A K-drama Confronts Baseball’s Glass Ceiling

Minor spoilers ahead for Hot Stove League.

A great day in baseball herstory! Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, now CEO and part-owner of the Miami Marlins, announces (in a socially distanced fashion) the hiring of Kim Ng as general manager. (Miami Marlins photo)

Could Kim Ng’s herstory have been made sooner?

That question has haunted me since finishing 2020’s award-winning Korean-language drama Hot Stove League (streaming with English subtitles as Stove League, free on KOCOWA.com and with a paid subscription on Rakuten’s Viki.com). Baseball fans know that Kim Ng is the new general manager of the Miami Marlins, making her the first woman in the U.S. to ever attain that position with a major men’s sports team. They also know that the K-drama’s title refers to the winter offseason, when GMs are reshaping their rosters to improve on the past year’s results.

Hot Stove League sparked that thought for me because of its lead female character, Lee Se-young, played by actress Park Eun-bin (most recently the lead in Do You Like Brahms?). In the series, Ms. Lee is the only woman in upper management for any South Korean professional baseball club. The fact that she works for the perennially last-place Dreams franchise doesn’t lessen her pride and drive one bit; after all, it’s the team that she grew up rooting for, starting with games that her late father would take her to.

When the show opens, she’s the equivalent of a Major League Baseball (MLB) assistant general manager, a position she’s earned through exemplary passion and hard work. Fortunately, though surrounded constantly by male colleagues and the players themselves, she faces little sexism, perhaps partly because of her authority and also because of her no-nonsense persona. She’s clearly earned everyone’s respect, too; in scene after scene, she demonstrates her expertise in everything, from player stats and training regimens to media relations and contract negotiations, and no one mansplains her. Anyone who has tried to has probably paid a price for it.

L to R: The Dreams’ general manager Baek Seung-soo (played by Namgoong Min, recently the lead in Awaken), the club’s assistant general manager Lee Se-young (actress Park Eun-bin, recently the lead in Do You Like Brahms?), and enthusiastic do-everything guy Han Jae-hee (Jo Byung-gyu, recently the lead in Uncanny Counter). All three won awards for their roles, as did the series itself. Surprisingly for a K-drama, there is very little romantic content. (SBS network image)

In real life, Korean pro baseball recently saw a woman in the position of general manager. Just two years ago, the Kiwoom Heroes brought on Im Eun-ju for that role, making her the first female GM in their league. Though her experience was in the soccer world, her hiring was acclaimed as the breaking of a glass ceiling.

But only ten days later, after allegations of ethics violations and game-day meddling surfaced from her years as a soccer GM, Ms. Im was out of a job.

Ms. Ng, on the other hand, has had both a sterling reputation and a ton of experience in baseball front offices. She started as an intern in 1990 and went on to become an assistant GM for two of the highest-profile sports franchises in the world, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then for several years she served as MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations under revered Hall of Famer Joe Torre. Along the way, she gained the support of some of the most highly respected men in baseball for her bid to lead an MLB front office, beginning with her first interview for a GM job in 2005.

An infographic published by the Marlins when Ms. Ng was hired.

Yet it took until November 13, 2020 for a major league franchise to offer her its top post. In the meantime, several dozen such openings came and went. Even today, though she is one of the newest GMs in baseball, she has more years of baseball executive experience than most of her peers, save just a few.

Ms. Ng has not complained about the time it took to land the gig. But I strongly suspect there was something systemic that caused all of those jobs to go to men, nearly all of them white. It was probably not a blatant chauvinism as much as a passive, yet damaging, bias. 

I liken it to what Jeremy Lin came up against when trying to make it onto a National Basketball Association (NBA) roster. After a standout hoops career at Harvard, no NBA team drafted him, and even his first team, his hometown Golden State Warriors, quickly let him go. Though he’s had to deal with several serious injuries during his career, he has clearly been a quality NBA player, and at times, a spectacular one. Former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey recognized the truth, telling author Michael Lewis, “The reality is that every f*cking person, including me, thought he was unathletic. And I can’t think of any reason for it other than he was Asian.” 

Jeremy Lin has had a ton of bad luck with injuries. In 2012-13, the only season he’s been able to play all 82 regular season games, he averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 assists per game, with his best game coming against the Spurs on Dec. 10: 38 points, including 4 of 5 from three; 7 assists with only 2 turnovers; 2 steals; and 2 blocks. (NBA image)

I believe Ms. Ng has had to deal with similar prejudice, likely a dual kind rooted in biases against women and people of color in MLB GM roles. But what could have been done about it? What could have paved the way for male-dominated ownership groups specifically, and our overall society generally, to consider a woman even sooner? 

It’s only one piece of the puzzle, but more representation in media of competent women leading men’s sports teams would have helped. Such depictions are as rare as female GMs for men’s franchises, and movies that have tried to portray something of the sort still resort to the old stereotype: women don’t know sports like men do. Examples include the late 1990s films Eddie, starring Whoopi Goldberg, and Sunset Park, featuring Rhea Perlman. Instead, portrayals should depict women who already are just as capable, if not more so, than men.

I believe that repeated exposure through the years to shows like Hot Stove League, featuring characters like Ms. Lee, would likely have made owners receptive to Ms. Ng earlier than they were. It sounds almost ridiculous to suggest that, but I think back to Academy Award-winner Geena Davis’ turn as president of the United States in the 2005 TV series Commander-in-Chief. Research done during that show’s run showed that viewers became more accepting of having a woman as POTUS. Seeing it in media had an impact on voting attitudes.

Academy Award winner Geena Davis played President Mackenzie Allen in the TV series Commander-in-Chief. (ABC network image)

Studies also back the power of media to more generally impact how people think and feel about new concepts, even controversial ones. Seeing something depicted positively on TV, movies, or books makes most people more ready to accept it in the real world. We can probably think of examples from our own lives; for me, it helped to see TV shows that humanized and generated empathy for LGBTQ-identifying persons when I didn’t know anybody who was “out.”

All of this serves as a reminder as we advocate for more girl-power stories in media and publishing. Yes, they are good for inspiring girls and women; as the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media says, “If she can see it, she can be it!” 

But these stories are good for boys and men also. After all, while girls grow up in our society exposed to lots of heroic tales centered on male characters, boys in our society don’t get much of the opposite. (There are a lot more Harry Potters than Katniss Everdeens.) So we can also say, “If he can’t see it, he won’t think she can be it!” The disparity begins impacting males in boyhood and builds from there, contributing to the glass ceilings that remain. Since men remain overwhelmingly the gatekeepers to sports leadership, they need to start seeing, even from childhood, women in those roles.

Girl-power stories are good for girls and women, but they’re good for boys and men also. After all, while girls grow up in our society exposed to lots of heroic tales centered on male characters, boys in our society don’t get much of the opposite. (There are a lot more Harry Potters than Katniss Everdeens.) The disparity begins impacting males in boyhood and builds from there, contributing to the glass ceilings that remain.

There’s a lot of mutual respect between GM Mr. Baek and Assistant GM Ms. Lee, but it certainly doesn’t start that way. (SBS network image)

While telling stories of fictional characters is much needed, it is, of course, even more impactful to shine a spotlight on actual women blazing their own trails. All of their journeys have very likely included an assist at one time or other from a male ally, like San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon has received from head coach Gregg Popovich. (In December, Ms. Hammon even became the first woman to be an acting head coach in an NBA game when “Pop” was ejected in a Spurs-Lakers matchup and turned his duties over to her.)

Overall, women have become assistant coaches in MLB, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and especially in the NBA, where Ms. Hammon is the longest-tenured of the more than one dozen women in that position. (See my 2019 conversation with amazing Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Natalie Nakase. Ms. Nakase is the first woman of color to fulfill that role in the NBA!) One of them will break through to become a head coach, probably soon; hopefully, many more will follow. There are also women now working as scouts, some of whom may advance into executive-level sports operations jobs, and an increasing number are representing male athletes as sports agents, who sometimes cross over to join front offices.

Other women are paving the way for another female GM through their own powerful positions. One of the most influential women in sports, Michele Roberts, represents male athletes in a different way; she’s the executive director of the hugely influential NBA Players Association. (That makes her the first woman to lead a players’ union in any of the major men’s sports.) Los Angeles Lakers lead owner Jeanie Buss is also pushing things in that direction as she takes an active role in club leadership, mostly delegating basketball decisions to Rob Pelinka, who reports to her, but overseeing everything else.

The faces of Lee Se-young (and this is definitely an incomplete list)!
Top row, L to R: Daddy-daughter-Dreams dates were the best; bundled up for “spring” training; giving the mascot a good talking to.
Middle row, L to R: Early on, blurting out to the new GM, “What the fu – er, funny friend?”; don’t mess with Ms. Lee; a softie deep down.
Bottom row, L to R: A new era in Dreams history; ripping an arrogant player a new one; scouting American players.

It’s imperative, then, for those of us who support a greater presence for women in these roles to create and promote stories of characters like Ms. Lee, and to also shine a spotlight on real women making headway, like Mss. Ng, Hammon, Nakase, Roberts, and Buss. This is especially on us men, since it is men who are the primary resistance to women’s advancement in the sports side of men’s franchises. As we do so, we can contribute in a small yet real manner to social changes paving the way for more herstory.

Creating and promoting stories like Hot Stove League and shining a spotlight on women like Kim Ng, Becky Hammon, Natalie Nakase, Michele Roberts, and Jeanie Buss is especially the responsibility of us men, since it is men who are the primary resistance to women’s advancement in the sports side of men’s franchises.

And about Hot Stove League itself, I do want to make clear that it is not centered on Ms. Lee’s story. The main protagonist is male. But Ms. Lee’s character is truly a huge part of the series, and her arc is clearly an empowering one, which viewers will especially appreciate if they watch all the way to the end. In this way, the series quietly confronts baseball’s glass ceiling. 

Rallying the troops … as well as reflecting on how far she’s come … and who helped her get there.

And a final note: You don’t have to like baseball to enjoy Hot Stove League! I found a ton of comments online from viewers who aren’t into sports, but who have really been drawn in by the underdog storyline, deep characters, excellent performances, plot twists, and cultural nuances depicted in the show. 

May there be a second season!

And may there be many more productions made like this one, helping to pave the way for real-life herstory!

Some of the players’ backstories are quite compelling. Clockwise from upper left: Controversial starting pitcher Robert Gil, who became an American citizen while playing in the U.S. major leagues; former Dreams ace Kang Doo-ki, whose heart is still with his old team; young pitching phenom Yoo Min-ho, who develops arm issues and then a case of the yips; and nearly-retired reliever Jang Jin-woo, whose family can’t afford for him to only be pulling in his minimal salary. (SBS network images)