By Shane Barclay
Friday, November 13, 2020 was “the most noteworthy day for baseball since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947,” according to Dr. Richard Lapchick, Director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. On that date, the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng to be their General Manager. In doing so, she became the first female general manager in any of the major men’s leagues in North American professional sports.
When the news broke, my phone blew up with text messages. Former colleagues, friends, and family members all wanted to share their excitement. Why? Because I was fortunate to work for Kim at MLB’s Office of the Commissioner from 2011-2018, and I had long raved to everyone I knew about this badass little Chinese woman who was my boss.
I started working at MLB in 2010, assigned to work in International Baseball Operations out of their office in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s crowded, polluted, hectic, and hot capital city. Over the course of the two-and-a-half years that I lived there, I found my groove in the Caribbean chaos: I navigated public transportation, had my favorite aguacate (“avocado”) guy, and escaped to the screensaver-like beaches (that’s my dad in the photo) as often as possible. It helped that my now-wife, Jessie, joined me there for the last year or so.
As 2012 progressed, I started to get antsy about my next move. I still was enjoying the D.R., but I knew that Jessie’s and my future wasn’t on the island, and I wanted to leave before I started to get desperate, and before all the country’s endearing quirks became true annoyances.
When I was first hired, under different leadership, I was told that I would spend one or two years in the D.R. and then I could work in New York. Here I was, a year-and-a-half into the assignment, and there was no end in sight. I was convinced that my superiors were content with keeping me in the D.R., where I was a relatively productive and respected employee. Unlike a prized young arm or bat, they had no incentive to promote me to the next level. I was prepared to quit my job and, if necessary, pursue an internship or entry level job with an MLB club—I naively thought that my willingness to leave would serve as leverage.
By that time, Kim Ng had been my department’s head for about a year. We met a few times, when she would come down to Santo Domingo from New York, but I hadn’t yet established a relationship with her. I was helping to plan a big showcase for Dominican prospects that she was going to be present for, so I jotted down my thoughts and gathered up the courage to ask la jefa (“the boss”) for some one-on-one time.
When I asked Kim if we could speak, she agreed immediately and gestured for me to join her in a row of seats in the mostly-empty Estadio Quisqueya, the principal ballpark in the D.R. The loud “CRACK!” of prospects trying to launch batting practice pitches beyond the cavernous Quisqueya outfield, and the persistent chatter of “dámela dámela” (“give it to me, give it to me”) from the infielders coaxing groundballs from the hitters, would serve as the soundtrack to our impromptu meeting.
During that brief meeting, I was quickly introduced to her unique style and character – honest, straightforward, knowledgeable, and someone who always does things with conviction. Her opinion of my situation was simple and, in hindsight, absolutely correct: she said that she didn’t think that it was a good idea to leave my post— full-time baseball jobs were hard to come by and once you give one up, you never know if you’re going to find your way back in.
I was knocked back on my heels a bit – not by any sort of aggression on her end, but rather by her direct honesty. I was thinking that she may express some sort of admiration for my work and assure me that they’d do what’s necessary to keep me on board—or maybe help me come up with a strategic plan to get hired by a club. But no, what I got was classic Kim – this is what I think; this is why I think it. No B.S., no indecision.
I left the meeting with less clarity than I had hoped for. As a woman who had spent the last 15+ years negotiating with big-time agents and MLB superstars, my situation was simple for her to assess. To Kim, it wasn’t a negotiation at all – it was just her dispensing some simple advice. But it knocked me off my headstrong path.
I talked over the next steps repeatedly with Jessie. There was no way Kim was wrong, but there was also no way I was going to make Jessie tag along with my Dominican baseball dream indefinitely. I decided to hold off on deciding for a bit longer.
Fortunately, the Houston Astros saved me from having to make a decision that I may have regretted. They hired away a colleague of mine in New York to be their International Scouting Director, creating a chain reaction of promotions and opening up a spot at the bottom. I interviewed for the role and got it!
I was off to New York as MLB’s “Administrator, International Baseball Operations.” Not the most glamorous of titles, but I was happy to have it.
And so began my tenure working more closely with Kim. I had a direct supervisor that was a buffer between Kim and me, but International Baseball Operations was a small department and I still got a good amount of face time with her. I was charged with processing and approving all contracts that international players signed, and whenever a complication such as an age or identity discrepancy arose – which is quite often in the wild world of international baseball – I took the cases to Kim to discuss them.
Every week or so, I’d prepare all of my unusual cases and present them to her, alongside my supervisor, in her office. For the first few months, I was quite uncomfortable. I would speak, and she would listen… and think… and process the information… and then give an answer. I worried that this hesitation and lack of dialogue was an indication that she was unsatisfied with how I presented my information. I found myself filling in the quiet space with more info or opinions. Is her measured response a sign that I need to say more? She had (and has) a way of making one think so.
Over time, I learned that this is how she spoke with most everyone. Whether it is strategic or natural or both, I’m still not sure. However, it is quite effective. People talk, she listens; they talk more, she listens more. Eventually, she is not only armed with all of your facts but also your opinions and contextual information. She is a tremendous listener, which gives her the confidence to make decisions decisively. Once she feels that she has what’s needed to make a decision, she gives her thoughts in a matter-of-fact way.
Kim and I were on the same team, so there was nothing contentious about our interactions, even if it took me a while to get the hang of her style. However, some of her adversaries couldn’t say the same. Her negotiating fortitude was on full display in talks with the Mexican Baseball League. When Kim first started traveling to Spanish-speaking countries, she was often referred to as la china (“the Chinese woman”) behind her back. When she was done negotiating with the Mexican league, they dubbed her La Mujer de Hierro (“Iron Woman”)! We loved that nickname in our department, and it is still affectionately used today.
That reminds me of Kim’s other nickname in Latin America. Spanish-speakers have a difficult time pronouncing her last name (“ang”), and quickly realized that la china wouldn’t cut it for a respected jefa of her stature. Therefore, they resorted to simply verbally spelling her last name. She was now “Kim N-G,” or as they pronounce it, “Keem Enay-Hay.” In honor of this nickname, Kim’s favorite wine from Silas Wines, the winery that she and her husband Tony co-founded, is called “Enna Hay.”
As time passed, and Kim and I grew more comfortable with each other’s working styles and personalities and I enjoyed working together with her more and more. When not consulting with her on international baseball matters, I picked her brain about favorite spots to eat in Chinatown and fruitlessly tried to get her to join our office’s co-ed softball team (she was a captain and infielder on the University of Chicago’s softball team, but declined because she already was on a team and had to travel so often—we at least got Billy Bean to come out for a few games!). She fostered departmental camaraderie by inviting us out for summer days on Long Island, sharing popcorn from her retro air popper on her desk, or, at the end of the day, sharing a bottle of Silas wine or one of the many bottles of tequila gifted to her that adorned her office shelves.
Kim is not the rah-rah type. Although measured and far from boisterous, she is a stout leader. She has her own unique leadership style. Most notably, she leads by example. She is dedicated, disciplined, and thoughtful. She has your back. She is collaborative, yet strong-minded. She has the courage to make difficult decisions based on the info provided and she will take responsibility if things go wrong and share the commendations if things go right.
I think that Kim’s character is best exemplified in her arduous journey to becoming a General Manager. Ever since interning with the Chicago White Sox after college, she has been deemed a rising star. She had been a young, well-educated, analytically-minded, non-former-player with a high-ranking baseball operations position before such a thing was in vogue. When Kim appeared on “Good Morning America” after being hired by the Marlins, it was her second time on the show – she also made an appearance in 2008, after the Yankees hired her to be their Assistant General Manager at age 29. For over 20 years now, she has been given the flattering, yet dubious title of “the woman who will become MLB’s first female General Manager.”
There is nothing fair about having that title bestowed upon her. It was constantly brought up in media interviews, articles, and panels, and it was one of the few things in her career that was out of her control. What she could control – her work – she did masterfully. In her first job, she was a salary arbitration phenom with the White Sox. At 26 years old, she was the youngest person and first woman to ever-present an arbitration case on behalf of an MLB club. Her opponent? Scott Boras. The result? She won. She then worked out of the American League office, serving as the administrative hub for the roster minutiae that keep the baseball season churning. Next, she helped build three World Series championship rosters with the Yankees, endearing herself to some of baseball’s most prominent figures: Derek Jeter, Brian Cashman, Joe Torre, and George Steinbrenner (we’ll save her stories about “The Boss” for another day…). To hear Kim, who grew up a Yankees fan in New York, speak of that first World Series parade is quite moving.
Next, Kim moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where she continued her professional development by overseeing their scouting and player development departments, while still deploying her steely negotiating skills against outmatched player agents. Finally, MLB came calling. She was tasked with overseeing all of their international baseball efforts, including the administrative and scouting aspects of the player acquisition process, developing the game internationally, and contributing significantly to the operations of the World Baseball Classic. To boot, she also oversaw the Major League Scouting Bureau and the Arizona Fall League.
All the while, she continued to interview and be rejected for General Manager positions with clubs. She could control her mastery of all things baseball – the success of her many departments and operations, and the relationships and trust that she built in the game – but she could not control whether she would fulfill that prophecy of being “the first.” Early on, with each interview, the anticipation grew – it was only a matter of time. But how genuine were all of those interviews? How many of them were granted in obligation to the “Selig Rule” that required minority candidates to be interviewed? How many times was she turned down simply because of her gender (and perhaps – at least in part – due to her Chinese heritage)? We will never know. What I can confidently say though is that if any man had her credentials, he would have been a GM a long time ago.
One of the neatest things that Kim did when I worked for her happened in the summer of 2014, right after she completed the rigorous process of interviewing to be General Manager of the San Diego Padres. Despite being one of two finalists, she didn’t get the job. Her candidacy was well-known, and as much as we wanted to continue working for her in her current position, my colleagues and I had been rooting hard for her. Kim felt that she really had a good shot at this one and put tremendous effort into the process, coming up with an entire organizational plan to present to Padres leadership. Sensing that we were all tiptoeing around her after not getting the job, she took the department out to a nice dinner at Freemans restaurant on the Lower East Side to address “the elephant in the room.” We sat down and she immediately encouraged us to “ask away” with any questions we had about the interview process. Knowing that we were all aspiring baseball executives and that she had been hunkered down and relatively inaccessible for the previous weeks, she had the wherewithal to put her personal disappointment aside and provide an opportunity for our group to develop, both collectively and individually.
Her most recent rejection came from the San Francisco Giants, for whom she was a GM finalist in 2018. Nearly matching her amassment of impressive baseball accomplishments on her resume was a growing litany of rejections: eight fruitless interviews and a couple more informal conversations that didn’t materialize into anything. Could you imagine interviewing for the same job – one that many publicly deemed you both destined and qualified for – eight times? And in most instances, it was written about in the newspapers for all to see and judge? I certainly can’t.
After the Giants job didn’t pan out for Kim, I lost hope. When I left my job at MLB that year to move back home and begin working with JapanBall, I was convinced that it would never happen for her. MLB teams were increasingly hiring GMs out of the same mold and networks – neither of which suited Kim. Whereas she was once a young whiz when the old guard still reigned, she was now older than the new GM prototype. While working out of the Commissioner’s Office gives one a unique perspective on the big picture of the sport, Kim’s ten years there overlapped a time when Major League Baseball – the game itself and the way teams were run – changed more than in any other decade. I feared that club owners may think that she had been out of the competitive team environment for too long and had grown out of touch with the modern game. She was less frequently mentioned as a GM candidate by pundits, and while still a respected person in the game, I resigned to accept that her time had passed.
Apparently though, Kim did not. The news out of Miami shocked and thrilled me. After enduring nearly 11 months of a pandemic and negative news cycles, finally here was something to be joyous about! Suddenly, hope had finally arrived – hope for women, hope for Asians and other minorities, hope for unfulfilled promise and destinies, and hope for baseball’s future.
The one thing that stuck with me most from our departmental dinner in 2014 was that Kim felt that she couldn’t just accept any GM position – she had to be picky and accept a job in which she was put in an optimal position to succeed because she would be held to a higher standard than men. She couldn’t afford to fail, because if she did, her failure could be seen as a setback for other aspiring women in baseball. All the doubters would view it as proof that a woman couldn’t lead a baseball team.
The Marlins job is exactly the type of opportunity she was looking for. Derek Jeter and his lieutenants have spent the last three years overhauling the organization’s culture and processes. They have rebuilt the farm system and created a competitive big-league roster. They have a respected manager and strong scouting department. Kim, Jeter, and Manager Don Mattingly (who Kim worked with in L.A.) form a leadership triumvirate fortified with the trust and respect that is the foundation of any successful organization.
There is nothing “token” about this hiring. Jeter wants his team to take “the next step” and he thinks that Kim Ng is the person to take them there.
TIDES, the diversity institute, released their annual report cards in August 2020 and assigned a “C” grade for gender hiring to Major League Baseball. While this grade shows that much work needs to be done, 2020 will go down as a landmark year for women in baseball. The year started with the San Francisco Giants hiring Alyssa Naken as the first female full-time major league coach and ended with Kim’s hiring.
I suspect that in light of this historic hiring, if his report cards were issued a few months later, Lapchick may have considered bumping MLB up the grading curve a bit – perhaps to at least a B-minus?
One person who earned an A+ in diversity hiring is Derek Jeter. His most prominent recent hire is one of the many women he has placed in positions of power with the Marlins and his other ventures. While young for an MLB owner and firmly entrenched in popular culture, Jeter’s resume more resembles the old-school baseball leader: male, a former player, didn’t attend college, and raised firmly in the historic tradition of the Yankees. However, he made a courageous move in going against the hiring trends of MLB teams.
From their time together with the Yankees, Jeter and Kim know what a winning organization looks like and I anticipate them building something similar in South Florida. I can’t wait to pop open the bottle of “Enna Hay” that I’m saving for when they definitively prove to the rest of the baseball world that Kim Ng should have been a GM a long time ago.
Note: Kim Ng will appear on JapanBall’s “Chatter Up!” Zoom call on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. Click here for more information.
Previously, on November 5, our “Chatter Up” episode featured a trio of women working in baseball. If you are interested in hearing more on this topic, please read our recap and/or watch the full episode on YouTube.