What Is Now Left to Be Imaginedon November 17, 2020 at 2:00 pm

What Is Now Left to Be Imagined

On Friday, the Marlins announced that Kim Ng would be assuming the role of general manager. It was a historic move for a number of reasons: She’s the first woman and first Asian-American to be hired as a GM in the major leagues, and is indeed the first woman in any major American men’s pro sport to hold that role. It was also a move that was long foretold, as many pointed out, linking to various blog posts and lists of years and decades past that included Ng’s name as one to watch in the world of high-ranking baseball executives. She’s been at least an assistant GM for as long as I’ve been alive. “When I got into this business,” her statement posted to the Marlins’ social media read, “it seemed unlikely that a woman would lead a major-league team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals.”

It was a celebratory day for many women in baseball, a sign of how far they have come and how far they could still go, and a testament to Ng’s individual drive and ability, which, given her history, is undeniable. It was also a celebratory day for Asian-Americans in baseball. What once seemed unlikely, and before that unimaginable, is now real, tangible, and true — not only for Ng individually, not only for the other people who have blazed trails in this industry, and not only for all the historically underrepresented people she might inspire to pursue careers in the game, but also for literally everyone, apparently, in the entire sport. All those heavy-hitters and decision-makers who for the decades upon decades prior to this day were fine with maintaining the status quo — this moment was, somehow, their achievement to celebrate as well.

When you’re a kid, you can dream of being all kinds of ridiculous, incredible things. The first person to create a cat-to-human translation system. The first person to walk on Mars. A kajillionaire, a world-peace creator, an undersea explorer — all at the same time, all existing within the same realm of possibility. You get older, of course, and with your increasing ability to understand the world around you, to grasp what is expected of someone like you, the dreams get scaled and hedged accordingly. You absorb information and adjust your ideas of what is possible. Kajillionaire becomes maybe a full-time job and your debt paid off by the time you’re 50. World-peace creator becomes maybe you survive another year of being exploited by your racist boss. The moon becomes a tiny room in a shared house for $900 a month. It’s good, after all, to have goals that are actually possible to reach. That’s what you’re taught in career planning classes and therapy sessions: achievable, real, tangible. The bounds of the imagination shrink.

And it seems so wonderful, when you’re a kid and dreaming of all the lives you could live, to be the first person to do something: to discover something entirely new, to reach some previously unimaginable milestone, to stand atop a mountain no one else has been able to conquer. It’s the newness of it, the uncharted territory and the thrill of discovery, thinking of things that have never been thought before. That’s what makes it so deadening to the spirit when you cut those dreams down to the size of most people’s lives; when your fantasies of being the first to do something incredible become limited by identity categories. You may be the first to do something, but it won’t be because no one else has ever conceived of it before, or because you are discovering something entirely new. You are the first because it is necessary, and you are the first because you are alone. There is prestige to be had, sometimes, and maybe a bit of that thrill — the idea that now, maybe, the realm of what can be imagined has now expanded, whether in a small way or a big one. But, ultimately, when you are the first, when you are the only, you don’t want to be alone anymore. It shouldn’t have to be this way. That’s why you have to be the first. That’s why you have to stand alone.

I think of all the kids who walk into classrooms and find themselves immediately ostracized and isolated, for reasons they can’t quite understand. The teenagers who are the first ever to come out in their families, who are the first to go to college. I think of all the young people who have entered a front office or a press box and felt, before any words are even exchanged, the crushing and soul-numbing pressure of being the only. It is simultaneously a position one chooses — one that takes incredible strength to choose — and a position one is forced into, often by the very same powerful people who would have you believe that they are doing you some kind of great favor. Many times, it is a position that those who come from the outside, who are the firsts and the onlys, find is not worth the price that has to be paid. The dream shrinks; the possibility fades. And from above, shrugs: They just aren’t interested; they just don’t want to do the work; they just weren’t a good fit. What can you do?

Kim Ng, for as long as I’ve been adjacent to baseball, has been among a small handful of names who get floated whenever the idea of a woman becoming the general manager of a baseball team is brought up again. Those few names have been roughly the same, from what I can gather, for the last 20 years. This is despite the massive changes in how front offices are run, the differences in the hiring pool: one limited sphere shifts to another limited sphere, one “just the way it is” to another similarly immobile state of being. Baseball’s imagination remains fixed. The way things are remains, mostly, the way things are.

It is good to celebrate when a good thing happens, when a barrier is broken. With Ng becoming the Marlins’ GM, the scope of what is possible within baseball and professional sports has expanded. An Asian-American woman running a team is now achievable, real, tangible. And those who, in their various plausibly-deniable ways, limited that scope for so many years should not be allowed to give themselves plaudits for being progressive. There should be no laurel-resting. We cannot allow our imaginations to be so limited, to simply accept the way things are. Baseball — a sport that aspires to be more than a sport, a game that positions itself as the spirit of a nation — can be so much more than what we have been led to believe.

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