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July 18, 2012

Game Changer

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Ng never set out to be a pioneer—she's just always loved the game. The oldest of five sisters, she grew up playing stickball on the streets of Queens, New York, and has been cheering for the Yankees as far back as she can remember. She played softball at the University of Chicago and wrote her senior thesis on Title IX, the landmark 1972 legislation requiring schools receiving federal funding to provide equal access to sports to both boys and girls. Though her banker mother pushed her to pursue a more traditional field, Ng landed an internship with the Chicago White Sox. The timing proved fortuitous: Analytics-based scouting, as trumpeted in Michael Lewis' best seller Moneyball, was taking over the sport, and Ng was among the first wave of brainy, computer-savvy grads supplanting the ex-ballplayers in management. She was a deft number cruncher. "I would say technology gave me a chance," she says. "When I started with the White Sox, we were the first ones to use a program that could analyze pitches, track fly balls, stuff like that, which probably 90 percent of the clubs are using now." Ng quickly caught the attention of White Sox GM Dan Evans, who hired her at a starting salary of $20,000 a year. The pay was meager, hardly enough to live on, so Ng took on two other jobs to pay the bills.

Within six years at the White Sox, Ng had risen to become assistant director of baseball operations, and soon after, left to become assistant general manager of the Yankees. The assistant GM job was exciting but tough—logging 90-hour workweeks; traveling thousands of miles across the country to games and to visit the minor leagues; and dealing with grizzled, gum-chewing baseball old-timers averse to not just technology but also the woman wielding it. Ng's husband, a film editor whom she met in college, was supportive. "The good thing is, we met so young that he knows the drill," says Ng. She quickly proved herself a skilled negotiator, going up against—and beating—pitchers Mariano Rivera of the Yankees and Eric Gagne of the Dodgers in contract arbitration disputes. (Gagne walked away with $3 million less than he was asking for.) Ng also stood out for "her willingness to offer her opinion," says Torre. "And in a lot of instances, it's not the popular opinion that she offers."

After she was passed over for that last GM spot, Torre installed her at MLB headquarters in New York, reporting to him as the senior vice president of operations. From there she'd be in a better position to meet with club owners who could hire for the GM spot. Last year the Angels came to Torre—who holds Godfather levels of sway in the league—requesting an interview with Ng. He told them to go ahead but that he'd "hate to lose her. "Right away they offered to drop her from their list of candidates. "I said, 'No, no! This is what she needs to do! I'd hate to lose her doesn't mean I'm not going to recommend her.' It was funny and it caught me off guard a little bit because all I was trying to do was be emphatic about how qualified she is." Still, she didn't get the job.

Today she oversees international baseball operations and scouting for the league. She is responsible for building out the league's footprint in the Dominican Republic—a prolific producer of baseball talent but thus far a largely bare-bones operation—and is working on a strategy to revive baseball in Puerto Rico. The job can be maddeningly tedious—making sure that pitching mounds at training fields are up to regulation, ensuring batting practice starts on time. She's not dealing with the players like she did as an assistant GM all those years: no injuries to stay on top of, no egos to stroke. But it'll do until she's finally where she belongs: on top and running the show somewhere, a dugout shot-caller with a bob and boot-cut jeans. "I never look too far ahead in terms of my career," Ng says with trademark nonchalance. "I think if you do a good job, people will recognize that."

Follow @YaelKohen on Twitter.

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