Kim Ng started her baseball career straight out of the University of Chicago as an intern for the Chicago White Sox. After rising to take over arbitration duties with the Sox, she took a job with the AL league office. Ng then spent four years with the New York Yankees as an assistant GM, where at age 29 she was the youngest in that position in baseball when hired. After completing her second year as vice president and assistant GM for the Los Angeles Dodgers, she’s now one of only two women to hold such a position in baseball operations and the highest-ranking Asian-American executive in the majors. She was mentioned as a candidate for several GM jobs this off-season. Ng recently chatted with BP about learning the business, taking lessons from different mentors, and what it takes to succeed in baseball.
Baseball Prospectus: How did you first get your foot in the door with the White Sox?
Kim Ng: I got an internship with the White Sox five, six months out of college, did that for three or four months, and they liked me enough to hire me full time. After the arbitration season ended, they hired me full time to be an entry-level person. I basically did what anyone would do at those levels, enter scouting reports, operate the radar gun, anything that they had.
BP: How did they come to rely on you to handle arbitration cases? Were you trained for that position in college?
Ng: I had some analytic skills, having come from University of Chicago. But I didn’t know about arbitration exhibits, negotiating contracts or anything like that. I had to learn, and I became pretty good at it.
BP: Did the White Sox help you get prepared at all, or did they just throw you out there to sink or swim?
Ng: When I started, they gave me a tape that they had done. They said to take a look at it…but yes, in some ways it was sink or swim. It’s not real tough to figure out though–if you have a feel for baseball, it’s not rocket science. You just need to be analytical enough, driven enough to be good at it.
BP: You handled arbitration for the Yankees as well. How did each team handle cases? Did one club take a hard-line stance and try to take more cases to arbitration, rather than settling?
Ng: The White Sox do arbitration cases in house, while the Yankees had an outside practitioner come in to handle cases. The Yankees had to take a different approach than most teams, since they had such tremendous post-season success. That definitely factors into cases–it’s a huge factor. Playing in the post-season in New York is the ultimate stage, and players tend to do well in arbitration if they succeed on that stage.
BP: It’s said that the Yankees were so impressed with your winning the Mariano Rivera case that that’s what led to your promotion. How do you try to win a case against a player who might be the best late-inning pitcher in playoff history?
Ng: We were very fair with Mariano in terms of the salary we were offering. We paid him the most that any closer with his service time had received. In arbitration, it’s really a question of degree. If you pay a player the most, there’s not much more room for you to go.
BP: Obviously you’ve worked a number of cases with top players. What about the bottom-end guys? If you can pay someone like Rivera the most and still win your case, can you do the same by offering a lesser player the least?
Ng: The farther away you are from being the right number, the more chance you have to lose. The same goes for the agent.
BP: How did your work doing arbitration cases and coming up through front offices help you in terms of growing your knowledge base and improving your player evaluation skills?
Ng: When you’re in the baseball operations department, you’re watching games every single night, and you get a pretty good feel for what players are capable of and what they’re not. Sometimes people think stats don’t always tell the truth, and that’s true. There are some players where stats don’t do them justice. You’ll see a player who has great instincts, who does the little things that don’t show up in box scores like taking the extra base. I think it is important for people doing arbitration to have a feel for what players can do.
BP: What made you decide to take a job in the American League office?
Ng: I felt that I’d be able to interact with other clubs, with GMs and assistant GMs a lot. It was also a way to delve into the rules, to learn how they’re enforced. When you’re in the league office, you might get calls from four or five teams about one rule. The lessons get hammered in, and you improve your contacts at the same time.
BP: Take us through the interview process. How did each team differ in terms of who you met with, how long your interview lasted and how you presented yourself to win each job?
Ng: As you go higher up, you meet people higher up in the food chain. With the Dodgers, I met with Bob Daly and Bob Graziano. In New York it was Brian Cashman. In the league office, I was interviewing for the director of waivers and records job. They didn’t know as much about me as say, the Yankees did, so I met with more people–Gene Budig, Phyllis Merhige. I had dealt with Brian a ton before interviewing for that job; he’d call the league office for certain rulings, so there was a lot of interaction between us. He knew a lot about my skills and personality, so that was pretty short. In Los Angeles, I had worked with Dan Evans before, so it was more about meeting with people higher up, since I was interviewing for a higher position.
BP: Did you ever get a sense in the interview process–any of your interviews–that there was discrimination in play, even if it was subtle?
Ng: I never got that feeling. Dan Evans knew me. The Yankees, they knew me. Major League Baseball has a number of women who have jobs of significance, one being Phyllis Merhige, who interviewed me.
BP: Your name came up in the press linked to several GM openings this off-season. How far did that go?
Ng: I didn’t interview for any of those jobs.
BP: Well, your name was noted in particular in connection to the Expos job, when Omar Minaya was considering offer elsewhere. What would you do if you took over the GM job there?
Ng: I don’t really want to speculate, so I’ll take a pass.
BP: Let’s try this another way. Why do you think you’d be a good candidate for a GM job?
Ng: A lot of it depends on who the owners are and what they’re looking for. For me to tell you I have a scout’s background in player evaluation, that’s wrong. I wouldn’t try to say that. More and more general managers out there don’t have that extensive background, but have been successful in other areas and have proven themselves over time. Two of those are people I’ve worked for, Brian Cashman and Dan Evans. With Bill Bavasi getting the Mariners job, it’s the same thing, and he would also admit that. Sandy Alderson, years ago, was the same way, and he was able to put together a world championship club.
One of my strongest skills is the decent relationships I have with many agents, players, and other club executives. Someone put it in a really good way: As a GM, you’re the conductor of the orchestra–that doesn’t mean you need to know how to play every single instrument. But being a good leader, having good communication skills, that’s going to take you a long way.
BP: How would you go about building your ideal team? What are the basic tenets of your team-building philosophy?
Ng: It’s going to differ for every club. You can’t go in there and tear a team apart. The Dodgers were built on pitching and defense. The Yankees were pretty well-balanced. There are a lot of different ways to build a club. To come in and say, ‘I will do XYZ by doing ABC,’ you’re probably going to hurt yourself in the end.
I can say that I am a proponent of being strong up the middle offensively. It’s something I saw with the Yankees having such great success, something I believe in. How you build a team also depends on the ballpark. In Dodger Stadium it’s difficult to hit home runs, so you have to adjust to that. The people in place, ballpark factors, there’s a wide variety of factors that differ with each organization. But a lot of the emphasis I would put would be on scouting and player development. Financial flexibility is the way to succeed, and having great scouting and player development is the best way to achieve that flexibility.
BP: The Dodgers have had a history of drafting high school pitchers, even though they carry a much higher risk that any other player’s background. In general, do you favor high school or college talent?
Ng: I’d take the best available, signable player.
BP: What type of manager would you want working with you?
Ng: ‘What type of team would I have?’ would be my first question. Generally, I’d want someone who’s a great communicator. Given I’d want to focus on player development, it’d be best if it was someone with a player development background, who can assist in the setup and focus on the farm system. It would be someone skilled at dealing with younger players, who’s also a great game manager. That’s the ideal.
BP: You mentioned working under Brian Cashman, Dan Evans. What was your biggest lesson learned in each of your major league jobs?
Ng: With Brian one of the things I think he’s best at is building consensus and a good relationship with the media. With Dan Evans, I have huge respect for his thoroughness and his patience. He’s good at waiting for the right deal, trying to get all his options lined up to make the best decision.
BP: In building consensus the way Brian Cashman’s done, he’s obviously dealing with many factions, with George Steinbrenner and company in Tampa and the people in New York. How important is it to avoid stepping on toes?
Ng: As a general manager I don’t know that you’re ever going to be able to not step on toes. Any decision you make is not going to be unanimous. Brian has a great feel for what most everyone wants. Of course, every decision that he makes is not necessarily how he wants it. It’s the same with other general managers. You get a gut feel, it doesn’t necessarily coincide with your scouts, but at the same time the scouts are there for a reason. You listen to your people most of the time, but you can’t be afraid to make your own choices too. There’s a lot of give and take, of playing politician.
BP: How has the media’s increasing role changed a major league general manager’s job, and that of a front office in general?
Ng: It’s become such a huge part of being a general manager. The electronic age, the information that is out there has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. The relationship you have with the media is important to any organization, and you can run into problems if you don’t maintain a good one. How you handle it depends on the personality of the person. You have to be open and up-front. But if the information you have, if sharing it has a chance of hurting your deal, you’d just as soon it not get out.
BP: Kaz Matsui has become a big topic of conversation lately, and the Dodgers have been mentioned as one team that may be in the running for his services. What’s the best way to calculate the value of a foreign free agent?
Ng: That’s an awful tough question to answer. With the Japanese market there’s also a posting system, so that factors into decision-making–it goes beyond the salaries of the players. That’s money out the door, and has to be taken into consideration, whether you’re dealing with a free agent or posted player. The hardest thing about evaluating players in foreign markets is the level of competition being different. A lot of it is gut feel. And then of course it comes down to the same issue you get with any free agent: It’s not what a player’s worth, it’s what you’re willing to pay him. With someone like Ichiro, Seattle might have had a completely different approach than a middle of the country team–because of the Japanese population, you can make some of it up in other revenue streams, just as you can in L.A. You’re talking about attracting tourism, selling different products within the ballpark, marketing opportunities with Japanese firms. All of that has to be taken into account.
BP: The economics of the game have changed a great deal, not just from when you started but even in the last couple years. Do you see the downward price trend on mid-tier talent continuing? Do you think we might see no middle class in baseball in the next few years?
Ng: I have no idea (laughs). I learned a long time ago not to try and predict what will happen. Ten years ago if you would have told me what would happen five years later, I would have told you you’re nuts. The same with five years ago to today. With the middle class, either a player will get pushed to the top or pushed to the bottom–it’s hard to see it going another way.