Can Kim Ng break the gender barrier?

I wonder about the value of being first when there is no second in sight.

I wonder if a door is worth beating down if no one is close behind, no one to hold it open for the next.

The air is warm on an afternoon at Dodger Stadium. The sun cuts through the smog like a laser beam. Kim Ng finds a seat in the shade behind home plate and pushes a pair of sleek black sunglasses to the top of her head.

“See,” she says, “it’s your assumption when you say, ‘There’s no one like you.’ There are people like me. There are people that grew up loving baseball. There are people that work their way up from being interns. There are people that have been assistant general managers for a long time that eventually do become general managers. So there are people like me. Or I am like other people.”

She smiles. Stares. Sighs.

Kim Ng Ng has worked in baseball for 17 years.
(US Presswire)

“I can’t necessarily go through life thinking that I’m different,” she says. “I don’t know where that gets me, really.”

Ng is one of two women who hold the title of assistant general manager in baseball, one of three ever, and the only one to possess both the qualifications and aspirations to become a general manager. At 39, she has advanced on the job for 17 years, the last 11 seated at the right hand of general managers for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. A handful of women have become major-league owners and team presidents, but no woman has risen to lead an organization’s day-to-day baseball operations, where, traditionally, the work of drafting, preparing, scouting and fielding ballplayers has been left to men, often enough – until only recently – men who played the game at the highest levels.

Rather, the baseball side of front offices has tended to mirror the demographic of their clubhouses, so handfuls of men pressed into small spaces doing what men do and talking about what men talk about in a sports culture, areas a former player and current team executive called, “the most male-dominated, narrow-minded, testosterone-filled, non-feminine-traits places in the world.”

In that arena, Ng, 5-foot-2 in flats, has survived and built her resume and reputation, and now she stands with the most capable of candidates among the next generation of baseball’s general managers.

“Dealing with her this winter, this spring and so far this summer, I’ve been impressed with how ready she’d be for something like that,” said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who also worked with Ng in New York. “I hope to hell it happens. She’d be a ground breaker not only for baseball but for women.”

One hundred five years since the first World Series, several weeks since American voters chose between a black man and a white woman for a presidential candidate, and a couple of months since the Chicago White Sox attempted to stir their offense by plunging bats into a mouth-agape blowup doll, the game’s relationship with women on the baseball side remains vague.

The major-league baseball general manager is an all-male, primarily white profession. The barrier to women is real, just as real as the scarcity of qualified women applicants. But are there so few candidates because of the heft of the barrier? Or does the barrier remain sturdy because women such as Ng are so rare, even as opportunities for women on the baseball side become somewhat more plentiful?

There are no definitive answers, other than to acknowledge the distance to be covered, and how the final inches can be the most arduous.

“It is a barrier, that’s fair to say,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “And I do think barriers are broken down, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Selig’s daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, served for six years as CEO of the Milwaukee Brewers, the franchise Selig once owned.

“The barrier is broken when you find the right candidate regardless of gender,” said Jean Afterman, Ng’s successor as assistant general manager of the Yankees. “Now, in some cases, women have to be more qualified than the men.”

Ng was born in Indiana, the first of five daughters to Jin Ng and Virginia Fong. Her father was a financial analyst, her mother a banker. Kim attended elementary school in Queens, N.Y., junior high on Long Island and high school in Ridgewood, N.J. She received a bachelor’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, where she played four years of softball and, in 1991, took an internship as a research assistant with the White Sox. Computers and data analysis were just beginning to gain traction, and Ng was good at it.

She worked six years with the White Sox, rising to assistant director of baseball operations under then-GM Ron Schueler. After a year working in American League administration, Ng became Brian Cashman’s assistant GM in New York and after four seasons became Danny Evans’ No. 2 in Los Angeles. As Dodgers’ ownership changed hands, she endured the dismissals of general managers Evans and Paul DePodesta, and she is in her third season working under Ned Colletti. For periods of time she has run the Dodgers’ farm system, and she presides over the club’s professional scouts.

As young, computer-savvy intellectuals encroached upon the profession, winning GM jobs in Boston, Texas, Arizona, Tampa Bay and, indeed, Los Angeles, Ng interviewed once, with the Dodgers, in the days after DePodesta was fired. She didn’t get the job. When Bill Bavasi was fired last month in Seattle, Ng was speculated to be a possible replacement, alongside about a dozen others, many of whom lack her resume. Those who are and have been employed by the Mariners say team president Chuck Armstrong is open-minded enough to consider a woman GM if he were to replace interim Lee Pelekoudas after the season. Almost surely, there will be other openings as well.

“I don’t think the group is exclusionary,” said Pam Gardner, president of business operations for the Houston Astros. “I think the group is ready and open for it. … If you’re in an environment with open, smart and confident people, then women are welcome. What it takes is someone willing to be open, creative and interested, and an understanding that all types of people make you better.

“It takes a confident group to embrace a woman.”

Ng has supporters, including every GM she has worked for. DePodesta called her, “smart, tough and strong,” concluding of her GM aspirations, “Yes, she could handle it.” Evans hired her twice, once in Chicago and again in Los Angeles.

“When I started nearly 20 years ago, society was a little bit different,” Ng says. “Scouts, field people that are now in their 50s have daughters in their 20s. If given the opportunity, if I’m able to do this, it opens doors for their kids. I think there’s a segment out there that’s actually rooting for me.”

There would be risks, according to baseball insiders and observers, regardless of the depth of Ng’s experience and skills. And, some said, the greater fight may lie after the job is secured.

Frances Crockett, a female and then-president and general manager of the Double-A Charlotte O’s, once told the New York Times, “Any woman walking into a male-dominated business better not be naïve. Baseball isn’t just a man’s world, it’s a good ol’ boy business, and you’ve got to play by their rules if you want to survive. But that doesn’t mean a woman can’t do it. You don’t have to be a player to understand marketing. But do I think they’ll call any of us up to be vice presidents or GMs in the majors? That’s a long time coming.”

Twenty-one years now, to be exact, since Crockett said so. Ng is as near as the sport has come, and there are none close behind her. While the game certainly is becoming more enlightened – there are 11 minority GMs and field managers, out of 60 – there are sure to be men who would consider Ng an interloper, just as they would any woman of authority. In fact, one high-ranking team official said he believed Ng would get “eaten up” in the GM boys club, and a veteran scout feared long-standing biases “might be too tough for her to overcome.”

Others, including Afterman, believe the changing GM model – fewer ex-players, more bright Ivy League types – gradually will swing far enough to accept a woman as well. In fact, as one of the early proponents of the computer as baseball’s friend, Ng arguably helped clear a path for the young men being hired ahead of her, many of whom had limited, if any, playing experience, along with those who would be considered her competition for the next opening.

As one team official said, half-joking, “Those eggheads aren’t one of the guys either.”

To that end, Afterman said, “I think it’s more difficult for an outsider to be accepted than it is a gender issue. And Kim is an insider.”

That said, she added, “The knives will be out; there’s no question about that.”

Going on five years ago, Ng’s private journey – the work day of an assistant GM is a mostly anonymous one – became a national story. Bill Singer, a former big-league pitcher and at that time a special assistant to New York Mets GM Jim Duquette, stopped Ng during GM meetings in Phoenix. He asked her who she was. He asked her why she was there. He asked her about her heritage. Ng, recognizing the situation as potentially flammable, patiently answered his questions. He then mocked her in gibberish-speak that was supposed to approximate Chinese.

She calls it, “the Bill Singer incident.” She calls it the worst episode of sexism – not racism – she has experienced.

“I think that’s the ironic thing,” Ng says. “People match it up to race, and I think it was more about gender.”

After claiming he was disoriented by alcohol and the effects of a diet, and after meeting with Ng and Dodgers and Mets officials, Singer was fired. He currently works for the Washington Nationals as, yes, their coordinator of Pacific Rim operations.

Those who were in the room when Singer attempted to disentangle himself from his words say Ng was firm and poised in the meeting and Singer – the tough old baseball guy – was significantly less than firm and poised.

Ng declines to discuss the meeting, but believes the episode showed how a random event held the potential to sidetrack a well-maintained and earnest career, and was particularly dangerous given the delicacy of what she is attempting to do.

“When I think about it in retrospect, and I knew it at the time, through no fault of my own, I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could potentially be seen in a way that I wouldn’t like to be seen,” she says. “I’m very protective of my reputation. I do things in a certain way and try to conduct myself in a certain way because I know I am open to some different issues.

“I couldn’t believe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that now I could be seen in this completely different light. I believe I take such great care with what I do and how I behave.”

Her timing still might be off. With money to be made and the pressure never higher to win baseball games immediately, there might not be an owner out there willing to risk potential organizational turmoil over a hire some would view as enlightened, others as a reach, others as a publicity grab. Also, her old boss Cashman is in the final year of his contract, potentially freeing a highly attractive candidate this winter who has produced championships and managed the most difficult ownership in sports. There are many savvy and smart baseball men who have put in their time as well, and whose organizations are perceived as better maintained than the Dodgers.

The odds are better, then, but remain long. What happens after that – owners go through GMs like valet stubs – depends on the owner, and the job performance, and all the usual stuff that makes GMs sweat, plus some.

“I would think it has to do with being confident,” Afterman said of a willing owner, “not only in yourself, but not threatened by a woman. It’s unusual to find a man who’s not threatened by a woman who has some smarts.”

Jeanie Buss, vice president of business operations for the Jerry Buss-owned Lakers in the equally male-dominant NBA, said Ng’s survival chances in the GM chair – assuming the chance comes – would depend on the organization, and those above and below the GM.

“I’m lucky,” she said, “because I have a certain power base because of who my dad is. I’m also a realist. I want to see in my time frame a successful female GM in one of the major leagues. It’s going to be tough. She’s going to get one chance, and it has to have all the pieces in place. I don’t know Kim personally, but from what I know, she really does things the right way. She knows her job; she’s done the work. She deserves an opportunity. But like I said, she’s going to get one shot, and then people would love to say the experiment is over if it’s not a success.”

Then there’s the question of whom, exactly, Ng is attempting to clear the way for. Afterman asserted her preferred course is to a team presidency. That, for the moment, leaves Ng, which, 11 years after she became an assistant GM, is remarkable.

“It’s a lot bigger than one person,” she says. “I hope.”

Where do we find another?

“Arizona,” she says.

Helen Zelman is 23, a baseball operations analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in a drawer somewhere. She has worked as a Questec operator at Fenway Park and was an intern with the Diamondbacks. Now she’s a full-timer, “very involved” in many aspects of baseball operations, according to GM Josh Byrnes, and “a baseball person.”

Zelman ran into Ng during an Arizona Fall League game, introduced herself, then went back to work and began the search for Ng’s footsteps.

“Obviously, what she’s accomplished in the game is tremendous,” Zelman said.

So far, Zelman said, being a woman has not been an obstacle.

“The biggest challenge is I didn’t play baseball at a high level,” she said. “My Little League career ended at 11. I don’t know if it’s a credibility issue. It probably is for some people.”

At Dodger Stadium, the sun is falling behind the upper deck, casting part of the infield in shadows. The Dodgers are concluding batting practice. The Angels are beginning to mill around in front of the visitors’ dugout. Ng has slipped her jacket on. The Dodgers aren’t scoring runs, aren’t winning, and it’s wearing on everyone, including the longtime assistant GM.

If there is a job out there, a barrier to hurdle, or perhaps just weaken for someone else, it’ll wait.

“You just try and do your job every day, and you don’t get caught up in a lot of things that are ancillary to the process,” she says. “You ignore a lot you have to ignore. And you just gut it out. There’s no other way to say it.

“To me, the question is not why, it’s why not. It’s out there. So, gotta keep going till it stops being fun.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jul 3, 2008