Marlins general manager Kim Ng, as you may have heard, is the first female general manager in any of the four major North American men’s pro sports leagues. She’s the first person of East Asian descent to be a GM in baseball. Her November 2020 hire made national news and things never really slowed down. For years, the requests on her time were relentless, as much as the Marlins staff tried to keep them from being overwhelming.
For a while, everything Ng did was a first, from the meaningful to the mundane. The first female GM to navigate the trade deadline or sip water and sit in her suite at loanDepot Park on a random Tuesday night. All the attention was well-deserved but not entirely welcome. Ng, like almost every other female in a male-dominated industry, would prefer not to be singled out for anything but her work.
Maybe now, as the Marlins are amid the organization’s first full-season playoff series since 2003, we can start concentrating on a less-publicized fact: Ng is a damn good GM.
“This should have happened five or 10 years ago,” Marlins assistant GM Oz Ocampo said of Ng getting a chance to lead baseball operations. “She’s got so much feel for the game but also respects what she doesn’t know. She’s relentless in trying to figure out how to continually improve and get smarter and bring in people who can help her along the way.”
Ocampo, who was hired in November, wasn’t looking to leave Houston, an organization fresh off the World Series and one he returned to after spending the better part of the last decade helping turn the Astros into a juggernaut. And Ocampo wouldn’t have if he didn’t know how competitive Ng — who he worked with previously at the Commissioner’s Office — and first-year manager Skip Schumaker were.
“We are all obsessive and crazy,” Ocampo said. “We want to win.”
It’s the offseason in sunny San Diego and Schumaker is meeting Ng for the first time. She has been in baseball since 1990 and was passed over for several general manager jobs. Surely Ng has “her people” like any baseball executive, but she also doesn’t want to just hire a friend or someone she’s known for years. She wants to get it right. So Ng calls around and asks people she trusts whom she should be considering.
When Schumaker interviews, there is not an immediate consensus that he’s the top pick. Ng makes more calls to friends in the game, people who know Schumaker. They all tell her the same thing: Schumaker is a winner. An obsessive one. He’s got a good engine, as people in baseball like to say.
She makes the hire.
Later that winter, Ng brings in Ocampo and begins to talk about how Schumaker and Ocampo can expedite the Marlins’ trajectory. People often say they want to seek out different perspectives when making decisions, but Ng goes out of her way to find as many as possible.
“We went from rigid-control B.S.,” said one longtime baseball operations employee, “to a place of ‘we need ideas!’ It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Ng told Schumaker the same thing she told Ocampo: Not only are they going to win in Miami but they’re going to have sustained success. And that, she believes, starts with a winning culture.
“The respect I have for how she leads is at the very top,” Schumaker said. “Players love her; she knows how to have difficult conversations, and it just feels like she is part of our on-field staff. And what I mean by that is she lets us do our jobs. She gives ideas and recommends, obviously, but doesn’t second-guess. You know what that does for a manager and staff? It’s incredible.”
Marlins president of business operations Caroline O’Connor, a trailblazer in her own right, likens Ng to the conductor of an orchestra.
“She gets people to voice their opinions and creates a collaborative environment for the team. People like being heard and being part of these decisions,” said O’Connor. “And you can see that in the decisions being made. There have been all these articles about the trades (made at the deadline) and the success of it and that included everyone from the scouts to (owner) Bruce (Sherman). Kim does really well at managing up and managing down and working laterally. She’s a very thoughtful leader.”
It’s late July and Ng has an organization-changing decision to make: Are the Marlins going to go for it or not?
Miami jumped out to a 53-39 first half but then started to teeter and lost nine of their next 10. Sherman has given Ng the OK to add to the payroll. The group assembled isn’t just Ng and a few aides, it includes people from the front office, scouting, analytics and the big-league team. Ng leads the discussions as they deliberate and runs the room. Standing pat is not an option; they’re either in or they’re out.
Five days before the deadline, the Marlins trade two well-thought-of prospects, Marco Vargas and Ronald Hernández, for Mets closer David Robertson.
“You don’t do that,” Ocampo said, “if you aren’t committed to making a push.”
The Marlins have an interest in Lance Lynn before he goes to the Dodgers and finish runner-up to the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario, widely considered the best available bat. By the early afternoon, Miami is still quiet. Ng pivots and, having already been in talks for a while with the White Sox, acquires Jake Burger and later Josh Bell from Cleveland to give the Marlins’ lineup some thump. Then they get Ryan Weathers from San Diego with “seconds to spare,” Ng said, referring to it as her most stressful trade deadline as a GM, but not in baseball. (Ng says that honor goes to the 2006 deadline deal where, as assistant Dodgers GM, she helped in the Greg Maddux trade which required no-trade provisions to get Maddux to waive his no-trade clause and go to Los Angeles.)
“We were going to make deals that were right for us,” she said a few weeks later about the trio of moves. “I bet I was getting blown up on Twitter before (making those), though.”
The Marlins’ deadline moves quickly infused life into the team, with Bell and Burger posting two of the highest OPS marks in the majors after switching teams.
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) October 3, 2023
“There were a lot of moving parts, a lot of adjustments on the fly,” Ocampo said. “But she was … collected and decisive when she needed to be. And thank goodness, because those players (added) have made a huge impact on not just winning on the field, but their presence in the clubhouse can’t be overstated.”
It’s the last homestand and the Marlins are fighting for a wild-card spot in standings that change nightly. They’re in, then they’re out. It’s stressful and exciting.
It’s also Employee Appreciation Month and Ng approaches O’Connor with an idea. For the final home series in September, what if Marlins staff members come up to Ng’s box to watch a few innings with her?
The idea is overwhelmingly popular. Ng’s assistant is in charge of coordinating schedules to make sure everyone interested gets a chance to sit with Ng and hear how a GM thinks. (Given Ng’s inquisitive mind, she may have asked more questions than her suitemates.)
Though she doesn’t seek the limelight, Ng knows how important it is for many people to see in her a visible sign of progress. Recently, Ng and O’Connor — the first all-female leadership team in baseball — were honored by the local YWCA. The name of the award was “The First, But Not the Last.”
“You want to pay it forward,” said O’Connor. “You feel so privileged to be in the role you think you don’t want to ruin it for anyone else. So, how do you do as much as you can to open those doors and have a positive impact that other people see?”
— Bally Sports Florida & Bally Sports Sun (@BallySportsFL) October 1, 2023
It’s Saturday night in Pittsburgh and the team has just clinched a playoff spot. Sherman has taken some of the staff out to a restaurant. Half of them are still in champagne-soaked clothes, the dampness doing nothing to deter the mood.
Ng, who Jazz Chisholm Jr. referred to as “Mama Kim” when speaking to reporters in the clubhouse, was part of the on-field celebration. She knows how big the moment is. The whole organization does. Attendance was up 28 percent in Miami this year and 12 percent the year before that. The Marlins made the postseason in a COVID-shortened 2020 season, but this is different.
Now the city is buzzing and the Marlins are suddenly media darlings playing on prime time in Philadelphia. But there isn’t a lot of time to savor things. Reaching 84 wins is nice, but “everyone was talking about what’s next,” O’Connor said. “There’s a real opportunity here.”
Having lost Game 1 on Tuesday night, opportunity now means beating Philadelphia twice in a best-of-three set where the Marlins are underdogs. Miami is on the brink of elimination. But there is no added pressure for Ng to get to the NL Division Series and be the first woman, again, to accomplish that.
“She puts enough pressure on herself,” Ocampo said. “It’s a privilege to be playing in the postseason and we welcome that more than anything else. She doesn’t have time to feel that (extra) pressure. She’s worried about how to win tonight and tomorrow. That’s all she’s focused on.”
(Top photo of Ng: Rob Tringali / MLB Photos via Getty Images)