Women in leadership - Taking the reins
Profiles of nine women leaders who are taking leadership roles in their fields.
General Manager Miami Marlins Miami
Ng breaks a 118-year streak in Major League Baseball.
On a mid-November morning last year at the Miami Marlins stadium in Little Havana, team co-owners Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman introduced Kim Ng as the team’s new general manager. Jeter, CEO of the Marlins, had gotten to know Ng when he played for the New York Yankees in the late 1990s. At the time, she was an assistant general manager for the Yankees, and together they’d been part of a team that won three straight World Series titles and a fourth consecutive American League pennant from 1998 to 2001.
Jeter, sitting next to Ng at the news conference, said a few nice words about her before quickly turning over the spotlight. Ng, for her part, recalled how Jeter had played with a particular kind of fearlessness.
“That was his approach to the game,” she said. “He left it all out there, every single day. Fearlessness out on that field. And now, with this, we see it off the field. So, Derek, thank you again.”
A year later, she laughs, “You notice I didn’t talk about my fearlessness; I talked about Derek’s!”
“Look, we all have fears,” she says. “The only way you get over it is to face it over and over again, whether it’s interviewing, making presentations or getting in front of a roomful of guys. You have to know it’s not going to go perfect. And you have to give yourself a break. The guys, they make a mistake, and they just move right on. No worries.”
Ng had been turned down for the GM position at other teams a halfdozen or so times since 2005. She’d even considered not going after the Marlins job for fear of being turned down again, she says.
When Jeter offered her the job — before she even got the chance to give her spiel about why he should hire her — she felt a huge sense of relief, if only for a short time, she says.
Ng’s hiring made her the first female GM in the 118-year history of Major League Baseball — and for that matter, the first female GM across all major men’s professional sports in the U.S. As the congratulatory notes poured in, including well wishes from former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and tennis star Billie Jean King, Ng was struck by how many people were looking to her to pave the way for future female sports leaders.
“There was a 10,000-pound weight lifted off of this shoulder, and then about a half-hour later, I realized that it had just been transferred to this shoulder,” she said, pointing from one shoulder to the other. “I do feel quite a lot of responsibility. I have for my entire career. I know I’m quite visible. The big thing for me is to just make my reputation as good as I can make it and let that carry me through.”
Ng is MLB’s second GM of Asian descent, after the San Francisco Giants’ Farhan Zaidi. Her late father, an American-born accountant, was of Chinese descent; her mother, a banker, came to the U.S. from Thailand.
Born in Indianapolis, Ng grew up in the New York area, the oldest of five daughters. She played stickball in Queens — parked cars and manhole covers were the bases — and slept under a poster of the 1978 New York Yankees.
“My dad was a big sports nut, so I grew up playing and watching a lot of different sports,” she told the University of Chicago alumni magazine in 2018. “I lived in Queens until I was 12. The Mets were right there, but I was actually a big Yankees fan because in the late ’70s, the Yankees were such a great team. I grew up with all the greats — Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson. I think the pace of the game and the nuance of the game were the things that really drew me to it.”
Ng became a standout softball player in high school and went on to play for the University of Chicago, where she impressed her coaches and teammates as a fierce competitor. She majored in public policy and wrote her senior thesis on Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at higher-ed schools that receive federal funding.
Her mom, Virginia Cagar, wanted her to go into banking, but Ng started an internship at the Chicago White Sox instead. “Here I am paying $25,000 a year for the University of Chicago,” Cagar told Time magazine. Upon hearing that the internship was unpaid, Cagar asked her daughter, “Return on investment. What happened to it?”
A big part of Ng’s job was entering statistical information about players into a computer — a labor-intensive process that ultimately prepared her for the broader shift in baseball away from gut instinct and conventional wisdom to analytics. Her White Sox internship soon turned into a paid, full-time position, and she gained experience in contract negotiations and player development.
Early on, she faced off with legendary sports agent Scott Boras over then-pitcher Alex Fernandez. During the negotiation, she noticed Fernandez staring at her from across the table.
Ng, who won the arbitration case, rolls her eyes at the memory: “He was just trying to intimidate me, staring at me meanly. It’s all part of the game. It made me nervous, until I realized what was going on, and then I said enough of this and decided to tune him out.”
She became an assistant GM for the Yankees at 29 and took the same position at the L.A. Dodgers several years later. In a career dominated by men — particularly white men — she had to fight for respect. In 2003, former pitcher Bill Singer, then a Mets scout, mocked Ng in a singsong fake Chinese accent at a hotel bar; he was later fired for the racist tirade.
More often, however, the discrimination was subtle. MLB executive Chris Haydock remembers accompanying Ng to business meetings. Although he was fresh out of Indiana University, learning the ropes under Ng at the Dodgers, people on the other side of the table frequently assumed he was the boss and addressed him rather than Ng. “She brought me to take notes!” Haydock told Sports Illustrated. “It was crazy.”
In her nine years with the Dodgers, Ng oversaw the team’s arbitration and scouting efforts and had input in all player transactions, including trades and free-agent signings. In 2011, she joined MLB’s central office as senior vice president of baseball operations, reporting to Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, a former colleague at the Yankees and Dodgers. (Torre was MLB’s chief baseball officer from 2011-20.)
In that role, she oversaw international baseball operations, working with the front offices of all 30 MLB clubs and with other leagues around the world. Among her accomplishments: Establishing and enforcing MLB’s rules for signing international players and raising standards for international baseball academies.
Meanwhile, speculation grew that Ng would become the game’s first female GM. Between 2005 and 2020, she turned up on the short list for GM of the Angels, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners and Padres. Eventually, the expectations and disappointment began to weigh on her.
“You feel deflated, and you think maybe it’s not going to happen, but one thing I want to make clear: Even if it hadn’t happened, I was never going to see my career as a failure,” she said last year. “I’ve had a tremendous career.”
To her supporters, the time was long overdue for her to get her shot at GM. “At some point, somebody just has to ignore the fact that she’s a woman and just make a baseball decision,” Torre told ESPN in 2017. “And if they do that, then I think she will get an opportunity. Somewhere.”
When she learned that somewhere would be Miami, she needed a moment to let the news soak in, she said on Good Morning America. Jeter chided her for her initial muted reaction: “You’re not even going to smile?”
Ng replaced longtime Marlins executive Michael Hill, who had been GM for seven seasons. Her hire came three years after the club was purchased by an ownership group led by Bruce Sherman and Jeter. Ng now must find a way to win despite one of the lowest payrolls in MLB and a lackluster fan base. The Marlins ranked dead last in 2019 attendance (an average of 10,016 per home game), behind Tampa Bay.
In a surprising 2020 run, the Marlins swept the Chicago Cubs in the first round of the playoffs — their first playoff appearance since 2003 — before being knocked out by the Atlanta Braves. The Marlins failed to build on that momentum in 2021, however, finishing fourth in the National League east division.
Late in the 2021 regular season, Ng talked on the sidelines with first base coach Keith Johnson as players warmed up for a game against the Washington Nationals. The Marlins had fallen out of playoff contention, and Ng wanted Johnson to reflect on “what just happened these last four months and think about how we want next year to be different,” she says. “We have to get players to buy into what we believe.”
She also planned to pull team manager Don Mattingly aside to discuss an odd move by a Marlins player in the prior night’s game. “Our hitter had worked himself into a 3-1 count and attempted a bunt,” she says. “It’s not orthodox. The question would be, what was he thinking? Did we put on that play, which I don’t think we did, and then just making sure that we’re having a conversation with the player and helping him learn and develop and understand why that was not necessarily appropriate.”
While disappointed with how the past year has gone, Ng points to the club’s impressive stable of young prospects and says she has time to turn things around. “The end goal is to have a winning club year in and year out. There’s not a time limit on it; I haven’t been given any specifics on that front,” she says, adding, “I think Derek and ownership are patient, but they also have certain expectations.”
Experts say the analytics movement, in which data informs everything from scouting to play calls, makes it more likely that other women will follow in Ng’s footsteps and rise through MLB’s ranks.
“This is just math,” ESPN commentator Mike Greenberg said last year when Ng became GM. “It’s just doing analytics. And obviously whether you’ve played or not has nothing to do with that, and your gender has nothing to do with that. So, I would imagine that this will be the first of many such days, but none of them will ever be quite like today.”
Ng says she wants to succeed not only for herself and Miami, but also for women and girls. She says she continues to hear from people who are excited that MLB finally has a female GM. “As the season has gone on and I’ve traveled with the club, various players from opposing teams have come up to me and said, ‘It’s an honor to meet you,’ ” she says.
She believes the vast majority of criticism against her is based on baseball, not sexism or racism. “When I have an issue, my first inclination is not to go to, ‘It’s because I’m a woman.’ I really tend not to look at that. Maybe it’s because I’m hard-headed,” she says. “Sometimes people have negative reactions just because they don’t like the decisions you’re making, which is OK. As a manager, I’m going to have to live with that.”
For fun, she and a friend recently took an online quiz to determine their “spirit animal” — a totem animal that’s supposed to reflect who they are, according to ancient shamanic traditions. Her first result was a sea turtle, which she didn’t think was very aspirational. Ng took the quiz again, changed a few answers, and got a more satisfying result: Tiger.