Ng hire a 'spark' for MLB Asian community

December 23rd, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- For Eric Kubota, there was a tangible "sense of relief" when he saw that Kim Ng had been hired by the Miami Marlins to be their new general manager in November.

Kubota, the director of scouting for the A's, laughs as he describes himself as an "old-school baseball dinosaur" who has somehow been in baseball longer than Ng herself, who first entered the world of the front office as a White Sox intern in 1990 and finally completed a climb to the top of the baseball operations hill three decades later. Ng's promotion capped a slow but sure rise that took her through three organizations and two league offices before her ascent to the peak.

Most of Kubota's sense of relief stemmed from the fact that he'd seen how hard Ng had worked through those decades, and having climbed a significant portion of baseball's corporate ladder himself, he knew how much work she had put in and just how qualified she was for the position. Then, too, came the other realization: Someone who looked like him had finally taken that last step to general manager.

"It's like, you know, someone made it to the top of the hill," Kubota said.

The most significant barrier broken when Ng was hired by the Marlins, of course, was that she became the first woman to serve as general manager in one of the major men's professional sports in the United States. For the small handful of Asian Americans working around front offices in MLB, it meant more, considering the added significance of Ng becoming the second Asian baseball operations leader in MLB, and the first of East Asian descent.

"She's been in baseball basically my entire career in baseball, so I’m glad to know her," said Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, who was the first Asian leadership figure in MLB as a Canadian of Pakistani descent. "I’ve been on some diversity panels with her. I think it's a great hire. I think the excitement around the game and around the country is warranted. I just think it makes us a better industry. It makes all of us better."

Still, many of the other Asian American leadership figures around baseball admit that the lack of historic precedent for Asian general managers before Ng hasn't necessarily been something they've thought about much when paving their own journeys.

Instead of any organized support system or network for engagement of Asian American professionals in baseball, Kubota and others describe more of a general awareness of the others around the sport -- Ng, Royals assistant general manager Jin Wong, Indians director of professional scouting Victor Wang and Pirates assistant director of international scouting Max Kwan among them. Asian American representation remains low relative to other minority groups in a league that is increasingly making a push to diversify both its on-field product and the minds in the front offices that drive baseball thought.

According to the 2020 report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 2.8 percent of team senior administration positions and 4 percent of team professional administration positions were held by people who identified as Asian on Jan. 1, even as the overall percentage of people of color in such positions either held steady or increased as a whole throughout the sport.

"I don't know why that is, in terms of representation," Wong said. "But I know that you're starting to see more people, more staff that are Asian American at these meetings. And that's good to see. But I have no idea why that's the case."

They agreed that there's probably a combination of several factors at play as to why such representation still remains low -- and why it took so much longer for an Asian American candidate to take the final step to a general manager position.

There are simply fewer people of Asian descent, not just in baseball, but in the United States. According to the latest estimates by the Census Bureau, Asians represented 5.9 percent of the population, as compared to 13.4 percent who identify as Black and 18.5 percent who identify as Latino or Hispanic. And in the narrower world of baseball, 1.9 percent of players on Opening Day rosters were Asian, a slim increase from '18.

Though the game has continued its international growth over the years, with stars from both Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Hideo Nomo) and South Korea's KBO league (Chan Ho Park, Hyun Jin Ryu, Byung-Hyun Kim) having increased the visibility of MLB in their respective countries over the years, that hasn't necessarily translated immediately to leadership. This is in part because the decision-making sphere used to value playing experience; it also takes time for demographic trends on the field to be reflected in the hierarchy of front offices, which become increasingly narrow with stiff competition towards the top of the ladder.

More significantly, many hint at some underlying cultural dynamics specific to the Asian American experience in the United States that could play a factor -- though it's obviously tough to generalize and draw any conclusions across the vast demographic landscape.

Paul Kuo, the director of analytics, research and media relations for the Ballengee Group, notes that in his experience, sports are still viewed as a nontraditional line of work that remains difficult for his family to understand. Though it's an oversimplification to lean on the trope that Asian immigrant parents often push their children into high-earning fields -- often science and engineering -- it also remains true that Asian Americans are overrepresented in such fields and college majors compared to their percentage of the population.

"[My parents] don't know what a marketing sponsorship is," Kuo said. "So, yeah, definitely a cultural factor of career choices that are preventing Asian Americans from thinking of sports as a viable career path."

Wong notes, too, that as he grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, the experience of watching and attending live sports wasn't as much of a focal point for his family, and he only gravitated toward baseball as a career because he played the sport. Though Wong played, there exists a general trend of de-emphasizing sports participation among Asian Americans. Youth sport demographics are difficult to find, but the NCAA reported that only 2 percent of its student-athletes in 2019 identified as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander -- by far the smallest group.

Considering the shorter history of Asian American experience in the United States, there's likely some extent of parents and children alike that don't think of North American sports as a viable career path off the field.

"Personally, I think my parents were probably pretty surprised that you could establish a legitimate career in a non-playing role in the sports industry, just because, depending on how much time you spend in the United States, you just don't have any prior knowledge or prior experience or background in an industry like this," Wang said.

And even those whose families have assimilated into American society to a greater degree -- Kubota is a third-generation American, and D-backs baseball operations analyst Taylor Choe grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area with sports-loving parents -- noted that their family influences would have initially leaned towards steering them away from baseball.

"My dad was an engineering major, so he was pretty adamant about wanting [me and my sister] to study some sort of STEM subjects," Choe said. "So a little bit, like, pressured into it."

Whatever way those factors -- and others -- have come together, there's no denying that there's still room for more of an influx of Asian Americans to follow in Ng's footsteps and continue the diversification of front offices.

It's worth noting that nobody interviewed for this story mentioned feeling professionally hindered in any way by being a member of an ethnic minority group. While it took until 2020 for Ng to break the barrier for both women and East Asians, they feel that's more representative of the historic lack of Asian Americans working their way up the ladder rather than any structural barriers.

"It's just, you know, we all face the same hurdles, and there's only so many jobs as you go, as you move up," Kubota said. "And you know, it's a very competitive field. And there's really, really smart people out there."

The continued increase in size of front offices around the Majors and added emphasis on analytics, nutrition, sports science, psychology and other expanding fields will likely open the opportunities for more Asian Americans and other candidates of color to enter the applicant pool in the coming years. For instance, Choe, a huge NBA fan from Northern California who grew up in a 49ers and Giants family, majored in engineering at UC Berkeley and was able to apply that to a career in sports, which may not have been possible before this current proliferation of new fields in front offices.

And from there, it will now just take time for those people to start working their way up the ladder to leadership positions.

That's not to say, though, that there haven't been applicants in the past and present that do think that way -- wonder, "Why not me?" when looking at the scores of leadership figures that have prevailed over the history of the sport, and used that as part of a reason to close off a career path. There is, too, the question of whether there is a viable career path to leadership and stability for most in a nontraditional field like sports at all. Sometimes, it does take one person to serve as a pioneer of sorts to throw off those preconceptions.

Perhaps the few that have risen in the game, like Ng, Kubota, Wong and Wang, have gotten to this point as those that have ignored that perception and tuned out the fact that none had previously risen to the top.

In that way, Ng's hiring has been felt not just throughout the sports industry, but also the world outside of sports. It's perhaps just another manifestation of an ongoing trend of diversification in our game, but it's the most visible sign yet -- and a hiring, no matter how well-deserved, that broke barriers and will be looked upon as such by others that will follow.

"I think this hiring could spark a lot more interest in that perspective, in that it is a legitimate career path and industry," Wang said. "I think that might be one underrated area of the hiring, is just what it could mean from an awareness and knowledge background. I think we've seen a lot of people who don't follow or pay attention to sports have awareness of this, so it's definitely reaching out to a broader audience."

"If I were in college, and I saw Kim, that would certainly give me motivation," Kubota said. "And you know, at least we make that option seem attainable, you know, that there's Asian Americans who've reached the highest level of baseball, and sports in general."