A celebration of Kim Ng's exceptionalism

·6-min read

Even if she wasn’t a woman, Kim Ng, the new Miami Marlins GM, would be exceptional. As a member of an exclusive club of the 30 highest-ranking team baseball executives in the world. That alone makes her remarkable. As the youngest person to present a salary arbitration case, for the Chicago White Sox in 1995. As the youngest person to be an assistant GM, when the New York Yankees hired her to that role in 1998. As a three-time World Series winner with New York. As a 51-year-old with over 30 years of experience in the industry.

That she is also a woman and an Asian American, and throughout her career was often the first or only woman and Asian American, makes her all the more exceptional. She now stands alone as a woman atop a men’s sports organization.

And yet, the celebration of her success this week has largely been couched as a celebration of the hire as harbinger of many more like it to come. I hope that assumption is accurate. That would be wonderful, practical, progressive. It would be about time and a meaningful shift. It is the direction the world and workforce is going, or at least it seems that way when I am feeling optimistic. It would be tangible proof of Ng’s trailblazing status and a fitting legacy for a woman who deserves it.

“People are looking for hope. People are looking for inspiration. And I'm happy that this is a part of it,” Ng said in her introductory press conference on Monday.

But let’s not be so all-encompassing in our celebration of what she represents that we lose sight of the woman herself. Hopefully she will someday be the first of many female and East Asian American GMs, but she is not yet. She is still the first of just one — her ascension stands as testament both to the fact that it can be done and to the difficulty in doing so.

Kim Ng, seen here at a conference in Brazil in February, has been qualified for a GM role for years. (Photo by Marcelo Maragni/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Kim Ng, seen here at a conference in Brazil in February, has been qualified for a GM role for years. (Photo by Marcelo Maragni/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Men are allowed to be interesting and exceptional; their individual success stands in contrast to the masses of their ilk. But women, even when they are definitionally, demonstrably exceptional, are seen instead as faceless symbols of their gender — proof that any little girl can do what they’ve just done someday. We want so much — and rightly so! — for there to be institutional changes, that perhaps we’re too quick to declare a barrier broken instead of overcome by someone only able to do so at great personal effort.

It took an almost superhuman level of perseverance for Ng to get past the point of being an overqualified easy answer to whether a woman could be a GM, to actually standing on the field at an empty Marlins Stadium for an official portrait as their highest-ranking baseball executive.

Ng told reporters that she hadn’t encountered much resistance in her career — that is “prior to” spending the last 15 years interviewing for GM jobs that were always, ultimately, awarded instead to men until just last Friday. She alluded several times to the hurt of coming up short when she knew people were paying particular attention to her career trajectory. The difficulty of “going through that failure publicly.”

Her rawest answer was in regard to whether she felt any of those futile GM interviews were insincere, a pandering nod toward diversity without any real intent behind them.

“There were times where I felt like the interview wasn't maybe on the up and up. But I will say that just by having my name out there was a source of hope for people. And so you do it because you know that you just have to keep your name out there. It wasn't about me. It was about others,” she said. “It was about the women behind me; it was about the women starting out in baseball and across all sports. It was about just letting them know that this was going on.”

There is something both brave and degrading about going through the motions and emotions of applying to your dream job, projecting an air of confidence and competence and eagerness while believing you never really had a shot despite your ample qualifications. And to do it all publicly and with a perfect reputation. To weather the rejection you saw coming with grace and continue to love the game. I couldn’t do it. It makes me mad that Ng had to. And even though it motivated her, it makes me sad that she felt the added pressure of expectations and representation that whole time, too.

“It's hard to go through that,” she said. “But again, a lot of this was about others. I mean, it was for me but a lot of it was about others as well.”

I don’t want to celebrate a baseball industry that finally let her through, then. Let’s not confuse the fruits of one person’s tenacity with proof that there has been systemic change. Instead, I want to celebrate Ng herself for outlasting all that bulls---. For not crumbling under the 10,000-pound weight that she said feels not so much lifted as shifted from one shoulder to the other as she embarks on the precarious quest to continue to prove that women everywhere can do a job that she is certainly capable of.

This is tricky to write about because the representation is so important and because Ng herself is explicitly invested in the future of the game and the opportunities available to women and girls. It’s part of what makes her such an important and seemingly beloved figure in the game. She’s a hero worth having and I am heartened by the outpouring of testimonies to what her achievement means.

The rhetorical deployment of kids at home watching this development is a powerful one when we talk about the importance of representation, but I balk a little at the way it manages to make even a traditionally hypermasculine and necessarily competitive achievement seem almost maternal when it’s done by a woman. And the way that it implies that women should settle for making things just a little bit better for those who come after them instead of expecting a fair shot in their own time.

Lauding a broken glass ceiling as a boon to the next generation is a way of kicking the can down the road. It presupposes that change takes a long time — which it does, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a way of celebrating progress instead of actual equality. But how long are we supposed to be happy with merely cutting the distance in half?

Hiring her now doesn’t erase the indignity of all those years that she could have or should have been a GM, and immediately shifting our focus to how this improves the chances for someone else is to apply an undeserved set of retroactive rose-colored glasses. What is a symbolic victory for half the population is a hard-earned, lifelong, empirically unique achievement for Ng herself. I hope she gets to feel that.

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