Madam Yankee

Cal graduate Jean Afterman has taken her talents from the Berkeley stage to a Major League office in the Bronx

Ellen McDermott
Ellen McDermott/Courtesy
Ellen McDermott

In the cut-throat world of Major League Baseball’s front offices, it’s hard to know when you have arrived. Jobs are transitory, achievements ephemeral.

However, one litmus test for success over the decades had been showing one’s mettle across the negotiating table from George “The Boss” Steinbrenner.

The notoriously intimidating, bullish late owner of the New York Yankees was known for his no-frills, win-at-all-costs mentality. He’d fire employees, even managers, with a hairpin trigger, had a well-documented temper and expected nothing less than superlative excellence at all times.

To negotiate with “The Boss” must have been an exercise in near futility.

So when Jean Afterman, a Cal graduate representing Japanese free agents, not only survived contract negotiations, but thrived, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman took notice.

Eventually, he offered Afterman a job: assistant general manager of one professional sports’ most historically successful franchises. Today, after handling nearly half a billion dollars in contracts each year and wooing Hideki Matsui to the Bronx, Afterman is the subject of whispers around the league: could she become the first female GM in MLB history?

Before the San Francisco native joined the Yankees, she was a precocious young UC Berkeley student and an actress who won the hearts and minds of the city’s eclectic art scene.

“It was like being big man on campus only being big woman on campus,” Afterman says, tongue-in-cheek. “Baby, I was a star!”

One can certainly imagine Afterman finding success on the stage. In conversation, she is confident and intelligent. She is at the top of her game, and she knows it. Her light sense of humor and infectious joie de vivre leaves listeners captivated. She epitomizes what the Yankees stand for in American sports: she is a charming, charismatic executive whose panache is only matched by her unmistakable record of excellence.

“She was as much as a spit-fire then as she is now,” says Tony Taccone, a friend of Afterman’s at Cal and now the artistic director at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.  “She had great timing, great sense of personal bearing. She was funny, smart, witty. She just immediately knew what the game was about.”

Staring in countless productions, from “As You Like It” to “The Frog,” Afterman earned numerous accolades — including the two most prominent dramatic art prizes at Berkeley for students.

Yet, after graduating from Cal in 1979, Afterman’s journey to the lights of Broadway took a radically different trajectory.

After years of bouncing between Europe and the East Coast, Afterman declared to friends over dinner that she was going to be a lawyer. Within months she was enrolled at the University of San Francisco’s law school. Following a brief dalliance with criminal prosecution – a path she admits is odd for a self-described “lefty liberal” – Afterman found her way into the world of civil litigation, seemingly a far cry from the bohemian theater scene of her college years.

On a business trip to Japan in 1994, Afterman discovered her future business partner, agent Don Nomura, and her love for Japanese baseball.
Before long, Afterman began to specialize in “liberating” Japanese baseball players from feudal domestic contracts. In the 1990s, Nippon Professional Baseball clubs, like pitcher Hideo Nomo’s Kintetsu Buffaloes, were loath to allow talented Japanese players to jump ship for the greener pastures of the MLB. Heated contract disputes followed, leaving players in limbo.

In 1995, Afterman and Nomura finally discovered a loophole that would allow the right-hander to leave Japan. Due to an agreement between the two leagues, if a Japanese player declared his retirement he would be relieved of any contractual obligation and could freely sign with an American club. Nomo “retired” and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers later that year.

Having established a reputation as a top agent for Japanese talent, Afterman negotiated with Major League clubs all around the country until she received that fateful call from Cashman. After numerous negotiations with her, he had a proposition. Preferring to have Afterman on his side of the table rather than across from him, Cashman offered her a job which completed Afterman’s circuitous path to the Yankees in 2001.

In 1950, only 18 million American women worked. Today, Afterman is one of 72 million working women. However, females have not earned full equality in the workplace. Full-time working women, on average, still only earn 80 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries.

Positions of prominence are also unequally distributed. In 2010, only 15 Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs. Much remains to be done, many battles remain to be won. And in many ways, these fights fall on the shoulders of worldly and powerful women like Afterman.

“I think it’s all about visibility,” says Dr. Martha Ackmann, a noted feminist and baseball scholar at Mount Holyoke College. “It’s all about having the faces of women in positions where they have been denied access. Kids growing up today don’t think it’s unusual for a woman to be a police officer.

“So it’s all about getting over that first trailblazer who has the hard job of facing the doubters, facing the cheap shots, and then it becomes something we assume is normal. That is normal.”

Afterman, even in her high-pressure job, takes time to reflect on her greater role as one of the trailblazers described by Ackmann.

“I am the lone female Assistant GM (left),” Afterman says. “One of the guys in the Commissioner’s Office said I have to stay in there because I’m the one that little girls all over the country can look to. When he said that, it struck me. I do want little girls to know they can grow up and be executives in baseball, it’s not just for boys. I do think about that.”

When discussing her gender, one of Afterman’s favorite expressions is “one affects change from within,” an aphorism she credits Cal with teaching her. She believes that by being an Assistant GM par excellence she is winning the battle against the glass ceiling.

Simply by being herself, Afterman is effecting change like Berkeley taught her to do. Cal made Afterman aware of her historical obligation, while the Yankees made it come to fruition.

“Berkeley has always been a campus that has been involved in the world. It’s not an ivory tower,” Afterman says while waxing poetic over her alma mater, a guilty pleasure she embraces. “It may sound like a tortured analogy, but I do believe that if you go to a school … turned more inward than outward I don’t think that’s a benefit to you. (Cal) recognizes the life of the mind is important, but recognizes that life in general is even more important.”

America loves its pioneers. From disgruntled colonists hurling tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, to Lewis and Clark trailblazing across the continent, to Jackie Robinson integrating baseball in 1947, we can’t get enough of our “I did it first” heroes.

Today, female pioneers exist across the landscape of American professional sports. Nancy Lieberman is coaching the Texas Legends, the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks’ D-league affiliate. U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson has held the fate of the $9-billion-dollar NFL industry in her hands during the lockout. And Christine Varney, the antitrust chief at the Department of Justice, is investigating the lack of a playoff system in NCAA Division I FBS football.

Just like Afterman, these women represent one more blow to the proverbial glass ceiling – a ceiling older than time now sagging with the pressure of countless female success stories.  While equal opportunity remains elusive, Afterman’s day-to-day is a  testament to how far women have come. She stands atop a profession which has been heretofore denied women since its inception.

And if, just maybe, Afterman is offered the chance to be a GM, women will be one step closer to it.

“It certainly is difficult to break the gender barrier in the front office,” Ackmann says. “It’s pretty exciting to think I might live to see a woman in the top job in the front office.”

The good old boys club of professional baseball has a wily veteran of a woman in its midst. Trained in charm and versed in law, Afterman possesses all the guile and professional tools necessary to pull her pressurized world’s strings or take control of them by force.

And she’s not going anywhere but up.

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Mount Holyoke College as Mount Holyoke University.