When Kim Ng looks behind her, she sees Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, perhaps the ultimate trailblazers in modern women’s athletics, who fought for gains and equality and respect and changed the manner in which females like her perceived they could compete.
When Ng looks in front of her, she sees millions of girls and young women with boundless futures in sports, who rarely have to fight to get on the field and once they’re there, she notes with amazement, play with an unfettered joy that feels foreign to a child who came up only years after Title IX ensured her career might stretch beyond stickball in Queens.
“They’re just doing something that they love,” she says, admiringly. “That’s all that they’re doing.”
If the path toward equality in sports was paved by King and Navratilova, consider Ng the bridge to a land of opportunity.
Her hiring by the Miami Marlins as the first woman to serve as general manager for a major American sports franchise took a simple transaction and turned it into a cultural touchstone, perhaps not rising to the level of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, or King fighting for equal pay for tennis players and then dominating Bobby Riggs in a match televised to more than 90 million television viewers.
Yet, luminaries such as King herself and Michelle Obama and the hundreds of vocal and silent allies who have reached out or expressed their joy at Ng gaining entry to perhaps the ultimate boys’ club in sports illustrates this most important checkpoint on the road to equality.
“The fact it has affected this many people is just extraordinary,” Ng said during a video press conference Monday, after taking the weekend to process the many congratulations that came her way since she was announced Friday as Marlins GM.
“I thought it would be a big deal, but it’s beyond my expectations. But it’s also a testament to where we are. People are looking for hope. People are looking for inspiration. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Monday, Ng stood on the field at Marlins Park flanked by Hall of Fame shortstop and Marlins CEO Derek Jeter and billionaire owner Bruce Sherman, two power players in the sport who looked at the vacancy atop their baseball operations department and decided that the best person for the job was a woman.
Ng, 51, is sufficiently accomplished in the sport that if you were to remove gender and her Asian American heritage from the equation, her hiring would look very much like many baseball lifers who finally got a chance to run a franchise after several near-misses.
Thirty years serving as either an assistant GM or in Major League Baseball’s central office gave her an impeccable resume. Long-running relationships with Jeter and Marlins personnel director Gary Denbo when all three were with the Yankees gave her an in in Miami.
Swinging for a GM job only to be told, “Thanks, but no thanks,” also isn’t atypical.
Yet when you are a woman, and you take aim at roughly a dozen GM openings since 2005, all while expanding your skill set by working in MLB’s central office, rejection takes on a different tone.
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It is why Ng looked to her right at Jeter on Monday and said “fearlessness” was the trait that served him well on the field and also in making this hire.
Jeter has failed publicly plenty of times. Never has he carried the hopes of so many as Ng will.
“When Derek told me I got the job, there was a 10,000-pound weight lifted off this shoulder,” Ng said, “and then about a half an hour later, I realized had just been transferred to this shoulder.
“I do feel quite a lot of responsibility. I have my entire career. I realize I’m quite visible and that’s always been a big thing for me – make my reputation as good as I can make it and let that carry me through.
“You’re bearing the torch for so many. That is a big responsibility that I’m taking on.”
To be sure, she won’t be alone. Ng stressed collaboration in describing her operational ideals, and that she would call upon every corner of the organization for input.
In perusing the Marlins’ media guide, she noticed the abundance of women in key roles, from analytics and athletic training to chief operating officer Carolyn O’Connor.
Regardless of background or baseball lineage, Ng is insistent on plenty of chairs at the table – preferably with few shrinking violets.
“Tell people what you think,” she said, a lesson intended both for her cohorts and for women on the come-up in the industry. “I don’t think I was ever hired to just nod, and play along. You’re hired to give your opinion. If you can bring all the right people to the table but they’re not talking – if those diverse perspectives are not talking – you don’t have much of anything.
“Voice it. Voice it. What could go wrong? Someone disagrees with you. That’s it.”
It is a message she has imparted to hundreds of athletes in her role at MLB, which included her hop-scotching the country for events such as the MLB Trailblazers series, where nearly 100 girls 13 and younger take part in several days of baseball instruction and tournament play.
From the stands at MLB’s Compton Youth Academy, she watched those girls as intently as she would a group of prospects on a spring training back field. Ng was limited to stickball in the streets of Queens until joining an organized youth baseball league when she 12, and ultimately played softball collegiately.
She was struck by both the athleticism and the freedom with which today’s athlete plays.
“They just don’t see limits. They don’t,” she says. “They’re too young, they’re too naïve. The world is their oyster. I marvel at many of the girl athletes I see today. They just let it all hang out on the field.
“I marvel at them and wish I could be as carefree as they are. They are an inspiration to me.”
In the past four days, she’s found out it’s a two-way street. The Marlins just became a bunch of people’s second-favorite team, at least.
And although Ng will ultimately be judged by whether the franchise can move from an intriguing contender to a sustainable winner, the legacy will go much deeper. A sport seeking long-term viability in a crowded landscape and navigating out of a pandemic just provided a beacon for millions to follow.
Decades from now, if a dynasty is built or a game-altering initiative is authored by a woman, there’s a decent chance she saw herself in the resolute force that will now run the Miami Marlins.
“It means the world to me,” says Ng. “I’ve spent countless hours advocating for girls, advocating for women and really trying to help them advance their careers. Having that high-profile position, out in public, girls can see that. There’s an adage - you can’t be it if you can’t see it. Now, you can see it.
“I look forward to hearing their stories and just how inspired they are to pursue a job in sports, a job in baseball, and reach for the stars.”