Jean Afterman has been a key cog in the Yankees' front office since she became the team's assistant general manager in December 2001. Since then, she has helped bring Hideki Matsui to New York, been Brian Cashman's "compliance officer" and most importantly, served as a role model to young girls and women hoping to have a career in a professional baseball front office.
Afterman recently sat down with MLB.com's "Executive Access" podcast for a lengthy interview touching on a variety of topics, including her life in and out of baseball, how her theater background has helped her throughout her career and what it was like working for George Steinbrenner. Below are some highlights, and you can listen to the entire podcast interview here.
MLB.com: You grew up in Northern California going to Candlestick Park with your dad, who was a big Giants fan. What made you first love the game?
Afterman: As a fan? Part of it is the way everybody falls in love with baseball. When you're a kid, you're doing something with your parents. It's a great game to watch, and of course, I'm that old that when I first started watching baseball, [it was on] black and white television. There's nothing like going to a ballpark; you walk in the gate, the green grass, the blue sky, the players are right in front of you. The color, the action, the sound, the social aspect of it. You can talk, you can laugh. It's just a wonderful environment for a kid. I think it still is a wonderful environment for a kid.
That's how I fell in love with it. I have to admit, I'm also that old that going to the ballpark was typically a thing that boys did. You'd do something for your birthday party, and my brothers went to baseball games and I'd go to the ballet. The San Francisco Giants used to do a little girls' cap, so I had the girls' cap.
But you can't keep a girl out.
MLB.com: You were quite the performer in college, even winning two major dramatic arts awards at Berkeley. When you're young and you want to get into acting, is there a similarity there between young actors and kids breaking into the Minor Leagues?
Afterman: I think there is. I never thought of that; that's a really interesting point. The rate of success is minimal. It takes an enormous amount of luck. You may have the skills, you may have the talent, you may not be able to focus it in the right way and you may not be seen by the right people. There's the pure love and joy of baseball, pure love and joy of theater, and then there's the business side of it that is soul-sucking. The whole point about getting an agent and the rejection side of it is also tremendous. … I think they're very similar. It's hard for young people to have the stomach to really put yourself through that and be able to achieve your dream. You have to go through a lot.
MLB.com: Brian Cashman has said he first took notice of you during negotiations while you were on the other side of the table. What were your initial impressions of him?
Afterman: I first met Brian as the assistant GM. Brian was always so level-headed -- not bombastic, not emotional, always easy to deal with and a great sense of humor. [He was] responsive -- a lot of times you'd call a ballclub and they would bob and weave and dodge and wouldn't call you back if there was a problem. Brian was always accessible, always took calls, always worked through problems. George Steinbrenner was a larger-than-life personality …
MLB.com: Also not bombastic and very level-headed all the time, right?
Afterman: Yes, very level-headed. (Laughs.) My point is, if you want to blast upon the world stage, then you blast upon the world stage. Brian was the complete counter-balance to George. He was the rational, level-headed, not emotional, easy to deal with. He still is rational and level-headed -- you in the media know that.
MLB.com: You once called negotiating with George Steinbrenner one of the highlights of your theatrical career. What was it like sitting across the table from him and what was it like working for him?
Afterman: It's interesting -- when I negotiated across the table from him, I was able to call him George. Coming to the Yankees, then it's Mr. Steinbrenner. I always enjoyed jousting with him. The idea that he wouldn't tolerate resistance was nonsense. My experience was that he was just waiting for somebody to talk back. My parents raised me with no fear -- if you have something to say, you say it. I'm not a shrinking violet. It seemed to me the easiest thing in the world. Around the dinner table at my house, everybody is talking at the same time, so talking over George was not difficult because I had learned that at many Thanksgivings. So I enjoyed that.
Working for him was the best training in the world. Because he was so demanding, you had to be on your game all the time. You had to know absolutely everything. He had the uncanny ability to ask you the one thing you didn't have answer for. You just to look him straight in the eye and say, "I don't have an answer to that and I will get for you as soon as possible."
I always tell people [that] everything they have ever heard about George Steinbrenner -- good and bad -- it's all true. You don't have to make somebody a saint to appreciate what a tremendous person they were. The fact that he's not in the Hall of Fame is staggering to me. Just staggering. George and this family, they are Hall of Fame owners -- and I'm not just saying that because they're my bosses. They put the money back in the team and they do everything they can to preserve this national treasure that is the Yankees.
MLB.com: You became only the third woman to hold an assistant GM title, following Elaine Steward with the Red Sox and Kim Ng, who was your predecessor with the Yankees. Currently, you're the only female assistant general manager. Why do you think more women haven't received opportunities for these types of positions?
Afterman: It's an interesting question. I feel that I had the benefit of coming from the agent side -- also being a lawyer, for me at least, gave me the confidence. Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner are the only general manager and owner in professional sports to hire not one, but two female assistant GMs. I think that says something tremendous about Brian. Does it say something less tremendous about his colleagues out there? Perhaps. I don't know. I challenge you to prove me wrong.
In this day and age, I think the cultures are changing in baseball front offices. At one time, the general managers were ex-ballplayers, very close to the field, not a lot of business involved. Now a front office has grown exponentially; there are so many elements to a front office that weren't there. Then there was this huge wave of MBAs and Ivy League guys, and everybody felt that they were the second coming. Then there was a huge wave of now owners select data folks who are heavy into analytics.
Brian said to me when I took the job, "The job is defined by the person that sits in the chair." I think that's true. The job in a front office is multifaceted; it's not one face. You can't be only an ex-player, because you'll fail. You can't be only a Harvard MBA, because you'll fail. And you can't be only an analytics person, or else you'll fail. I think that you have to find the right candidates who kind of combine a lot of those skills and talents, or somebody who can recognize and put people in those positions.
Why aren't there more women? I have no idea. I guess the sum total of what I'm saying is that you have to have a mind -- an active mind -- and be really smart to be in a front office and to be a general manager, an assistant general manager or any of the other people that I work with in my department. Women are just as smart -- if not smarter -- than men, so I think it's a matter of opportunity.
I challenge all the ballclubs out there to show young women out there that they could be a viable candidate, because there's absolutely no reason [why not]. Look, I never played baseball and I'm here. You don't have to have played baseball.
MLB.com: The Sporting News once tabbed you as one of its "Power 100," while the New York Post twice named you one of the "50 Most Powerful Women in New York." What does power mean to you?
Afterman: I always think power and I think of thunderbolts. I think power probably means that you have the ability to change things. There's political power, physical power, emotional power -- all that sort of stuff. I think power should be the ability to change things. In that sense, I'm not sure I've used all of my power and I probably have greater superpowers than I've been using. It's kind of a wake-up call to try and use those superpowers a little bit more. But I think that's probably what power means.
MLB.com: I know you've been asked this question 100 times, but I'm going to make it 101. Do you want to become the first female general manager in baseball history?
Afterman: No. When you put it that way; do I want to be a general manager? No, I don't want to be a general manager. Team president, maybe. … For some reason, it's not appealing to me. It's incredible being an assistant GM to Brian Cashman. I don't think there's any better job in baseball. I don't even think I'd give this up to be a team president. I've got a great gig here.
MLB.com: You guys went to Washington [in 2010] and brought the World Series trophy, President Obama welcomed you. When he was about to pick up the World Series trophy, you said, "Let him hold it; he may not get a chance again." Of course, he's a White Sox fan …
Afterman: That was my point! My point was not that he would never ... the Secret Service almost tackled me to the ground because there was an implied threat.
MLB.com: You later said you immediately regretted saying the comment as everybody oohed at the time. I believe your exact quote was, "Man, that sounded Republican." What was that entire experience like for you, going to the White House and having that happen?
Afterman: Going to the White House was remarkable. I have always been an Obama supporter; I campaigned for him, I voted for him twice and I respect everything he has done in office. What I wanted to say was, you know he's a huge White Sox fan, so a couple of players and I had joked beforehand that there were going to be one or two references to the White Sox, but this is our day. It came out wrong. He responded in the only way he could and said, "And you wonder why people hate you." (Laughs.)
MLB.com: We're sitting here just a couple days after No. 2 was hung up in Monument Park. We've heard a lot of Derek Jeter stories this week. You were around him for a long time. What's your favorite Derek Jeter memory?
Afterman: Number one, he had a great sense of humor. Very funny guy. When you think of memories, you think about something where your paths crossed. It was in 2009, one of the champagne celebrations, and he poured a bottle over my head. When you're in the schoolyard, it's like, "Oh my God, I had a bottle of champagne poured over my head by the team captain!" He was doing an interview -- it almost reminded me that maybe the timing was not so good, like the whole Obama thing -- but he was doing an interview with one of the networks, and I came over with a bottle of champagne and I pulled the top of his jersey and poured it down his back. The woman that was interviewing him said, "Jean Afterman!" and I thought, "Timing -- not so good." But it was great to celebrate.
Everybody else knows all the great things about Derek Jeter. The giving back to the community, the participating in the community, what it meant to be a Yankee, the tradition, the history -- that was everything about Derek Jeter. The one thing that I hope people are catching up on is that when he has said since then that there are new memories and there are new things that are happening, I really feel that he feels he's a part of that river.
The river keeps going. He may have stepped away from the field, but he's forever a Yankee and forever a part of the Yankee family. When he arrived, there were many players before him, and when he leaves, there are many players after him. You take those memories and you build on them. Everybody has to remember -- the river keeps going. There will be baseball 100 years from now. Just being a part of that river, I've been a part of the Yankees for 16 years and I've known fantastic individuals on the field, the players, the coaches, it's been an honor and privilege to know all of them and to work with them. I hope I know when to hang up my cleats.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.