Get to know Kim Ng, the Marlins' 'conductor'

2 years ago

For the past five years, the Executive Access podcast has brought you insightful one-on-one conversations with some of the game’s most impactful decision-makers.

Executive Access returns in 2022 in a new format, as will sit down with more than a dozen executives to discuss their careers, their philosophies and the state of the game from a front-office perspective, delivering extensive, wide-ranging Q&As with the men and women who shape the game on a daily basis.

To kick off the 2022 Executive Access season,’s Mark Feinsand sat down with Marlins general manager Kim Ng, who became the first woman to hold that title for a Major League club when she was hired in November 2020.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You were born in Indianapolis, but spent most of your childhood in Queens, then Long Island and New Jersey, rooting for the Yankees. Were you a fan of all sports, or was baseball always your favorite?

Ng: Tennis was my favorite sport to watch as a kid; I came from a big tennis family. Baseball was a very close second. You played Division III softball for four years at the University of Chicago, getting your degree in public policy. Was a career in baseball the goal at the time?

Ng: Not at all; not right out of the chute. It was something that came to me as a potential option my senior year. I had done my senior BA thesis on Title IX and got to interview many people for my research. I just loved the research, I loved talking to people with sports backgrounds so much that I really wondered if there was a career to be had in sports. That’s when I really started to look into it. You had an internship with the White Sox after graduating in 1990. What were your initial responsibilities and what did you take from that experience?

Ng: I started in November after I graduated, and my first project was to start doing research for potential Rule 5 draftees. So I dug into that, really loved looking at scouting reports, looking at statistics, trying to [evaluate] these players. That was something that I fell in love with; I had never really been exposed to that in terms of scouting reports. And it really just started from there. I worked on arbitration, I worked on budgets. My first Spring Training and that first season, I manned the radar gun, which was fun. I had never been exposed to a lot of that, so I just had a great time. After that, you got hired as a special projects analyst. You spent a few years there, then in 1995 you’re promoted to assistant director of baseball operations. You were the first woman — and the youngest person — to ever put on a salary arbitration case, and you beat Scott Boras. What was that experience like, at that age, not only going into an arbitration hearing, but to do it against one of the biggest agents in the game?

Ng: I was incredibly nervous. I was incredibly nervous to start, but once I got on a roll, it smoothed out. I think there was definitely an intimidation factor given that particular player [Alex Fernandez] and that particular agent, but once I got on a roll, I was able to smooth it out and make it happen, and it got much better as we went. The fact of the matter is we had a good case. We put a lot of thought behind the number and felt good going into the hearing. Two years later, you left the White Sox to join the American League office as director of waivers and records. What prompted you to make that move?

Ng: I learned a lot at the White Sox in my early years. I thought at that point in time, it would make a lot of sense for me to broaden my network and get to know some of the other executives. When you’re with one club, you do things one particular way. When you go to the central office, or to a league in my case, you get to learn how 13 or 14 other clubs conducted business. What was their thought process? What were the types of things that they thought about prior to making a decision? It was also a chance for me to get to know them and have my process and my way of thinking influence them as well. That was really the thought behind it. Also, at a club, you don’t necessarily get that exposure to other executives; in reality, those other executives were my potential new bosses. It was a way for people to get to know me without opening up a trade discussion or something like that. I felt it was much better one-on-one where I was helping them. I was able to create relationships. One of the people you interacted with there was Brian Cashman. He becomes the GM of the Yankees and he brings you on as his assistant GM. You were the youngest AGM in the league at the time and only the second woman ever to hold that job. When you first go to the Yankees, is that when you first started thinking to yourself that a GM path is potentially something you might want to pursue?

Ng: Not even at that time. That job was daunting; to go from essentially the director of compliance to now assistant GM of the Yankees on the biggest stage that you could probably think of, for me at that point in my career, it was just so early. I was very young. I was really just focused on trying to do my job and do it well. The spotlight was on, so I didn’t look too far ahead. I knew that I had a lot to learn — and I learned from one of the best. Cashman used one of his favorite phrases and said you were one of “the knights at the round table.” Given how young you still were, what did it mean to you to be in that room and to have a voice in the decisions that were being made for this team — one that had just won the World Series a couple years earlier?

Ng: It was incredible hearing all of our inner cabinet talk about players, what goes through their heads, how they’re evaluating. To watch Brian work, having grown up in that organization, having to deal with a lot of the factors that go along with being a Yankee, just watching him and how prepared and thorough he was throughout everything. Watching him with the media, that was incredible. Brian was only a couple years older than me at the time, so that was incredible to watch this young guy handle the New York media. Unbelievable. What was it like working for George Steinbrenner?

Ng: It had its good days and it had its bad days. I think learning from Brian and how he was able to grow up in that organization and be the general manager for decades now is quite a tribute to him. He worked under some of the most difficult circumstances with George Steinbrenner being as demanding as he was — and demanding every day. Every minute of every day, you could get a call from him. Watching Brian deal with that has only helped me in my career. You left the Yankees after the 2001 season, went to the Dodgers as VP/assistant GM to work with Dan Evans, who you had been with in Chicago. The Yankees had just won three World Series your first three years and been in the World Series all four years. What prompted you to make that move?

Ng: We lost that year. [laughs] Spoken like a true Steinbrenner employee.

Ng: My time with the Yankees was great. We had just won three out of four, so it was incredibly difficult to leave. At the end of the day, I just wanted my learning curve to continue to grow. I had learned quite a bit there, I had been there for four years, but this was an opportunity for me to just get more under my belt and really expand. Logan White, who was the scouting director in L.A., once called you “a great plagiarizer” —

Ng: I’m not sure that’s a compliment! He said when you see something another club is doing that works, you have no problem saying, “We should do that here.” How important is it to pay attention to what the other 29 teams are doing and be willing to take ideas from other clubs?

Ng: I talked about that earlier in terms of my time with the league; that’s where you really get to see how other clubs conduct business and what their thought process was. I suppose I should take that as a compliment. I think you have to be open-minded; that’s a part of that process, as well. I think you have to be attentive; always looking for that edge. If that’s how Logan meant it, I’ll take it as a compliment. Your first of what turned out to be many GM interviews was in 2005 with the Dodgers. That first one, what’s the experience like?

Ng: It was easier because obviously I knew the people that were interviewing me — Mr. and Mrs. McCourt — so it wasn’t as daunting as maybe some others might have been. It was actually very comfortable because you know a lot about the organization. You have that institutional knowledge; you have a very good idea of what’s gone on there, who your prospects are, why the train might have gone off the tracks a bit. That one was a good first one to have. You said when you were with the Yankees, you weren’t really thinking far ahead in terms of being a GM or anything like that. Your first year with the Dodgers or maybe even before that, Evans said, “I think she’ll be the first woman GM in baseball if she decides that she wants that.” By that point, had you started to think about that?

Ng: I had. Once I got to the Dodgers and got a better sense of where I stood in the universe, I realized that, “OK, maybe this is doable.” I think also the relationships that I had and was able to build with baseball people at that level, that had to be a concern for me just being a woman — and being one of the only women. As we know, a lot of this business is conducted by relationships and knowing people, knowing where you can turn and having resources. I think that part of it started to get firmed up in my head that this really was a possibility. You went on to interview with the Mariners, Brewers, Padres, Giants and Mets. I read you had a quote once about “always being a bridesmaid.” Did it get frustrating to be passed over time and time again, knowing that you felt like you were maybe more qualified than the person who may have been hired?

Ng: Yeah, at a certain point it did get frustrating. I think it causes doubt in your mind about whether you really are qualified or whether you want to keep interviewing, those types of things. I think it’s like when you demote a player to the Minor Leagues; you give him or her a few days, let them brush themselves off and then you get right back at it. Definitely disappointing, but there weren’t too many people getting interviews either when you look at the whole of the industry. It was hard to have too many sour grapes about it. After nine years with the Dodgers, you left to go with Joe Torre to MLB. What drew you to go back to the league office after so many years with a club?

Ng: A couple things. I had done the assistant GM thing for a good number of years now with two of the most storied franchises in sports history. I felt I was up for a new challenge. Going back to learning how other clubs think, getting to know people at a different level was part of the thought process. Getting to know owners, having them get to know me. Little did I know that the one or two people that would hire me I would have known for 20 years already, so it’s funny and ironic how that turned out. But that was part of the thought process. You were at the league for almost a decade; what was first going through your head when [former Marlins CEO] Derek [Jeter] called you to ask you about this job?

Ng: You sort of go back to your battle scars of, “OK, is this a real interview? What are we doing? Is this something I want to put myself through again?” You have all those thoughts — and it’s hard not to. Ultimately, we know Derek pretty well and he’s a pretty straightforward guy. After I thought about it for a while, it made a lot of sense to talk to him. What was the call like when he called to tell you got the job? I heard you started lobbying before he actually told you.

Ng: Oh, yeah; just get it all out on the table. Let it all hang out. It’s so interesting for me, when I look at how I feel at the time; a lot of times it’s not even joy or you’re ecstatic or you’re thrilled. I was relieved. I was just relieved that it had finally happened. It was like in ‘98 when we won the World Series. We were the favorites, right? But you go to these gut-wrenching games and you finally get to that last pitch and it wasn’t joy; it was relief. We were supposed to do this. This was supposed to happen. Thank God. That’s all you’re thinking — thank God. It was interesting; it was 30 years. After that, it started to sink in. It was pretty cool. I read that it was pretty special for you telling your mom and your sisters. Tell me about that.

Ng: It was during COVID and we had to be really careful, but I wanted to tell all of them at the same time. I wanted to see their faces — not on Zoom. I got all of them together at my mom’s place and we were outside — socially distanced, being responsible — and I showed them a video of Derek presenting me an award 20 some-odd years ago. After it was done, I said, “So this probably Hall of Fame shortstop has just hired me to be his next GM.” They started woo-hooing and screaming; it was a pretty special moment. I heard your mom said, “It’s about time.”

Ng: That is definitely my mother. When you were hired, you got congratulatory tweets from Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. What did those mean to you?

Ng: Unbelievable. Unreal. You can’t even describe it, really. I just can’t. It’s like a dream come true, but you don’t even dream like that. It’s way beyond something you can imagine. You were also invited to take part in Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremonies.

Ng: That was insane. I thought it was spam. I thought was a joke. I read it several times and realized, “No, I think this is real. I think this is legit.” I checked around with a couple of people and it was legitimate. I was just stunned. That was probably one of the coolest things ever. During your introductory press conference with the Marlins, the accounts that I read said it took 45 minutes for anybody to ask you a question about your approach to the Marlins; it was all about your being a trailblazer. Do you wish sometimes that your job and the baseball team would be the headline when people talk about your job versus your gender?

Ng: I think you have to expect that. It’s such a novelty, and during that time, the world had just gone through this nightmare pandemic. I think people were just looking for something good to happen. It’s definitely died down, which is great because now I can just really focus on the job. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to try and help the Marlins bring home a championship. Cashman said when you asked him for advice after taking the job, his reply was simply: “Win.”

Ng: That’s a Yankee statement right there. For all the talk about the historic nature of your hiring, is that the bottom line? Do the job and win?

Ng: That’s all it’s about. All that stuff is in the past and obviously people still look to it, but I don’t think about it. I just think about how to get the Marlins better. What do you think your greatest strength is as an executive?

Ng: Listening to people and being open-minded. Being willing to know what I don’t know and not being embarrassed about it. I view this job as being the conductor of the orchestra. The conductor doesn’t know how to play the flute or the drums or the trombone, but this person has a pretty good idea of when people should come in at what times. I think that my experience and my resume really give me a lot of credence to do that. What’s your favorite part of the job?

At the end of the day, at the end of the night, when you get that win, there’s nothing like it. It’s been a good day. Whatever bad happened previously, most of it just gets wiped away by that one thing. You have three World Series rings from your time with the Yankees. What would it mean to you — and to Miami — to add a Marlins ring to that collection?

Ng: That would be just truly awesome. No other way to put it. That would be the icing on top of the icing on top of the icing on the cake.