WHEN KIM NG was hired by the Miami Marlins as their general manager this past MLB offseason, she received ringing endorsements from Michelle Obama, Sharon Robinson and Billie Jean King. In January, she was invited by President Joe Biden to participate in a prime-time television special as part of his inauguration ceremonies.
“The idea that it has affected this many people is just extraordinary,” Ng said during a November news conference introducing her as the first female GM for any team in the four major North American sports leagues. “I thought it would be a big deal, but this is beyond my expectations — and I think beyond many people’s expectation.”
Marlins owner Bruce Sherman recognized Ng’s years in the game as a major reason behind her hiring.
“We are truly a fortunate organization to have someone with 30 years of experience — with three major league teams, and the past nine years with Major League Baseball,” Sherman said. “I can’t think of anyone more qualified for the position than Kim.”
Yet, while Ng was establishing those credentials over three decades, baseball wunderkinds with Ivy League backgrounds like Theo Epstein were landing GM jobs in their 20s and 30s. Epstein was 28 when he was hired by the Boston Red Sox in 2002. Others, like Jon Daniels of the Texas Rangers and A.J. Preller of the San Diego Padres were 28 and 36, respectively. David Stearns was 30 when the Milwaukee Brewers hired him in 2015. Two years ago, the Red Sox tabbed 36-year-old Chaim Bloom to run the team.
Ng, who’s 52, might not be an Ivy Leaguer, but she graduated from the University of Chicago — ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the one of top 10 universities in the country — and was making a name for herself in baseball while some other current GMs were still in grade school.
An ESPN data analysis of baseball front offices in June 2020 focused on the dramatic rise over the past two decades in the percentage of Ivy League graduates and graduates from U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top 25 schools running baseball operations departments. The percentage of minorities running teams rose too, though only slightly. But one figure hadn’t changed: the percentage of women. Before Ng’s hiring, that percentage had held steady — at zero.
In 2016, 106 women worked in baseball operations roles, with nine in on-field positions and 12 in director positions or above, according to Major League Baseball. In 2020, the number of women in baseball operations roles increased to 225, with 17 women in director’s roles or above. From 2016 to 2020, the number of jobs in baseball operations increased from 4,442 to 4,951, with 23.8% of new jobs going to women.
“Kim’s hiring is progress,” said a female National League baseball operations staffer, “but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Buoyed by Ng, MLB scored a C for gender hiring in the 2021 Racial and Gender Report Card from the University of Central Florida, a grade that seems palatable only when compared with what the league received in 2020: an F.
MLB has worked to diversify in many ways, but even with Ng’s hiring, success has been limited when it comes to women. Women continue to report incidents that range from harassment to getting kicked out of rooms they belong in and an inability to find basic resources, including restrooms. MLB is noticing, and the league says it’s working to fix these issues, bringing Michele Meyer-Shipp in as its first chief people and culture officer last August as part of a larger effort to be more inclusive. But women in the game remain discouraged.
Women working in baseball operations across the major leagues, most of them speaking to ESPN on the condition of anonymity to protect their future job prospects, say Ng’s long climb to earn her position feels out of reach for them. They watch as many of their male colleagues — who share responsibilities ranging from entry-level administrative tasks to sabermetric analysis to working on the field with players to negotiating contracts — get promoted more quickly.
“It’s so competitive to even get into the space in the first place and then to advance beyond the entry-level jobs,” said an American League baseball operations analyst who is the only woman working for her team in her department. “Still not sure how that happens.”
Said a female National League front-office analyst of women like Ng: “I respect that they were willing to stick it out and be there for 30 years putting in their time and advance through the ranks, but that’s pretty much the only path you see is baseball lifers. There’s just not a lot of variety in the paths that [women] take to succeed.”
Numerous men running front offices across MLB declined to speak on or off the record for this story. When asked for an interview, deputy commissioner Dan Halem deferred, through the public relations department, to Meyer-Shipp.
Men might not be talking, but women in baseball have stories to tell.
VIDEO ANALYSIS IS a vital part of the game. During spring training three years ago, a female league operations analyst, then working as an intern, set out to develop that skill. But after she sat down to begin her session at the video station, located in the coaches’ locker room, she received a text message from her supervisor.
“Hey, the other intern is going to come and switch spots with you,” the text read.
“Did I do something wrong?” she texted back.
The explanation she received: One of the coaches was uncomfortable with a woman sitting in his locker room — which also happened to be the only place to receive the video training. She was pulled from the session, never getting the chance to develop a skill she had expected to use for the entire season. Instead, the training went to a man.
“I was just like, ‘How the f— is that my problem?'” she said. “No one stuck up for me. That was the hardest part. It was my first few weeks, and I very quickly did not feel like I was being looked after by the people who had just hired me and asked me to move across the country for them.”
The women who talked to ESPN echoed this sentiment, noting that it’s typical for front offices to discount the experience of being the only woman in the room. Many described a pressure they felt to remain quiet for their first year in order to feel accepted. Others spoke of increased anxiety in meetings, where their ideas often receive more scrutiny than those of their male counterparts. Multiple women expressed the need to exert additional emotional energy when considering their outward appearance, hoping to avoid harassment while at work.
“I was just like, ‘How the f— is that my problem?’ No one stuck up for me. That was the hardest part. It was my first few weeks, and I very quickly did not feel like I was being looked after by the people who had just hired me and asked me to move across the country for them.”
Female league operations analyst on being denied video training because a male coach felt uncomfortable with her in the locker room.
Major League Baseball has created programs in an attempt to create a top-down cultural shift in the sport’s workplace attitude toward women, launching employee networks such as the MLB Women Business Resource Group — an internal networking group — and the Katy Feeney Leadership Symposium, a developmental program for women in baseball that has drawn more than 140 participants since 2017.
The league has also created diversity programs, including the Pipeline Program — which seeks to identify and develop women and minorities for baseball operations and on-field roles, with women making up 46 of 220 people so far hired from the program — and the Fellowship Program, which recruits women and minorities for roles in the commissioner’s office, with women making up 45% of the candidate pool to date.
But even as MLB attempts to create more pathways for women, a culture persists that makes them feel unwelcome. A National League front-office staffer described the daily anxiety she feels simply driving up to her own team’s facility, worried — based on past experiences in ballparks across the country — that security won’t believe she works for the team. This has become a regular occurrence, where security doubts her credentials, or ignores them entirely, spending extra time double-checking them regardless of whether she’s at her home team’s facility or visiting another’s.
“They checked me through security five times, more than they did any of the men,” she said of one incident. “Some of my co-workers saw that, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, we didn’t realize that this actually happened.’
“You really have to be a tough cookie because you go through a lot of s—.” she said. “And it’s not just people giving you bad looks, but it’s sexual harassment, it’s guys touching you inappropriately, it’s ticket guys not giving you your ticket, it’s being kicked out of your seat.”
The league operations analyst recounted an incident in which players got into the back seat of her car during an airport pickup and immediately began talking about her in Spanish, thinking she could not understand what they were saying.
“[The players] start talking s— about me in the car or talk about if I’m hot or whatever, and I can understand everything,” she said. “Two hours into the car ride, I laugh at a joke they say in Spanish and they realize it and they’re like, ‘Oh.’ It’s that moment with men talking to men in the room and someone says a joke and one of us is in the corner and will be like, ‘What?’ and we’ll be like, ‘Remember, we work here in the room,’ and the tone immediately changes. It’s kind of a hard situation.”
The American League baseball operations analyst said her male counterparts often don’t know how to collaborate with her, something she attributes, at least in part, to a lack of experience working with women.
“When you’re interacting with coaches, they’re not really sure how to treat you,” she said. “When you’re interacting with male analysts in the front office, it’s really hard to make that transition from intern to full-time in how you’re treated, and that’s the case across the board.
“It becomes even more loud when you’re the first woman or the only woman.”
“You really have to be a tough cookie because you go through a lot of s—. And it’s not just people giving you bad looks, but it’s sexual harassment, it’s guys touching you inappropriately, it’s ticket guys not giving you your ticket, it’s being kicked out of your seat.”
Female National League front-office staffer
Bianca Smith was hired by the Red Sox as a minor league coach in February, becoming the first Black woman to hold that job in professional baseball. Smith says she regularly heard dismissive comments about her aspirations as she began her on-field coaching career at Case Western Reserve University. As women make strides on the field, they often face skepticism regarding their ability to lead in a sport they didn’t play at a professional level.
“We had a high school coach who asked what I did for the team. I tell people I did everything but actual recruiting, and that’s because I would work over the summer,” said Smith, a Dartmouth grad who aspires to be a big league manager. “I even told them I was getting a law and business degree, and his first response was, ‘Great, that means I can hire you to make sandwiches when you graduate,’ and I didn’t even have a response immediately because I was shocked.”
Women working both on and off the field pointed to the lack of a concrete support system, exacerbated by the lack of female colleagues. Women in entry-level baseball operations positions often receive feedback from their male counterparts to be more confident and assertive, but subsequently receive conflicting advice to stay quiet and to be more grateful for their positions in a competitive industry, a consistent theme among the women who talked to ESPN for this story.
“I’m constantly teetering on the edge of those two things, and I can’t really find a middle ground because I don’t think there is one,” said another National League front-office analyst. “I feel like I’m screaming at a brick wall when I have these conversations, and that’s really, really sad because at the end of the day, all I’m trying to do is my job.”
IT’S A SCAVENGER hunt no one would want to go on.
Walk through the locker room, where players might be changing clothes. Pass the potted plant in the hallway. Turn left down another hallway. Find the fourth door. Enter a corridor with curtains. And there, nearly hidden in the back corner by the storage closets: the women’s restroom.
Inconvenient trips to find the bathroom — often requiring walks through trainers’ rooms, locker rooms and gyms to access the facilities — is a simple but no less important and illustrative issue, and another common theme among women in baseball. An American League front-office analyst said her team did not have any women’s bathrooms at all on the same floor as the baseball operations office — despite the fact that she was working in a stadium built in the 2000s.
For the National League baseball operations analyst, that hunt for the restroom in her team’s spring training facility — in which you can’t miss the men’s room — meant soliciting a mental road map from one of her only female colleagues.
“The hallway that the bathroom was in, I would have never gone there. There’s nothing there. It’s literally tucked away in the back corner. There’s no markings or anything. … If I didn’t have a co-worker who had already been to spring training that year, I would’ve been just wandering around for who knows how long.”
Female National League baseball operations analyst on needing detailed instructions just to find the women’s restroom.
“When all my co-workers are men, I’m like, ‘OK, I have to text someone who isn’t here to figure out where I’m going because none of you are going to be able to help me at all,” she said. “If I didn’t have a co-worker who had already been to spring training that year, I would’ve been just wandering around for who knows how long.”
Even with the instructions, it wasn’t easy.
“I was literally making sure that I could visually see touchpoints when I’m walking through, because the hallway that the bathroom was in, I would have never gone there,” she said. “There’s nothing there. It’s literally tucked away in the back corner. There’s no markings or anything.”
Meyer-Shipp — formerly the chief diversity officer for accounting firm KPMG — said the league is aware of the issues regarding facilities for women and is in discussions with teams to address them. Meyer-Shipp said she began a 120-day listening tour across Major League Baseball last year, looking for feedback about diversity and collecting feedback about how to improve workplace culture.
“We need to be asking our employees for their sentiment about how they’re experiencing the organization,” Meyer-Shipp said. “We need to be looking at that feedback broken down by demographic to understand. Are our women experiencing our culture in a way that’s different from men, and if so, how? What are our challenges?
“I’ve engaged with women across the league, I’ve engaged with people of color across the league to start conversations around, ‘What do you need? What are the gaps? Tell us what you think will work,'” Meyer-Shipp said. “My message to our leaders across the league is it’s not just good enough to get people in the door, but what are you going to do to keep, grow and elevate that talent?”
“They straight up told me, ‘If we hadn’t worked with Kim [Ng], we would have been harder on you or been more inquisitive of you and why you’re here, but because we worked with Kim, we know that you can do this job. I felt a sense of gratitude towards her. She’s lifted this whole weight off of our shoulders.”
Female National League front-office staffer
Additionally, in response to recent events like now-former New York Mets GM Jared Porter’s harassment of a female reporter, the league created a third-party anonymous hotline to report incidents.
“Talking about it, speaking about it, calling others out when they see somebody do something or something untoward,” Meyer-Shipp said. “I need them to take strategy and put it into action. Be intentional, proactive and deliberate about recruitment efforts. I need them to do overarching things because when people see it from the top, it starts to cascade down.”
The impact of Ng’s success wasn’t felt only after she’d nabbed the top job with the Marlins. The National League front-office staffer recalled that when she first started out in the industry, multiple co-workers told her their experience working with Ng influenced how they approached working with her.
“They straight up told me, ‘If we hadn’t worked with Kim, we would have been harder on you or been more inquisitive of you and why you’re here, but because we worked with Kim, we know that you can do this job,” she said. “I felt a sense of gratitude towards her. She’s lifted this whole weight off of our shoulders.”
Ng is all too aware.
“When Derek told me I got the job, there was a 10,000-pound weight lifted off of this shoulder, I realized about a half hour later that it had just been transferred to this shoulder,” Ng said in November. “I feel quite a lot of responsibility; I have my entire career. … You’re bearing the torch for so many.”