We’ve seen a lot of changes in baseball in the last few decades, but more than a half-century after the end of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the sport still often feels like an old boy’s club. In 2011, we’re seeing mixed signals pointing forward. Kim Ng, the highest-ranking baseball executive for nearly a decade, Assistant General Manager of the Yankees and then the Dodgers, recently accepted a job to work for Joe Torre as the Senior Vice President for Baseball Operations in the Commissioner’s office of Major League Baseball. And Justine Siegal, the first woman to coach a professional men’s baseball team — the 2009 Brockton Rox in Brockton, MA, unaffiliated with MLB or MiLB — this year became the first woman to throw batting practice in Major League spring training.
Every time a woman does something for the first time, it makes it easier for others to follow in their footsteps. “Things are definitely changing, but it’s slow,” says Siegal. “And that’s why the only way to keep my sanity is not to look at this experience for me as for the next generation coming up, paving the way. And that’s frustrating when we want the job.” The trouble is, there aren’t many women in the next levels of baseball. “I’m a little surprised that we haven’t seen more women come up in entry-level positions through the ranks, at this point in time,” Ng told me. “My only hope is that women do get recognized, and that we can put some programs in place to really at least get women into the system.”
Ng isn’t the only woman to reach the upper levels of a baseball front office. Jean Afterman is Vice President and Assistant General Manager of the Yankees; and Elaine Weddington Steward, the current Vice President and Club Counsel of the Red Sox, is the former Assistant General Manager of the Red Sox, the first African-American woman to hold that position. But Ng is the first woman to interview for a GM position, interviewing with the Dodgers in 2005, with the Mariners in 2008, and with the Padres in 2009. And that alone is significant to her: “If I had not interviewed for several General Manager positions, I would say maybe that position is closed off [to women] at this point. But I think with people being open-minded enough to give me an interview, I can’t say that there is any position at this point in the front office that is closed off.”
She has been an inspiration to women throughout the game. As Siegal told me, “For me, Kim Ng is like a rock star.” But Ng doesn’t see herself as a representation of women in baseball: she’s just herself. “I am who I am,” she said during a phone interview Wednesday. “I represent certain things in life and society and the game. I don’t feel lonely, though, because I don’t necessarily think, I’m a woman and therefore these things are going to be hard to achieve,” she says. “I think when you have a really positive outlook, I know there’s hundreds of thousands of people who would love to have my position, but don’t. So I’m very grateful for everything that I’ve been a recipient of.”
Ng has been uniquely prominent for the past decade, as essentially the only woman perceived as having a real shot at being the first female General Manager. And that’s exactly how she has been described, in news story after news story. “That’s just the great story, the convenient story, the easy story to write. And I’m going to have to live with that,” she says. To her, the worst part of those stories is that they couch the job as something that should be hers by right. “I think we’re downplaying the difficulty of these jobs,” she says. “Just because someone fails, that doesn’t mean it’s just because she’s a woman. I think we need to get a lot more women in the system. And then maybe one of them will be good enough.”
The current problem for women isn’t interest, but opportunity. “The fact that Justine Siegal is now, in 2011, the first women to throw batting practice for a major league team is amazing but sad,” says Notgraphs blogger Bethany Heck. “Baseball is one of the few sports that a woman could theoretically play at the same level as a man.” Siegal agrees, and has founded an organization called Baseball for All that sponsors girls’ baseball clinics, tournaments, and all-star teams. “There are so many girls, they don’t want to just be sitting and watching, they want to be in the game,” says Siegal. “And when you see me throwing BP, you see me in the game.”
But MLB may not yet think of women that way. Although a 2002 Gallup poll revealed that 37 percent of women followed baseball, MLB outreach to women thus far has been spotty at best. This March, baseball trumpeted a plan “to connect with its extensive female fan base”: expanding a partnership with Victoria’s Secret to produce the PINK collection, a line modeled by baseball fan Alyssa Milano featuring tee-shirts, sweats, hoodies and tank tops with team logos. Today the PINK collection is green for St. Patrick’s Day. They may do good business, but PINK is being marketed to a demographic more interested in looking cute than doing baseball analysis. (In my opinion, that disconnect was part of the subtext of the Rob Dibble controversy last summer.)
Still, perceptions in baseball are changing, and not just perceptions of women. When Kim Ng became the Assistant GM of the Yankees in 1997, she was a 29-year old who had never played major or minor league baseball — two seemingly insurmountable black marks in the old boys’ club that used to constitute the GM community. Then youth took control. Randy Smith was made GM of the Padres in 1993 at the tender age of 29, the youngest GM ever hired. Then, in the past 10 years, the youth movement has quickened. Doug Miller wrote an article for MLB.com in February 2010 noting that 15 of the 30 then-GMs were hired at 40 or younger; since then, Mark Shapiro has moved up and Josh Byrnes has been fired, replaced by 36-year old Chris Antonetti and 50-year old Kevin Towers, who first became a GM at the age of 34.
Former Mets blogger Jessica Bader sees Ng as a part of that movement: “I definitely find Ng and Siegal’s stories to be inspirational, and I think that Ng’s rise through the front-office ranks is particularly interesting in how it ties into the larger story of baseball welcoming people with credentials other than “former player” as front-office personnel.” But for the moment, other than Ng, not many of those credentialed people are women. Ng mentioned one such up-and-comer, MIT graduate Helen Zelman, who worked as a scouting coordinator in Josh Byrnes’s front office in Arizona from 2006 to 2010. But Byrnes got fired and Zelman now works with a tech company called Lemnos Labs.
Ng is excited to be in the Commissioner’s office and involved in making baseball policy, and believes the experience will make her an even better candidate for General Manager in the future. Her new boss, Joe Torre, has long felt she was qualified to be a GM, and three years ago, he said, “I hope to hell it happens.” In her current post, she will undoubtedly be an asset to the league and the sport. But it’s a shame there are so few other women in prominent positions in baseball. For a decade, Ng has been viewed as a deserving candidate for the highest positions in the sport. It’s time that baseball started hiring more deserving women to the lowest positions. As Ng says, “It’s just a matter of getting them in the game. They’re out there. I know they’re out there.”
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.