'I Feel Like It's Me'

What Kim Ng's ascent means to the women of baseball.
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Suzyn Waldman, the Yankees’ broadcaster, cried when she heard the news. Mariana Patraca, a Latin America operations assistant with the Diamondbacks, parked and sat in her car, scrolling through Twitter. Andrea Nuñez, a strength and conditioning coach in the Angels’ organization, summoned all her self-control to keep from jumping up and down at Disney World.

Eventually they—and other women around baseball—found time to pause and consider the moment: Kim Ng had just been named general manager of the Marlins, making her the first woman in major American men’s professional sports to hold that position.

The Women in Baseball WhatsApp group almost melted its 80 members’ phones.

“It’s huge for all of us,” says Patraca. “For the ones who are dreaming, for the ones who are working in baseball and for the little ones who want to get there.”

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According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s 2020 report card, women made up just 20% of MLB team vice presidents this year, and there were 21 women in on-field coaching or player development positions. (That figure is up from three in ’17.) The pipeline for women is narrow, because most girls do not play baseball. And even if they do make it to professional baseball in some capacity, they face challenges both common in other industries (”assertive” comes off as “bossy”) and not (some clubs have no women’s locker room facilities), all while navigating an institutional culture that often prioritizes the way things have always been done.

The group text began last summer as a reaction to this reality. It functions as a combination of networking opportunity, discussion board and cheerleading squad.

Its members were so excited about Ng’s hire not just because a woman shattered one of men’s sports’ highest glass ceilings. They were so excited because of which woman did it. Ng, 52, has spent 30 years in the game, starting as a 21-year-old intern holding a radar gun for the White Sox. The Yankees made her, at 29, the youngest assistant GM in baseball in 1998. She became an assistant GM and vice president with the Dodgers in 2001, then moved a decade later to the league office to work as the senior vice president of baseball operations. Over the years, she has interviewed for at least five other GM jobs: with the Dodgers, the Mariners, the Padres, the Angels and the Giants.

A few months ago, Rachel Balkovec, a 33-year-old hitting coach in the Yankees’ organization, and herself the first woman to hold her position, emailed Ng: “Thank you for doing work before I was born.”

Nuñez says, “The most important thing for us is to not be hired to be a check mark. I don’t want you to hire me because I'm going to give you a check mark on your diversity list. For the most qualified candidate for that position to happen to be a woman and a woman who achieved so much, that is amazing. That is exactly the hire we want.”

“She’s just f------ earned it,” says Balkovec. “There’s no other way to say it.”

The reaction across the sport varied by generation. Jean Afterman, senior vice president and assistant general manager of the Yankees, and Raquel Ferreira, who holds the same title with the Red Sox, have known Ng for decades and were thrilled for her specifically. The younger women saw themselves in her.

Balkovec has been open with her friends about wanting to lead a team some day. One of them, Rachel Folden, a hitting coach in the Cubs’ organization, texted her: “When you get to be a GM, you’re gonna have company.”

And Ng, the first MLB GM of East Asian descent, is especially significant as a woman of color. “It’s important that we don’t lose sight of that,” says Andrea La Pointe, a minor league operations assistant with the Angels. “I’m sure that not only has she faced sexism, she’s also faced racism.”

Nuñez has spent her whole career trying to teach people that there is a tilde in her name, so she was delighted when she realized that, despite having read Ng's name many times, she had rarely heard it out loud and needed to confirm how to say it. “I can’t wait to find out how to pronounce it and correct everybody who says it wrong!” she says. (It’s ANG.)

They had hoped this day would come. But many of them found themselves overwhelmed by their emotions. Patraca sent a text to the group: “I feel like it’s me.”

***

Ng has become a familiar figure on panels discussing diversity and inclusion in baseball.

Ng has become a familiar figure on panels discussing diversity and inclusion in baseball.

Most years in early December, you can find Ng seated at a dais at MLB’s Winter Meetings, speaking on a panel about diversity and inclusion. Her copanelists change, as do the topics, but one thing remains the same: the rapt attention of the young women in the audience. Afterman, Ferreira and Ng form something of a triumfeminate, the inevitable go-tos for perspective on women in baseball.

“I intentionally go to the Winter Meetings even when I don’t have to,” says Balkovec. “Just to see them and hear them talk.”

René Rismondo, who works at the players association, wrote “at least 10” reports on Ng through high school and college, she says. When Rismondo started in the industry, her mentors reminded her to keep her childhood fandom to herself. It wasn’t hard to keep quiet about her love of the Mets. It was hard to keep quiet about her admiration for Ng. When they met at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Rismondo considered saying something but decided not to. “I didn’t want to be weird,” she says, laughing.

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Eve Rosenbaum, the Orioles’ director of development, worked under Ng as an intern in the commissioner’s office in 2011. Rosenbaum still has the notes she took as Ng gave her advice on the final day of the internship. The one she turns to most often is: “Write down your opinions and then write down what the results are. And then change your opinion.” Rosenbaum keeps one list in her phone of swing characteristics and statistics she expects will produce a good player, and another of prospects she expects to shine or fall flat. She checks occasionally to see how her opinions are holding up.

Whenever Patraca feels frustrated, she reminds herself that Ng once counseled her to let her work speak for itself. I’ll do my best, Patraca thinks. And I’ll be fine.

Melissa Lambert, the assistant director of behavioral science for the Royals, has never met Ng, but she tries to emulate her. “She’s not a flashy person,” Lambert says. “But she’s well respected in the game. You look at her résumé: She’s worked her way up the ladder.” The lesson she takes from this, she says, is that she can find success in the game if she works hard and remains patient.

Many women in the sport can point to individual words or ideas like this. But for many of them, just knowing that Ng is there means more than anything else.

“She has been deeply impactful to me,” Balkovec says. “I don’t think she even really knows that. She and Raquel and Jean have really impacted my idea of what’s possible for me.”

***

The Marlins made a surprise run to the playoffs last season, but plenty of challenges await Ng running a small-market franchise.

The Marlins made a surprise run to the playoffs last season, but plenty of challenges await Ng running a small-market franchise.

MLB posted an image of a young girl watching news coverage of Ng’s hiring. Many other women in baseball retweeted it and posted it on Instagram. They loved the idea that little kids—”girls and boys,” Afterman points out—will now be able to see that women belong in baseball.

But they are also happy that adults will see the same thing. “It’s also important to remember that there's a lot of us that are right there,” says Jen Wolf, the Indians’ life skills coordinator. “It's not just about this new generation of people that are coming into baseball. It's also about the women that are in the game right now that are ready to step up. And it's amazing that Kim is the first one, and we're so excited for her. But it's almost as important that there's a second, third and fourth female GM.”

Afterman laughs at that idea. “There are some men in the game that are probably terrified that there's going to be a flood of girls,” she says. But she hopes that the Marlins’ decision makes it easier for other franchises to take that step. “Kudos to them,” she says, “because I think it takes foresight and intelligence to recognize somebody's talents and to hire the best person for the job and not give a s--- about the other stuff. And I think that there's been perhaps a failure of that kind of courage in other organizations.”

Most of the women currently working in the game have experienced a day a bit like Ng’s Friday: an announcement of their new job, followed by an inundation of messages. They were always thrilled to see how much their hire meant to people they knew and even to people they didn’t. But, Balkovec likes to say, when she was hired, she felt a bit as if she were a sophomore in high school and everyone were trying to throw her a graduation party. Getting the job is a good first step. But then you have to do the job.

Ng alluded to that feeling in her press conference Monday. She said that when she got the job, she felt as if a 10,000-pound weight had been lifted from one shoulder. About half an hour later, she realized it had been transferred to the other one.

“Her hard work is just beginning,” says Claire Smith, who in 1983 became the first female MLB beat writer when she covered the Yankees for the Hartford Courant and was inducted into the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017. “Kim’s going to be the living embodiment of something my dad always said to me: As an African American, as a woman, you have to prove what you’re not before you can prove what you are.”

The world will be watching as Ng tries to guide the Marlins to a title. They finished 31–29 last season and made a surprise charge to the playoffs, where they eventually fell to the Braves 3–0 in the Division Series, and they boast a talented young roster. But Ng must also contend with an ownership group that slashed payroll and fired many longtime employees when it took over in 2017 and has not yet shown a willingness to spend. Being a GM is hard under the easiest of circumstances, and trailblazing is not the easiest of circumstances. Most of the women in baseball on that WhatsApp thread—and beyond—have been around the game long enough to have a good idea of what's coming.

“This is a very tough business if you’re female,” says Waldman. “It's still a tough business, although everybody is patting themselves on the back.”

Still, they believe Ng will make them proud. Once she stopped crying Friday, Waldman sent Ng a long text of congratulations. It ended: “Now get to work. You have a team to run.”

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