Long before she encountered George Steinbrenner across a negotiating table, Jean Afterman was performing Shakespeare to hone the skills that would earn her the respect of the New York Yankees’ owner and lead her to a job in a Major League Baseball front office.
Afterman, one of only three women to ever hold the position of assistant general manager for an MLB team, was a lawyer and player agent before joining the Yankees in 2001. Her first career was as an actress, and she says that helped her break into the normally all-male bastion.
“A part of any negotiation is acting, you have to act outraged or you have to pretend like they got the better of you,” Afterman said in a dugout interview before a Yankees game in Oakland, California. “And negotiating with George Steinbrenner was one of the highlights of my theatrical career.”
Afterman, 56, who was a character actress with a preference for Shakespearean comedies and Cole Porter musicals, has found herself part of a drama this season with the Yankees.
The team has lost more than half its starting lineup to injuries for most of the season; about 4,000 fewer people than last year are attending games at Yankee Stadium as the club has sunk to fourth place in the five-team American League East, and its highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, has been under a drug-suspicion cloud while recovering from hip surgery.
Steinbrenner, the former Yankees owner who died in 2010, and General Manager Brian Cashman were so impressed with the negotiating skills of Afterman that they hired her to focus on contracts and compliance for the 27-time World Series champions.
Afterman got the job when Kim Ng left to take a similar post with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Elaine Steward is the third woman to have been an MLB assistant general manager, holding that post for the Boston Red Sox from 1990 until being promoted to vice president and club counsel in 2002.
Ng, 44, was assistant general manager of the Yankees from 1998-2001 and of the Dodgers until 2011 before becoming MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations.
Baseball has never had a woman general manager. Susan Nierenberg, vice president of global marketing and corporate communications for Catalyst Inc., said she would welcome more women getting upper management positions with sports teams. New York-based Catalyst is a research group that promotes workplace diversity.
“Leadership is leadership –- it’s not gendered -– and reflects the marketplace and key stakeholders,” Nierenberg said in an e-mail message. “As in many other industries, we look to the day where a women general manager in sports is not the first or even the second, but the new norm.”
Both Afterman and Cashman said they don’t think gender has been a factor in Afterman’s career. Though Cashman called her “a very powerful woman in a baseball world of men,” he said in a telephone interview that her legal background has had much more of an impact.
Afterman said there hasn’t been a female general manager mostly because of numbers.
“I don’t think it is sexism,” she said. “There are only 30 of those jobs available and they rarely come up.”
She said she doesn’t want to be the first woman to become a general manager -- who typically has the final say on player personnel. Instead, she’d prefer to follow the path of Pam Gardner, who was president of the Houston Astros for 11 years until she resigned in 2012.
“I think my comfort zone is more in the business and legal side of our industry, and I think that today’s general manager is much more someone who is comfortable in the player evaluation side of it,” she said. “When I came to the Yankees, Brian told me straight off he didn’t want a talent evaluator, he had more than enough scouts, and he said he needed somebody who would be his compliance officer.”
To Cashman, 46, who has been general manager of the Yankees since 1998, Afterman provides the perfect partner.
“She makes sure everything I do is accurate and complete, and makes sure I see roadblocks before they occur,” he said. “The last thing we need as we put a club together is to step in potholes.”
There have been plenty of injury-related potholes this season for the Yankees, who have a value estimated by Forbes at $2.3 billion, fourth highest in world sports behind European soccer clubs Real Madrid, Manchester United (MANU:US) and Barcelona.
The core of the offense has been hobbled with injuries to former All-Stars Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson as well as catcher Francisco Cervelli. All have missed most of the season.
Jeter, 39, returned from offseason ankle surgery on July 11, got four at-bats and then went back on the disabled list with a thigh strain.
Rodriguez, 37, a three-time American League Most Valuable Player, has been out all season following left hip surgery and his planned return this week was postponed by a mild quadriceps strain. He also has been surrounded by drug accusations.
The Miami New Times reported in January that Rodriguez’s name was included on a client list at the now-defunct Biogenesis of America LLC clinic in Coral Gables, Florida, which was selling performance-enhancing drugs. ESPN reported in February that Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch injected Rodriguez with banned substances, and the network said earlier this month that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig would seek to suspend as many as 22 players without pay for their relationship with Biogenesis.
Rodriguez, who is fifth on baseball’s career list with 647 home runs, has said he wasn’t a patient of Bosch and otherwise declined to comment on the Biogenesis case. He acknowledged in February 2009 that he took banned performance-enhancing substances from 2001 to 2003 when he was with the Texas Rangers. He is making $28 million this season, according to baseball-reference.com.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are averaging 39,669 fans through 51 home games this season -- down more than 9 percent from 43,733 per game for the entire 2012 season.
Afterman grew up a baseball fan, just not of the Yankees. She is from San Francisco, and went to Giants games with her family at wind-swept Candlestick Park, so “the Yankees were very far off and were the American League.”
She performed in high school musicals ranging from “Guys and Dolls,” as Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown, to Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” as Sally, and moved on to dramas such as William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” performing the role of Celia, in college.
Afterman graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1979 and went to London to pursue a career in acting. When that fell through, she tried acting in San Francisco and New York while supporting herself by teaching English as a second language.
She worked at Viacom Inc. (VIAB:US)’s Paramount Pictures in feature film production before attending law school at the University of San Francisco.
Afterman was general counsel at Oxnard, California-based Purepak Inc., a grower of organic fruits and vegetables, when she met Don Nomura, who was representing Japanese baseball players seeking to move to the major leagues.
That brought her to the attention of Steinbrenner, and eventually to a job that led Crain’s to label her one of the “Most Powerful Women in New York 2007.”
“He was unafraid -- unafraid of anything and anybody,” Afterman said of her former boss. “He was always up for a challenge. We had Japanese clubs threatening to sue any baseball team that signed a particular player, and that was pretty much an engraved invitation to Mr. Steinbrenner, he was not going to be intimidated by anybody.”
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