Miami Marlins GM Kim Ng’s journey to the postseason

MIAMI — Down a brightly lit hallway that leads to a section of luxury suites at the Miami Marlins‘ stadium, where each room is filled with fans cheering on the home team, the door to the last suite is closed. Inside sits Kim Ng. No entourage, no buddies from college, no staff checking in. With a laptop, an iPad and a water bottle, the Marlins’ general manager sits with the lights off, watching the game alone.

It’s just before the MLB All-Star break, and second baseman Luis Arraez is chasing a .400 batting average, a feat not accomplished at the July break since 1999. It was Ng who traded for Arraez in her first full season without Derek Jeter in the Marlins’ front office. Already, there are whispers that the team could reach its first full-season postseason in 20 years.

I walk into the suite and attempt to break the ice, recounting a quote attributed to Ng’s mother about the “return on investment” of a University of Chicago degree and Ng’s decision to take an unpaid internship with an MLB team. I can relate. I tell her how my father once asked about the “cost-benefit analysis” of my decision to stop practicing law to take an unpaid internship at a cable news network. Aren’t Asian parents funny that way, I ask? She kindly laughs, perhaps more out of courtesy than comedy. I quickly pivot to baseball.

Ng’s journey to this place has been well chronicled — more than 30 years of management and executive experience that includes stints with MLB, the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees, with whom she won three World Series. She’s often included on those “most powerful women in sports” lists, and has grown accustomed to answering the inevitable questions about the “first” and “only” career labels — the first and only woman hired as general manager of a men’s major pro sports team in North America, the first East Asian American to do it in baseball.

It can be lonely being the first and only, and it’s clear those are things she doesn’t like to discuss. Less than three years into her first GM job, she’d much rather talk about baseball, the team and the “culture of winning” she’s trying to cultivate — to focus on anything other than her own story. It’s hard to break through. Over the course of several interviews this past regular season, Ng sticks to her talking points.

When we meet again three months later, with just six games left in the regular season, Ng is once again having a first-and-only moment. This time she’s in a Citi Field box for visiting general managers, and the Marlins are in close pursuit of a National League wild-card spot. Winning a series against the New York Mets would feel particularly fitting for the GM who grew up playing stickball on the streets of Queens. But it also could help Ng become the first and only female GM to lead a team to the postseason.

To be on the brink of a playoff spot is an accomplishment for any GM. For Ng, who is cautious by nature, this requires focus.

“It definitely hit me around the All-Star break when the team was sitting in a very good position,” she says. “Now we’re down to the last week and it’s starting to hit again, that you’re realizing that you’re just in a great position to do things that you’ve wanted to do for a really long time, and that is get to the postseason. And I’ve been there before with some of my other clubs, but certainly not in this chair. And that obviously makes this different.”

She says she’s tried to avoid feeling stress up to this point.

“Now,” she says, “I’m allowing myself to stress a little bit.”

This is a big admission. She knows that her reactions could affect the rest of the organization, and wants to keep things positive in the clubhouse.

“For a while,” she says, “I was playing the same playlist over and over, as I went into work every day and I was playing it in my suite each night during the game. Probably just to divert my attention from being so stressed.”

I ask, “What’s on this playlist?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says, laughing, “You’re not getting that out of me!”

After opening the second half of the season on an eight-game losing streak, the Marlins dipped below .500 in late August and appeared headed for another disappointing end. But series wins against the Washington Nationals, the Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, plus a sweep of the Atlanta Braves, helped them finish 84-77 in the regular season. They clinched a wild-card spot with a win Saturday in Pittsburgh, where Ng joined the celebration on the field.

The Marlins are playoff-bound in a full season for the first time since 2003, when they went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. (The Marlins reached the playoffs during the pandemic-shortened postseason in 2020.) They open play Tuesday at Philadelphia (8 p.m. ET on ESPN).

For Ng, who is 54, getting to this historic moment started in 1990, three years before the Marlins became an expansion team. She’d graduated from the University of Chicago and joined the Chicago White Sox as an intern. The White Sox hired her full-time the next year and by 1995 had promoted her to assistant director of baseball operations. When she became an assistant GM of the Yankees in 1998, she was the second youngest person ever in that role at the time.

It would take another two decades for her to land a GM job. Publicly, she remained upbeat when asked about that. She’s joked that she was always a bridesmaid. Today, she acknowledges that some of those GM interviews were more performative than purposeful.

I ask how she dealt with the frustration, how she kept going after a half dozen or so attempts to advance.

She says she’s been asked that question often, and that the answer has been, and will always be, “What am I supposed to do, quit?”

“You just keep trying,” she says. “And it was incredibly frustrating, there’s no doubt about that. But you just keep at it.”

Joe Torre, who worked with Ng during their time with the Yankees and Dodgers and was her boss in the MLB offices, is more blunt, saying some of those teams just “checked a box.”

“I just think that they just never wanted to pull the trigger. Nobody had the courage to do it,” Torre says. “There’d be teams that would call me about interviewing her. And I said, ‘It’s all well and good, but just don’t do it just to cover your ass. I mean, you have to be serious.'”

After years of disappointments for her, another former Yankee, Derek Jeter, made the move. As chief executive and a minority owner of the Marlins, Jeter was known as an advocate for diversity in baseball. Jeter, who declined an ESPN interview request, called Torre when the Marlins first considered Ng for the job.

“[Jeter] had called me about her, and the one thing he said to me because he knows, he said, ‘Just tell Kim I’m not checking a box here. I’m seriously interested in her ability to do this job,'” Torre recalls.

The Marlins named her GM in November 2020.

“When she came in, she inherited almost the entirety of the front office,” says longtime Marlins assistant GM Brian Chattin. “She kind of walked into already an organizational dynamic that had been operating for a few years, which is challenging to do, to come in the leadership role and inherit everyone.”

There were no wholesale firings of front-office staff during Ng’s first two seasons. Ng reported to Jeter, who reported to majority owner Bruce Sherman. The executives in place were largely Jeter’s team, and like Ng, several were former Yankees.

According to some with knowledge of her time with the Marlins, many of the people she worked with continued to look to Jeter for guidance or approval. Ng had one position she could fill in her first months — team travel director. A year later, in January 2022, she brought in her first big hire, Stan Conte, as senior director of medical services. They’d worked together in Los Angeles, and his job was to overhaul the Marlins’ medical unit.

When Ng first approached Conte, he was living in Arizona with no intention of returning to baseball full-time. As Conte recalls it, he was less than enthusiastic when Ng called.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t want to help. I want to be retired,'” Conte recalls.

He says Ng wasn’t having it. Eventually, he relented.

“This is part of her personality,” Conte says. “She’s very politely in a lot of different ways, wears you down and you don’t even know it’s happening. She isn’t who you think she is, and she does that on purpose. She’s methodical, attentive and deliberate.”

When Jeter left the Marlins in February 2022, again there were no wholesale firings of front office staff, but positions did open up and Ng took the opportunity to make methodical and deliberate moves. To create what she calls “the culture of winning.”

Longtime manager and former Yankees great Don Mattingly left after the 2022 season. The opening allowed Ng to bring in first-time manager Skip Schumaker, who at the time was a bench coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. A former player, Schumaker won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011.

“She definitely took a chance on me, that’s for sure, being a rookie manager. I’m grateful for that,” Schumaker says. “I think she did a really good job of acquiring a staff that also knows what winning looks like and holds people accountable.”

She brought in another assistant GM, Oz Ocampo, from the Houston Astros. Ocampo is known for his expertise in scouting international talent. He was instrumental in bringing in key players to help the Astros win three World Series.

During the interview process, Ocampo says, he needed to figure out whether the Marlins were as committed to winning as he was.

“The history of the Marlins was that they would win and then they would disband the team and then they would be followed by long periods of losing,” he says. “And I don’t tolerate losing very well, and neither does Kim and neither does Skip.”

She also took hold of key player decisions. After trading for Arraez before the start of the 2023 season, she was criticized by some observers for sacrificing too much talent to acquire the hitter. This season, Arraez chased .400 for half the season and has become a driving force on the team.

Before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Ng knew what the team needed. Those in the room recall the day in awe.

“The trade deadline this year, unbelievable. I was in that room all day long from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and everyone had different opinions, but she knew exactly what she wanted,” Conte says. “What she needed was runs, and she went out and scouted the right people and got them.”

She brought in infielders Josh Bell and Jake Burger. Perhaps just as important, she let go of those in the organization who were not on board with her vision. One of those was Gary Denbo, vice president of player development and an early Jeter hire.

But she also kept people who were put in place before her, and gave everyone a chance to prove themselves. Mel Stottlemyre Jr. has been the team’s pitching coach since 2018. He is one of the few coaches to stay through the changes.

Junior, as he is called by those who know him well, always suspected Ng would become a GM. His father — the late Mel Stottlemyre, a legendary pitcher and coach — told him she would some day.

“I remember when my pops was alive and still working with the Yankees,” Stottlemyre Jr. says. “He mentioned Ng’s name to me, and he talked about the toughness within her. And he finished his conversation and said that this woman was going to be a GM.

“And for him to say that, and then for me to go to work for her in what is her first job?” Stottlemyre Jr. points to goosebumps on his arm.

“Full circle,” I add. He nods. We let it sink in.

I bring up that moment with Ng. She pauses, too.

“When Mel told me the story, it surprised me because I definitely was not there making my mark,” she says. “That wasn’t my personality either, but it was certainly humbling to hear it for sure.”

Not yet three years into being a GM, Ng’s impact on baseball remains undeniable. At an MLB “Take the Field” event, a program designed to promote women working in baseball this past December, Ng gave the keynote address.

“Kim walks up and [my friends] are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Kim! That’s Kim!'” says Jennifer Brann, a 25-year-old Marlins data analyst whose friends were eager for an introduction. “People see her as like a larger-than-life figure. I think that she’s more popular than some of the [players] sometimes.”

Ng is aware she’s a role model, which also kept her going through all those GM interviews over the years.

Over the course of our interviews, I’m almost apologetic for asking what it means to be a woman in baseball. It is the year 2023, after all. But Ng is a woman and Asian American, like me, and those facts still matter. Visibility matters.

“Given my understanding of where I was in the universe, and that a lot of people looked up to me, whether it was women in the industry or young women wanting to get in the industry,” she explains. “You just never wanted to just fade off into nowhere. That wasn’t really an option.”

When Burger joined the team in August, his younger sister, Ellie Burger, retweeted a post the third baseman shared in November 2020, celebrating Ng’s historic hire. He tweeted that his sister, who always wanted to be a GM, now saw it was possible for a woman to have the top job. I ask Ellie what Ng’s role as GM means to her.

“It was just kind of breathtaking and wow, it actually happened.” Ellie says. “It was at like 52 [years old] she got hired as GM, and you take a Theo Epstein, for example, who gets hired at 28. And it’s like, why is there this difference? This is long overdue, but finally there’s movement.”

Eve Rosenbaum, a former MLB intern who worked for Ng and is now an assistant GM with the Baltimore Orioles, says Ng has huge weight on her shoulders.

“I think once one team hired a woman and then everyone can sort of exhale and say, ‘OK. Oh look, it happens,'” Rosenbaum says. “And, ‘Oh, look, she’s doing a good job,’ and then everyone else feels more comfortable to be the next person to hire a woman to lead their baseball ops department.”

Still, Ng is somewhat surprised to hear that her colleagues describe her as collaborative, kind, deliberative and smart.

“That’s the external, but the internal is quite a bit different,” Ng says. “It’s interesting that that’s the way they perceive me.”

“What’s the internal?” I ask.

“Very competitive, doesn’t quit,” Ng says, reflecting on her journey, but adding she wonders whether she “should let my personality come out a little more.”

Ng can be guarded about what she says, and careful about how she presents. But the few who know her well say she is fiery, too.

“It would annoy me when writers would ask [if I wanted to be GM]. Because are you asking the guys that? If you’re not asking the guys that, then don’t ask me that,” Ng says, slightly agitated. She rarely gets animated during our interviews. “[Are you asking] because I shouldn’t have that ambition, or it would be odd if I did have that ambition?”

It’s early September, and on this day, I’m back in Ng’s box at the Marlins’ stadium, in the dark, watching what is undeniably a sloppy game. The Marlins are losing badly to the Dodgers. Suddenly, a ball boy mistakes a ball in fair play for a foul ball and costs the Marlins a run. I react in disbelief. Ng is silent.

“Do you wish the game was already over?” I ask.

“Yeah, like five innings ago,” she says wryly.

In nearly every interview with Ng and those in the organization, the phrase “culture of winning” appears. Shortly after sitting down next to her, she says she wants to revisit the “culture of winning” idea again. She doesn’t think she explained it very well the last time we spoke.

“The culture of winning means the process and the preparation,” Ng explains. She then goes into detail about playing smarter baseball. Surprisingly, she says this night’s 10-0 rout by the Dodgers is not disappointing.

“This is execution. And sometimes you just don’t execute,” she says. “Physical mistakes happen. But last year, we might’ve thrown to a wrong base. That is not acceptable. That’s a mental mistake. That’s the mistake you have to learn from.

“We’ve been much better this year. And those are the signs of improvement and building that foundation.”

Source link

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected

- Advertisement -spot_img

Latest Articles