Kim Ng, the Dodgers' assistant GM, has an impeccable record and unimpeachable reputation -- but that alone may not be enough for a promotion
This isn't a story about trails being blazed or barriers being broken. It isn't a story about glass ceilings or institutional biases. And it definitely isn't a story about a woman trying to hold her own in a male-dominated industry.
Kim Ng is way past trying to hold her own.
Arguably the most visible assistant general manager in baseball -- quick, see how many others you can name -- Ng has been the subject of countless profiles and feature stories over the years, almost all of them focused primarily on the elephant in the room that is her gender. The fact she is a high-ranking female in a game played only by men is impossible to ignore in a media culture that thrives on such unusual juxtapositions.
So why, then, has it become so easy to ignore among those inside the game?
"A lot is made of her being a woman in the sports industry," said B.B. Abbott, a Tampa-based agent who earlier this week negotiated with Ng on a two-year, $11 million contract for one of his clients, Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton. "But I haven't talked to one agent who has even brought that up. When you get to this level, it doesn't matter."
With Ng, it really never has.
At age 40, after almost two decades of working in Major League Baseball and at a point when the novelty of having a female in a high-ranking position in a big league front office has long since worn off, Ng is widely viewed now as one of the most respected executives in the game, and nothing more.
That sentiment is almost universal, from the four general managers she has worked for to the agents who have hashed out deals with her, from the office underlings who assist her in the monumental, almost yearlong task of preparing for arbitration to the scouts and player-development people who have worked closely with her over the years.
Dan Evans, the former Dodgers general manager who brought Ng to Los Angeles nine winters ago, recalled this week the first time he ever met her, in 1991. Evans was an assistant GM with the Chicago White Sox and Ng was a University of Chicago undergrad, sitting in his office interviewing for an internship.
"We interviewed a slew of people, and she just stood out," said Evans, now a player agent and the president and chief executive officer of Pasadena-based West Coast Sports Management. "You could see a great future ahead of her when she was interning. Luckily, we had a really progressive staff in Chicago who weren't afraid of gender barriers, which at that time were very firm. ... She wasn't even there a full year before we hired her full time. "She asked questions other people wouldn't even contemplate."
At the time, not even Ng could have contemplated what that first open door into baseball would lead to over the next 19 years.
"Of course not," she said. "I was 21 years old, and I was just looking for work, some kind of work that I would enjoy."
The fast track that followed would take her from the White Sox to the American League office to the New York Yankees to the Dodgers, where Evans, then the Dodgers' GM, hired her before the 2002 season and handed her a slew of responsibilities. Among them was arbitration, which she also had handled with the Yankees.
Arbitration is a complex process in which players whose contracts are up and who have at least three and less than six years of major league service time can take the team to a hearing. In that hearing, a panel must choose either the player's figure or the team's figure, with no wiggle room in between. It behooves both parties to reach a compromise agreement while they can, meaning before they ever get to a hearing.
Perhaps no one in baseball is better at doing that than Ng. In nine winters of handling all arbitration cases for the Dodgers, she has gone to a hearing with just two players. One of those was in 2004, with reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne, who had gone a perfect 55-for-55 in save opportunities the year before. The other was in 2007 with reliever Joe Beimel, who was asking for just $337,500 more than the team was offering.
Ng won both of those cases.
"I think it's a tribute to her that more of her cases don't go to arbitration," Abbott said. "She might say it makes it look like she isn't tough enough, but I think that is a disservice to her. ... The arbitration system is set up to find middle ground, and that is what she is so good at. I would guess that more times than not, that middle ground has teetered her way as opposed to the agent's way. That goes back to preparation and the ability to set forth what her arguments are and her rationale is.
"As an agent, I always make sure I'm thoroughly prepared before I talk to her. If I'm not ready, I say, 'Kim, I'll call you back,' because that would be like taking a knife to a gun fight. You know she is going to be prepared for every angle you come at her from."
Facing a daunting list of nine potential arbitration cases this year -- a list that included four former All-Stars, two Gold Glove winners and two players who finished in the top 10 in the NL Most Valuable Player voting last season -- Ng reached amicable agreements with all nine players, all before the deadline for teams and players to exchange figures.
Although three of those players were given two-year deals, Ng signed all nine players for a total of $31.95 million in 2010 salary.
For her part, Ng seems mildly annoyed at the praise she receives for her deft handling of the Dodgers' arbitration cases, if only because it obscures the fact she has so many other responsibilities. She also oversees pro scouting, the department that compiles the information general manager Ned Colletti uses in deciding whether to make certain trades or sign certain free agents. She is spearheading an ongoing effort to restock the talent at Campo Las Palmas, the Dodgers' academy in the Dominican Republic. And she is heavily involved in logistical issues at the team's new spring training facility in Arizona.
Like it or not, though, arbitration is almost always on the front burner. And because it is usually the only facet of her job that elicits phone calls from the so-called "nuts-and-bolts" media -- the beat writers who provide daily coverage of the team as opposed to, say, magazine writers looking to profile her -- it is the facet of her job that gets the most public attention.
That, and the fact she is so darn good at it.
"She has had a lot of different positions in her career, with the one common thread being salary arbitration," Colletti said. "To be able to have nine players eligible, including the vast majority of the core of your club, and to have them all reach agreements we were satisfied with without filing numbers, I would think that is pretty remarkable. She is somebody who really excels when given a task that has major implications with a lot of work that goes into building it."
The only question left to answer where Ng's ability is concerned is, can she excel in the top job? More importantly, will she ever get the chance? She interviewed for the GM position with the Dodgers in 2005 before it ultimately went to Colletti. She interviewed for GM jobs each of the past two winters, in Seattle in 2008 and San Diego in 2009.
Does Ng aspire to be MLB's first female general manager? Well, yes, she does. But only in the sense that, like almost every assistant GM, she aspires to be a GM. Being the first female to do it would merely be a by-product of the fact she is a female and no other female has ever done it.
By all accounts, there is no doubt that Ng has what it takes to be a GM.
"There is no question about her ability, and zero questions about her professionalism," Evans said. "Her résumé is as good as anybody's in the game who isn't a general manager. She is so focused and talented and prepared for the position that her chances of succeeding in that role are significant.''
What isn't clear is whether Ng has what it takes to actually land a GM job.
Ng isn't political. She isn't given to self promotion. She doesn't curry favor from the media by whispering confidential information into the ears of reporters. If you see a quote from a "Dodgers official speaking on the condition of anonymity," you can bet the house it isn't her. She is, in essence, a straight shooter, a trait that has served her well in developing strong working relationships with each of the three radically different Dodgers GMs she has worked for -- the personable Evans, the quiet, cerebral Paul DePodesta and the emotional Colletti.
But will it serve her well enough when it comes time to interview for that next GM opening? Only time will tell.
"If, at the end of the day I never get that job, then so be it," Ng said. "I'm not going to change who I am. I have a great job, and it has been really good to me. My career is something millions of other people never get a sniff at. I don't want anyone to think that I'm ungrateful for what I have been fortunate to have. I don't do my job always looking for the next step. I do my job because I love my job."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com