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Kim Ng unfazed in quest to become GM
The office of the most powerful woman in Major League Baseball overlooks Midtown Manhattan from the 34th floor. The world headquarters for what once was America’s favorite good ol’ boys network sits smack in the middle of America’s capital of finance and machismo — the place both Donald Trump and Don Draper call home — but Kim Ng doesn’t seem to notice.
And maybe that’s her secret. In her quest to become the first female general manager in the history of American professional sports, Ng doesn’t look at herself as some symbol of gender equality, or as some pioneer in women’s rights, or even as some role model for girls who aim to reach the upper echelon of sports. She simply does her job. She has spent two decades impressing fellow baseball insiders, not by her drive to change the culture of this game, but instead by her competence in the boardroom and in the negotiating room.
It was a recent sunny Friday afternoon in Manhattan, the 42-year-old Ng (pronounced “Ang”) sat in her office, surrounded by stacks of Styrofoam coffee cups and Jet Blue airline stubs and team media guides. Friends were coming to the home Ng shares with her husband in Tribeca that weekend, and she was hosting a top-shelf rum tasting. That’s one of the side benefits of her new job as senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. She oversees international baseball operations, which means frequent trips to the Dominican Republic, which means honing her palate for the finer sipping rums.
On the wall next to her desk are two framed black-and-white images that are infinitely more symbolic than the life-sized cardboard cutout of Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth in the corner. These black-and-white images are as much a nod toward baseball nostalgia as they are a nod to Ng’s pioneering role in baseball. One is of Don Drysdale mid-windup. The other is of Jackie Robinson sliding into home.
“Just the ultimate symbol of change,” Ng said, peering at the photograph of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. As for Drysdale? “Drysdale was just a tough S.O.B.”
JACKIE ROBINSON'S LEGACY
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- Each team's first black player
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- Video: Great in high school
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And that’s as close as you’ll get from Ng as far as recognition of her place in baseball history. She scoffs at any comparisons to Jackie Robinson. What he went through as the first black big-leaguer? Infinitely more dangerous, infinitely more impressive in the scope of American cultural history than Ng busting through baseball’s glass ceiling for women.
Yet there’s something to that comparison. For women trying to make it in the men’s world of professional sports, Ng could end up being their Jackie Robinson. Many baseball insiders expect her to someday be the first woman to take the helm of a Major League Baseball team. But she’s going to need a little bit of Don Drysdale in her to do it. She may be a 5-foot-2 Chinese-American woman with a warm smile and a pinstriped pantsuit, but don’t doubt that Kim Ng is also one tough S.O.B.
And she has to be. Forty years after Title IX, less than 20 percent of NCAA athletic directors are female, and only about 21 percent of college coaches are female. Only about 13 percent of sports industry executives are women. And at the very highest level? Not a single one.
Not that Ng pays attention to any of that.
“I say this often to the women who are positioned to be the barrier breakers: They are never conscious of their impact,” said Donna Lopiano, a sports management consultant and the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “They’re doing what they do, whether it’s trying out for a wrestling team or Kim with her aspirations in Major League Baseball, and they don’t see themselves in that context at all. They do what they do because they’re passionate about it.
“But we’re looking at sports and they’re anachronistic,” Lopiano continued. “They’re so oblivious to where the rest of world is, and it’s a shame. It’s all boys in the sandbox, and they’re not letting the girls play.”
If you don’t follow the intrigues of Major League Baseball teams’ front offices too closely, you may not have heard of Kim Ng.
So here’s the back of her baseball card: Grew up in Queens four miles from Shea Stadium, a tomboy whose dad loved baseball. Wanted to be a professional tennis player. Loved the Yankees and worshipped the rough-and-tumble Thurman Munson and the so-smooth Don Mattingly. Graduated from the elite University of Chicago, where she majored in public policy and played infield on the softball team. Started as an intern with the Chicago White Sox, then worked her way into a full-time gig and became the youngest person and first woman to present a big-league salary arbitration case. Got hired by her hometown Yankees at age 29, the youngest assistant general manager in the big leagues, before moving on to the Dodgers in 2001.
You may not have heard of Ng, but surely you’ve heard of her direct boss. His name is Joe Torre, the former manager of the Yankees and Dodgers and now executive vice president for baseball operations for Major League Baseball. He has advocated for Ng when general manager positions have come open. Having a Godfather-like figure like Torre speaking on your behalf, that relationship is invaluable.
She loves the new job, with 60 people reporting directly to her as she oversees international operations, the scouting bureau and the fall league. Being able to see baseball from 10,000 feet up instead of being stuck with the tunnel vision that comes with following all the turnings of the screw for one team.
It’s a job important enough to get her a window office in a Manhattan skyscraper. But this is not the end game for Ng. Not even close. The end game is running her own ball club.
“You get to put together a club you think will be playing the last game in October, and that’s thrilling,” she said. “Making sure you have depth. Preparing for injuries. Unemotionally evaluating ballplayers. You have entrusted to you almost a public utility.”
For nearly a decade, her name has popped up whenever a general manager position opens up. But nothing yet.
“It’s going to take somebody — excuse my French, but somebody with a set of balls — to do it,” Bob Daly, the former CEO and managing partner of the Dodgers, told FOXSports.com. “Somebody who interviews her, checks her out, and does not get afraid.”
Then Daly, as a man who once had a chance to make that happen — to make the Dodgers the franchise with the first black Major Leaguer as well as the first female general manager — made a startling admission.
He screwed up.
“When I think back to one of the biggest mistakes I made from personnel standpoint, it was not making Kim general manager before I left,” Daly said. “She can negotiate as good as anyone I know, and she does it without offending people. She deserved the job. And for whatever reason, it is a man’s world out there in baseball. But she is very, very qualified to be a GM. It’s a shame she hasn’t gotten the opportunity. I kick myself for not doing that.
Ask around baseball about Ng, and you’ll get nothing but rave reviews. She’s calm. She knows her numbers. She knows her scouting. She presents well. Even her adversaries can’t help but admire her.
“She’s no pushover, she’s tough as nails, but she’s honest,” said John Boggs, an agent who has sat across the negotiating table from Ng on many occasions. “I’d rather negotiate with someone who is tough as hell but honest and straightforward.”
But ask Ng about what she’d call the high moments in her career, and the answers have little to do with a contract she negotiated well or a superstar player she acquired.
One moment came a few years ago when a general manager job was open — Ng can’t recall which one — and a newspaper reporter interviewed that team’s owner. “Will the general manager get to bring in his own staff?” the reporter asked. “Yes,” the owner answered, “he or she will get to bring in their own staff.”
“It was the idea that ‘she’ was now on the board,” Ng said. “The thought process has changed.”
The second thing that comes to mind involves a second-year law student at Loyola Law School outside Los Angeles named Leslie Hinshaw.
Hinshaw was in high school when she won an essay contest. She had to write about any living American whom she admired, and she chose Ng because Hinshaw dreamed of someday being a general manager. The school contacted Ng, and Ng invited the high schooler to spend a day at Dodgers’ spring training with her.
“She really has paved the way for women like me, and because of her, things may be easier for me,” Hinshaw said. “She represents perseverance. She realizes she is a woman and obviously it’s a lot harder for women to get in, but I don’t think she lets that stop her at all. She sees it as just a fact. Her position, what she does, it transcends sports.”
And should Ng get to be a general manager, she fully expects a repeat of moments like when she was named an assistant general manager for the Yankees in 1997. Stacks and stacks of letters poured into her mailbox. Many were from 10- or 12-year-old girls. They thanked Ng for getting that job, and they told her that, someday, they want to be just like her.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.
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