The Next Frontier of MLB, According to Baseball’s Ultimate Insider
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because to stay relevant, you’ve got to go overseas.
Someday soon, Kim Ng may become the first female general manager in any American professional sport. But for now, the 47-year-old Chinese-American — Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of baseball operations, who has been a finalist for four general manager positions and who was recently named one of the 30 most powerful women in sports by Adweek magazine — is doing just fine, thank you very much.
As the head of the MLB’s international program, Ng has traveled worldwide to push the frontiers of America’s pastime far beyond our country’s borders. In the meantime, with all the frequent trips to the Dominican Republic, she’s developed a taste for high-end rums. OZY sat down with Ng to talk about the future of international baseball, what rules she’d change and why one of her favorite players is so important for the sport. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
OZY: Part of your job description as senior VP of baseball operations is to oversee international baseball operations. Where have the biggest international inroads been made in the past decade, and what do you see as MLB’s next frontier?
Kim Ng: China’s gotta be that place. We now have three academies in China. The first one opened in 2008. Last year, the Baltimore Orioles signed a 19-year-old from China. Our business side just got a deal to get MLB games streamed over there. We’ve hired scouts there, looking not necessarily for great baseball players. At this point it’s more basic than that; it’s looking for good athletes. It’s trying to make inroads. There aren’t many fields there. Baseball is quite down the ladder in terms of sport. The Chinese have had a lot of other Olympic sports. That’s one thing that hurts baseball internationally, not being a consistent Olympic sport. That’s where a lot of funding comes from. The fact that we weren’t in the ’12 or ’16 Summer Olympics really hurt us.
The next frontier? I’d say Africa — South Africa and Uganda. This past February we had our qualifiers for the WBC [World Baseball Classic]. South Africa was one of the teams trying to qualify for the main tournament, and a couple of guys really caught my eye. One of the South Africans is Gift Ngoepe, a second baseman–slash–shortstop already on the 40-man roster of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Great hands, great movements, great actions. Another guy, Dylan Unsworth, is in Double-A this year for the Seattle Mariners.
Uganda had a great showing in Williamsport at the Little League World Series. Brazil is starting to pop up a lot more on the map because of a pretty big Japanese population in São Paulo. Anywhere Americans have had a large military influence, we’ve seen baseball pop up. Uganda is a little different story. There’s an individual, Richard Stanley, who 20 years ago made a trip through USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and relocated, brought baseball to Uganda and has done a great job developing the kids.
OZY: Plenty of people have said baseball hasn’t done a great job at marketing its most vibrant or controversial personalities, that the old-school niceties of the sport clash with today’s sound-bite, quick-highlight world. How does baseball maintain its “America’s pastime” tradition while still being seen as an edgy, modern sport?
K.N.: You do have to be mindful of the elements of the past that made it America’s pastime. You don’t want to change the game drastically. One of the things we’ve really tried to do with Major League Baseball is to constantly try to improve how we present the game. We have our own network and we give fans a look at how to play the game and insiders talking about the game, whether it’s spin rate or velocity off the bat. There’s a number of cool things we do to engage our young audience. And we’ve worked really hard at the pace of the game and tried to eliminate a lot of the dead time.
OZY: What current baseball player means most to the game and where it’s heading?
K.N.: One of my favorite players is Andrew McCutchen. This guy is a five-tool athlete. He’s dynamic on the field and off the field. He’s intelligent. He wrote an interesting article last year about youth in baseball and where our game is heading and how we have to change that up some. We’ve talked a lot about diversity in our game. Commissioner [Bud] Selig always used to talk about Jackie Robinson, that baseball was always ahead of the curve in terms of social issues. Andrew is very representative of that whole effort.
OZY: If we went back to the genesis of the way things are in baseball today — free agency, the lack of a salary cap, the DH rule in one league but not the other — is there one thing you’d want to go back in time and change?
K.N.: I’m not a big fan of the DH. I’m probably one of five people left in the country who feels that way. I love the strategy involved with not having a DH. I’ve been in both leagues now. I didn’t quite understand how deep the strategy goes when I was in the AL. When I came to the NL — wow, you build a team differently.