Other than their playoff appearance after the shortened 2020 season, the Marlins have not made the postseason since they won the World Series in 2003. In fact, they have made the playoffs after a 162-game season just twice in the 21st century. But entering Saturday, they were two games out of the final wild-card spot in the NL.
“I think this a great step for this organization,” said Kim Ng, who became the first woman to serve as a general manager in MLB, the NFL, the NBA or the NHL. “… Is it where we want to end up? No. We would like to progress further.”
Ng took over the Marlins before the 2021 season. Former New York Yankees first baseman and respected dugout mind Don Mattingly had just managed the team to that surprising 2020 showing. Miami had a minor league system loaded with young pitching talent and reasons for optimism. And it had a front office operating under the shadow of Derek Jeter and his handpicked vice president of player development, grizzled former Yankees executive Gary Denbo. It was Ng’s team to run, yes. But there were other voices to be heard, other egos in high places. It was hardly a clean slate.
But little by little, vestiges of the old order faded. Jeter left the team abruptly before the 2022 season. The Marlins fired Denbo a few months later. The team parted ways with Mattingly after it won 69 games and finished fourth in the NL East last year. For the first time, Ng was able to choose her own manager.
She settled on Skip Schumaker, a trusted bench coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres, an energetic 43-year-old who hits grounders to his infielders and throws batting practice to hitters before every game — duties most hands-off managers leave to their coaches.
The Marlins brought in former University of Miami standout and recent big leaguer Jon Jay to coach first. They hired hitting coach Brant Brown away from the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers, and deadline acquisition Josh Bell has already credited Brown with helping him go from a .701 OPS in four months with the Cleveland Guardians to an .868 OPS in four weeks with Miami.
The trade deadline was also something new for Ng. The Marlins had not been in true contention like this at her first two deadlines, so she did not have to add. But this year, owner Bruce Sherman gave her the green light. She acquired Bell and infielder Jake Burger to bolster the offense, and both have done exactly that. David Robertson brought depth to the bullpen, but he has struggled since arriving and lost the closer’s role to Tanner Scott. Still, he has something many Marlins do not: playoff experience.
“I don’t want to say we were all-in, because I think we have to be realistic about where we are when we compare ourselves to other teams. But I will say this is the first opportunity this ownership group has had, besides the covid season, to acquire players,” Ng said. “So it really is an exciting time. I think the fans of Miami have been really supportive in noticing where the club is and coming out to the ballpark.”
That is the other thing to notice about the Marlins: After years of conversations about the value of their shiny new ballpark in Little Havana, about whether an MLB team could thrive there — about that wild dolphin sculpture that became the focus of so much public dialogue — their attendance is growing.
Growing, here, is relative. As of Saturday, the Marlins were still 29th in total attendance, ahead of only the Oakland Athletics. But they have already outdrawn every Marlins team since 2017 and should break 1 million in attendance by season’s end — a jump of about 2,600 fans per game from last year’s numbers, which were significantly higher than they were the year before.
Ng attributes that growth to efforts on the Marlins’ corporate side — and a woman heads those operations, too. After Sherman, Ng and Caroline O’Connor are the highest-ranking Marlins executives, and the Marlins are the only team in the four major U.S. sports to be run by women.
“I think as an organization, we’re very collaborative. Kim and I work really closely with Bruce Sherman,” O’Connor said. “I think the way we operate, the way we bring the organization along with us, we have so many people rowing in the same direction who really want to see success for this organization. And I think that’s why we’re starting to see tangible results.”
Tangible results, of course, will be the rubric against which Ng’s tenure is ultimately judged. A playoff appearance would certainly qualify. But if it doesn’t come this year, the Marlins look well positioned for the next few.
Only Robertson and infielders Yuli Gurriel and Joey Wendle are free agents after this season. Hitting savant Luis Arraez, who has emerged as the heart and soul of the Marlins’ lineup since Ng acquired him by jettisoning pitching depth to the Minnesota Twins last offseason, is under team control through 2025. Jazz Chisholm Jr. won’t be a free agent until after the 2026 season.
And the Marlins’ pitching depth is enviable: Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Sandy Alcantara, is under contract through at least 2026, with promising youngsters Jesús Luzardo, Braxton Garrett, Eury Pérez and Edward Cabrera all at least three years from free agency.
“Of course we would love to get into the postseason. But if we for some reason don’t get into the postseason, I will say the experience the young players have gathered is invaluable,” Ng said. “Billie Jean King always said pressure is a privilege. I think that’s a lot of what our players are seeing, and for many of them it’s really for the first time.”
Few major league general managers quote Billie Jean King in interviews. And Ng said the biggest difference between her and the 29 men who run MLB’s other teams is probably that she feels obligated to talk about herself more than they do, indulging interviews such as these because she knows she is the first — and that being first means opening doors for a second and third.
“I consider myself to be really fortunate in that respect. I know there is a story to tell, to remind people there are signs of progress, all that stuff,” she said before trailing off. The difficulty in standing up as a sign of progress is it often means standing out, even though reaching that position required decades of blending in.
Asked what parts of her job are harder as the only woman in so many baseball rooms, Ng said she had so little time to feel sorry for herself that she did not even know. Then she stopped and corrected herself.
“I have so little time to reflect on difficulties or acknowledge that there are difficulties,” she clarified. “Each day there is so much you have to get done. You’re just plowing through.”
With the trade deadline past and waiver claims settled, plowing through amounts to clenching her teeth and hoping the Marlins emerge from the mess of five teams that were, entering Saturday, within four games of one another while battling for the final two NL wild-card spots. Ng said her husband took a well-timed work trip to the West Coast because “he couldn’t take it anymore.”
“It is challenging to watch a game with me right now, pitch to pitch,” said Ng, who in that way sounds exactly like any of the other general managers watching contenders scratch and claw. “It’s tense. You just want them to do it — for them as a team, for them as individuals, for the organization, for the city, just for all the Marlins fans.”