May 11, 2007

Ng has right moves in a league of her own

Four years of studying Aristotle and the central limit theorem at the U of C may not teach us everything we need to know for life beyond the Ivory Tower, but it’s a good start. Just ask 1990 Chicago grad Kim Ng, now assistant general manager and VP for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

A public-policy major and former Maroons softball player, Ng landed her first job in baseball as a baseball operations intern for the White Sox shortly after graduation. In her 17 years in the game, Ng has risen through the front office ranks of the Sox, the Yankees, and, most recently, the Dodgers. She made headlines in 2005 when L.A. considered her as a replacement for then–GM Paul DePodesta, making her the first woman in Major League history to interview for the position.

Ng’s astounding success has come largely through her ability to sop up on-the-job training, view every day as a learning experience, and transfer all those analytical and research skills perfected at Chicago to the baseball world.

“I believe our U of C degrees are useful no matter what you do,” Ng said. “You’d be surprised how many people in the workforce are not resourceful, are not good problem solvers, and are poor writers.”

Although Ng came to Chicago first and foremost for its academic reputation, athletics ranked a close second and continued to play a prominent role throughout her college career. She wrote her B.A. on Title IX and used softball as a sanity check from the classroom each spring.

Starting as a second baseman, Ng worked her way around the horn, taking a turn at short before finally settling on her favorite position at third as a senior. At the plate, she posted a career .234 batting average in 92 games. Her banner season came as a third-year, hitting .388 and bagging 9 of her total 17 stolen bases.

“I was probably best suited for second base, but I liked the action at third the most,” Ng said. “I still believe today how important it was to play in college. I had so much fun doing it that I can’t imagine taking four years of that away.”

Even with sports as a major interest and softball as a top priority, Ng didn’t think of pursuing a professional gig in either until the end of her fourth year. It wasn’t until after graduation, while she was holding down a job on campus, that a former coach tipped her off that the White Sox were looking for interns.

“I ran down there and turned in my résumé and then interviewed,” recalled Ng on her sudden entry into baseball. “The internship was tremendous.”

Taking on some heavy responsibilities right off the bat, Ng spent four months helping to analyze player performances and prepping for contract negotiations before the Sox offered her a full-time position. From there, Ng’s career shot off as she went on to become the youngest assistant GM in the game with her move to the Yankees in 1998.

In her four seasons in New York, the squad captured three straight World Series titles, with Ng contributing prominently to building the championship lineups. She helped sign Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, who took home the MVP trophies from the 1999 and 2000 Fall Classics.

“When we win, that’s definitely my favorite part,” Ng said. “That you feel that you’ve put a team together that has lasted to the end of the season, there’s nothing more rewarding than that.”

Now in her fifth season with the Dodgers, Ng has seen her team reach the postseason twice. Her work continues to focus on contract negotiation and player evaluations. She is responsible for examining a player’s training, weighing other options, and settling on an offer to present and defend to agents.

“It’s the same as a lot of other negotiations, but you’re talking about baseball players,” Ng said. “It’s really not a science. These guys are human beings…. While we try to reduce them to numbers, they’re not.”

While Ng’s degree didn’t specifically train her to determine a ballplayer’s salary, the basic intellectual tools were there. All that remained was finding ways to apply them to interpreting what she saw on the field and to closing deals on the table. With the seemingly endless stats involved in the national pastime, it was a pretty smooth transition.

“I think it was a solid foundation for work in baseball,” Ng said of her Chicago education. “It maybe wasn’t the most practical experience if at 10 years old I decided baseball was something I wanted to do.”

These days, though, her college experience puts her in particularly good company with the makeovers being given to front offices. As payrolls and signing bonuses continue to go through the roof, organizations have increasingly sought ways to make smarter deals by combining people who have college degrees and fresh outlooks on the game and with people who have the old wisdom of scouts.

Far from staying behind a desk all day, Ng has picked up on this more traditional know-how through the years, especially now that she spends most of the year traveling with the team or visiting minor league camps. Her drive to expand her knowledge of baseball, even as a proven veteran, is proof that the life of the mind doesn’t have to die after leaving Hyde Park.

“Every day you watch a ballgame, and you learn something,” Ng said.