The screaming and profanity started the moment she lifted the receiver.
That is what Yankees assistant general manager Jean Afterman remembers about the spring day in 1997 when George Steinbrenner called her San Francisco office, bullied her secretary and then went vintage Boss on her.
Afterman was the president of KDN Sports, the firm that represented pitcher Hideki Irabu. Billed as the Nolan Ryan of Japan, Irabu was struggling early with the Yankees and Steinbrenner was livid.
“Damn it!” he bellowed. “I can’t believe this bleeping guy. I’m going to send him back to you on the next bleeping plane.”
Afterman let the tirade run its course, took a deep breath and fired back.
“Bleep, you better send him back with his bleeping signing bonus check,” she said. “I will be at the airport, I will go right to the bleeping bank and cash it and I will sign him to another contract the next bleeping day.”
There was a stunned silence on the phone before Steinbrenner sputtered, “Jean, you don’t talk that way.”
Afterman usually doesn’t. But she is an expert at sizing up a situation and delivering the pitch that needs to be delivered, which goes a long way toward explaining how she became one of the most powerful women in baseball.
Less than five years after their conversation, Steinbrenner signed off on an offer that made Afterman only the third woman to be hired as an assistant general manager of a major league baseball team.
Women head up Fortune 500 companies, run for president and currently serve as prime ministers in Germany and Britain. Yet there never has been a female general manager in any of the four major sports, which is why much ado was made last month when it was reported that San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was interviewing for the Bucks’ GM job. (She didn’t get it.)
Major League Baseball might be closer to having a female general manager than any other sport.
Kim Ng, currently the senior vice president of operations for MLB, served as an assistant GM for the Yankees and the Dodgers and has been interviewed for five general manager jobs that ultimately went to men.
Afterman, who recently signed a three-year contract extension with the Yankees, currently is the only woman with the assistant GM title. Brian Cashman, who hired both Ng and Afterman, repeatedly has said both would be good general managers.
The first female assistant GM was Elaine Weddington Steward, promoted to that position by the Red Sox in 1990. She now is the team’s vice president/club counsel.
Afterman, who started off in theater before going to law school, said she loves her job with the Yankees and isn’t particularly interested in becoming a general manager.
She said she is intrigued by the thought of leapfrogging over that job and becoming a team president. Currently, there are no female team presidents, though there have been a few in the past. Pam Gardner served as the Astros’ president of business operations from 2001 to 2011.
So why is it so hard for women to break the glass ceiling in professional sports management?
“I don’t think there’s any legitimate reason for it,” said Martha Ackman, a former gender studies lecturer at Mount Holyoke College who has written on women in baseball. “It’s a lack of will, a lack of conscience, a lack of commitment to equality . . . It has nothing to do with not being able to find people who have the skills and experience they are looking for. It’s a lack of will. It’s really old thinking.
“Aren’t we beyond this at this point? Eileen Collins commanded the space shuttle, there’s a woman president at Harvard, there’s women in combat. Aren’t we beyond this? It’s rotary dial thinking.”
Afterman, 60, believes the glass ceiling will be broken sooner rather than later. While some believe it will take a unique outside-the-box thinker — a guy like Gregg Popovich with the Spurs — to hire a woman to do a job that always has been done by a man, Afterman said it is hard to predict what kind of person is most likely to break with tradition.
“Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner are the only general manager and owner in sports who have hired not one but two female assistant GMs,” she said. “Brian is obviously someone who is a rational, reasonable person and you can understand why he doesn’t have any gender bias. George was a fairly bombastic person, but it might be a surprise to people that he didn’t have any gender bias. He used to like to announce ‘I’m a chauvinist,’ but that obviously was not the case.”
Afterman’s recommendation when she speaks to women, or anyone interested in going into baseball operations, is that they get the best education they can.
“In the old days, you had to be a former player,” Afterman said. “Then, for a period of time, if you went to an Ivy League school and you were a man, you could get into baseball operations. Now it’s all about brain power. You don’t have to have been a player. You just have to be smart.”
And maybe, if you are a woman and taking a call from a raging owner, a little bit fearless.