As the senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball, Kim Ng lives and breathes sports, which is immediately clear when you walk into her window office at MLB headquarters in New York. There's a baseball glove, of course. (At 46, she still plays co-rec softball in Central Park.) And a bicycle helmet. (She occasionally commutes by bike.) And even a fishing pole. (She once caught a shark off Long Island.)
But the piece of sporting equipment that might have helped tee off Ng's career is her golf club. Former White Sox and Dodgers general manager Dan Evans, one of Ng's mentors, recalls a particularly revealing round she played a few weeks into her first job in baseball in the early 1990s. It was during spring training and White Sox staffers were picking teams during a golf outing. Ng, as she has been many times throughout her career, was the only woman in the group.
"She was drafted by a member of our field staff. The other guys all laughed and said, 'Oh, we don't even know this girl,'" Evans recalls. "I was thinking, 'I know she can play golf. She wouldn't hit from the women's tee. She only wanted to hit from the men's tee. And she held her own and played very well.
"A lot of people went, 'Whoahhhh!'"
Ng has made plenty of other people sit up and take notice in the two decades since. Now the highest-ranking woman in baseball, she was the second woman to be hired an assistant general manager, first with the Yankees and later with the Dodgers. And she aspires to become a general manager, which would make her the first female to run the on-field operations of a major pro sports team.
Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president for operations and Ng's boss, says she has all the qualifications necessary to be a GM -- broad experience in both the boardroom and the negotiating room, top-notch communication skills, a deep knowledge of the game and the drive to handle a demanding schedule. And then there's that fire she showed on the golf course.
"She's very competitive,'' Torre says. "And for someone as bright as she is, she has no trouble relating to people on everyone's level. She is there, she doesn't delegate, she does it herself.''
Ng became the first woman to interview for a GM opening when she did so with the Dodgers in 2005, but she didn't get the job. As Evans, Torre and others will attest, she clearly has all the experience, knowledge and skills necessary for the position. The question is whether a baseball team will finally allow a woman to hit from the men's tee.
"I want to say yes,'' Torre says. "I always talk her up at owners meetings. At some point, somebody just has to ignore the fact that she's a woman and just make a baseball decision. And if they do that, then I think she will get an opportunity. Somewhere.''
Ng is not only a rarity in baseball's upper echelon because she's a woman. If she lands a GM job, she'll also be the first Asian to do so. Ng's father, Jin, was born in America of Chinese ancestry. Her mother, Virginia Cagar, was born in Thailand and also is of Chinese descent. Ng was born in Indianapolis but grew up in Queens and then New Jersey, rooting for the Yankees and Thurman Munson because, she says, "he was an incredibly gritty player." Ng still has the scrapbooks in which she pasted new stories about the catcher's death.
Ng's father was a financial analyst. Her mother earned her MBA while also raising her four daughters and later worked as a banker for Manufacturers Hanover Trust after Jin died when Kim was 11.
"Working hard was obviously a big theme in our house,'' Ng says. "It wasn't that my parents micro-managed me at all as a kid. They just expected certain levels. You knew if you didn't get to that level you were a big disappointment for them. Perseverance was important. From my mom, I learned not to take a backseat from anybody.''
And though her mother might have preferred Kim choose a more stable profession such as law or business, a young, baseball-obsessed Kim had other ideas.
"I think the best adjective for her is tenacious -- she stuck in there until she got it right,'' Cagar says. "She was a very friendly kid who loved sports -- she especially loved to play softball -- and she was a good listener. And she was very analytical. She would observe, and try to see different ways of attacking the problem or the obstacle. She would look at it from all angles.''
Ng majored in public policy at the University of Chicago, where she also earned MVP honors as an infielder for the softball team, and served as the sports editor of the school newspaper and editor of the yearbook.
Ng calls herself a product of Title IX; in fact, she wrote her college thesis on the landmark law. And that thesis -- as well as the effect that playing sports had on her -- played a significant role in following her passion to pursue a career in sports.
"The more you play sports, the more you understand about yourself, the more you get a picture of what you can do,'' she says. "Everyone talks about how sports are beneficial and how they force you to test and challenge yourself, going up against adversity -- all the clichés. But they're true. And for girls to experience sports the way boys experienced it was incredibly important. It was important for their growth not just in academics, but in their work lives and personal lives.
"Playing sports has really helped me understand what I am capable of and how to bear down.''
Several months after she graduated from the University of Chicago, Ng was still looking for a job when one of her coaches told her the White Sox were looking for an intern. Ng rushed over with her résumé. They interviewed her on the spot.
"And here's where her tenacity and tendency to go against the grain showed,'' her mother says. "After the interview, she called them back up and pitched herself again. On top of that, she said, 'I'll work without pay.' So they said, 'OK. We'll give you a chance.'''
After a couple of months, Ng had impressed the organization with her knowledge of the game and propensity for crunching numbers so much that the White Sox offered her a full-time job, in which she compiled statistical research for contract negotiations and the Rule V draft. Pretty soon, she took over the team's salary arbitration duties too. Analytics were starting to infiltrate the sport, and Ng was one of the brainy, technologically savvy, elite-school grads who was comfortable with computers in ways that many ex-ballplayers weren't. "You could just tell that she was going to make contributions to our organization,'' Evans says. "And she did. She was a wonderful addition to our group.''
She quickly proved herself a skilled negotiator, too. One of Ng's early triumphs was arguing for the White Sox in their arbitration case with pitcher Alex Fernandez and agent Scott Boras. Going up against Boras in a salary case is a little like batting against current Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw with shadows creeping in front of the mound. Nonetheless, Ng -- who was both the youngest executive, at age 26, and the first woman to present a salary arbitration case -- won.
"When she stood up [to make her case], people were a little surprised," Evans said. "But it was a statement that another gender barrier was being erased. It takes a special person to break barriers.''
Ng was that special person.
"I think one of her greatest attributes is she has an insatiable appetite for understanding why things work,'' Evans says. "More than anything, it gave her the motivation to ask questions about strategic aspects of our organization. She was consistently asking questions that displayed a line of thinking that was far superior to what you usually hear from an entry-level person.''
Ng rose to become assistant director of baseball operations with the White Sox before being hired away by the American League offices after the 1997 season to serve as the director of waivers and records. At the league office, she approved all player transactions and contracts, and helped AL general managers interpret and apply MLB rules. The job allowed her to meet and network with baseball's power brokers, including Brian Cashman, who was then the Yankees' assistant GM.
Cashman, who hired her a year later -- making her, at age 29, the youngest assistant GM in MLB at the time -- says now he offered her the job simply because "she was the best-qualified person.'' She helped Cashman build a team by successfully negotiating the contracts of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Paul O'Neill, among others, which won three World Series championships in four years.
"Kim has an amazing demeanor,'' Cashman says. "A lot of times people who are that smart don't play well with others or are bad communicators. She's extremely intelligent, has a complete working knowledge of everything, and her likability factor is off the charts.''
So likable, in fact, that even irascible Yankees owner George Steinbrenner took a shine to her. "I wasn't certain how he was going to respond to the recommendation of an assistant GM being a woman,'' Cashman says, "but to his credit, he was open to it.''
Torre says Ng fit right in as "one of the guys'' from the very start. "She spoke the language, and she understood how a baseball person would look at the things she was talking about,'' he says
In 2002, Evans, then the Dodgers' GM, lured Ng away from the Yankees to become L.A.'s vice president and assistant GM. She also served as the franchise's interim director of player development, which meant she oversaw the Dodgers' minor league system and added scouting and player development to her portfolio. She handled it deftly, too. The Dodgers were named the 2006 Organization of the Year by Baseball America.
Ng still itched to help shape the game on a larger level, so she left the Dodgers in 2011 and moved to MLB's headquarters, where she oversees international operations as well as the league's scouting bureau and the fall league. She travels regularly to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other countries to help develop the game -- and her influence within the game continues to grow.
"With a club, you're sort of up to your eyeballs every day and are very focused on the daily issues and wins and losses," she says. "It's been amazing to see how the game has grown in just the last four years. There is a lot more money being spent in the [Latin American] market than there was just four years ago. We're seeing lots of building of infrastructure and facilities in the Dominican Republic. Teams are looking to branch out. It's an exciting time.''
Phyllis Merhige, baseball's senior VP for club relations, says Ng's combination of experience at the club and league levels makes her uniquely qualified to lead a team. "Every time you break open a barrier, you open a door for other people and you give people hope,'' Merhige says. "And sometimes that's what it takes to get a ball [rolling].''
Ng hasn't given up on her goal of landing a GM job. She lost out to Ned Colletti with the Dodgers in 2005, Jack Zduriencik with the Mariners in 2008, Jed Hoyer with the Padres in 2009, Jerry Dipoto with the Angels in 2011 and A.J. Preller with the Padres last year.
Given Seattle's performance under Zduriencik (only two winning seasons and no finish higher than third place in seven seasons) or San Diego's under Preller (another losing -- and far more expensive -- campaign this year), perhaps the Mariners and Padres are having second thoughts about passing on Ng.
While there are a handful of female GMs in the minor leagues -- including Kattie Meyer, who served in that capacity for the Rookie League Great Falls Voyagers for four years -- it's a a different job at that level, where the focus is more on business operations than acquiring and evaluating players.
The challenges facing women in baseball are "tough," says Meyer, who grew up a fan of the game but still had to prove her bona fides. "And yet there are people within the game who are great. Our affiliate, the Chicago White Sox, was supportive [of me]. But some visiting teams and umpires were old school, and didn't really respect what a woman has to say on the field.''
There are multiple GM openings across baseball right now, and while that role has traditionally been filled by a former ballplayer, since the Moneyball revolution many of the new-generation execs have been hired because of their fancy degrees and facility with analytics. The Milwaukee Brewers filled their vacancy earlier this week when they hired former Astros assistant GM David Stearns, a 30-year-old Harvard grad who fits the new-age, number-cruncher profile.
Ng fits that profile as well.
"There is no one in the game who could question her ability to be that person,'' Evans said. "If you debate that, then you have gender issues. This is a very talented, intelligent person who has won and has been part of three really good organizations. She understands player development, she understands the complexities of the game. There is no doubt in my mind that she has what it takes to perform those responsibilities. All she needs is the opportunity.''
So why exactly hasn't she gotten the opportunity yet?
ESPN analyst and former Cincinnati Reds GM Jim Bowden doesn't think gender is the issue. "I worked for Marge Schott, who was a female owner," he says. "People are people.''
Bowden, who frequently negotiated trades with Ng when he was with the Reds, calls her a "solid negotiator" but that her "weak spot" might be scouting. "From what I've heard, evaluation of talent may not be her strength. That may hold her back,'' he says, adding that she would have been a great hire for the Red Sox. "I hope she gets her chance.''
Or it could be simply that she simply hasn't been in the right place at the right time -- yet. "There are only 30 GM jobs,'' Bowden notes. "You go to a local fast food place and there are 30 people working there alone."
Or, as Evans puts it: "One of the problems with [GM] jobs is plenty of talented candidates don't get them. It's not about gender inequality, it's just about timing and fit.''
For her part, Ng remains philosophical -- and hopeful.
"There are a lot of things in this world that are a lot more unfair [than me not getting a GM job]. It's hard for me, given that fact that I've been an assistant GM for 13 years and hold the job that I have now, to say that being a woman has held me back,'' she says. "I think that having a woman as a GM would certainly be a novelty. Having a woman as an assistant GM was a novelty for a while. So I think it's going to take time.
"I've interviewed for several positions, but I can name a lot of other people who have been interviewed for the same number [of openings] or more and they still haven't gotten one. I'm just a little different, so people tend to focus on me.
"If it comes, it comes; then that's great. And if not, I'll just keep plugging away."