by people like O’Connor, opportunities grow, and teams remove barriers. As more women are hired for entry and mid-level positions, the pool of candidates for future executive jobs deepens.
Pennington native Val Ackerman has been commissioner of the Big East Conference since 2013 and was the president of USA Basketball. She believes the increased participation of girls and young women in sports helps prepare them for careers in the business world and in the athletic sphere. But the number of powerful women in sports is still lower than she feels it should be.
“The number of women leaders at the professional and college levels and on TV doesn’t line up with the number of women playing sports,” Ackerman says. “There is work to do, but you can’t debate the progress made.
“The real progress will come when [hiring women executives] is not a story anymore.”
O’Connor is happy to mentor women who want to gain traction in professional sports, but she is more focused on helping the Marlins prosper on and off the field. She describes working for the franchise as “inspiring” and enjoys being around Marlins players. “It’s like a SportsCenter commercial,” she says. “It’s surreal.”
Working with Ng, another woman with New Jersey ties, also gives the Marlins a perspective other teams don’t necessarily have. “We both have a little bit of an edge that peeks out in appropriate circumstances,” Ng says.
While O’Connor’s priority is her vision for the franchise, she understands that she is proving to young women that their dreams of working at the highest levels of pro sports can be realized.
“We see the impact in terms of people applying for jobs and letters that come in the mail,” O’Connor says. “People are seeing who we are and that this is a good place to be.
“I like inspiring people.”
Michael Bradley is a writer based in suburban Philadelphia and an assistant instructor at Villanova.
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