MLB’s first female minor league manager is living the ‘American Dream’

Rachel Balkovec is aware of the negativity in her social media feeds and tries to leave it there. Her sisters see it too and can’t help but convey some derogatory reactions to her barrier-breaking journey.

“It’s hilarious to me,” Balkovec said. “Because it’s the American dream.”

At the clubhouse? She didn’t see any of that toxicity there.

Balkovec was introduced Wednesday as the manager of the New York Yankees Low A affiliate in the Florida State League. By taking over the Tarpons from Tampa, Balkovec will become the first female manager in affiliate baseball history, a nomination that has been ongoing for 10 years for the former college softball player.

“If you know my story and have a pulse, I think it’s pretty hard not to understand what’s going on here,” she said.

Nearly a decade after changing her name on resumes to disguise her gender and break into baseball, the 34-year-old has broken down multiple barriers en route to that title. She was the first woman to be a full-time strength and conditioning coach in the minor leagues, and then the first to be a full-time hitting coach in the minors.

FILE – New York Yankees minor league batting coach Rachel Balkovec, center, speaks to reporters during Major League Baseball’s winter meetings on Dec. 10, 2019 in San Diego

This promotion — a year after former Yankees employee Kim Ng became the majors’ first female general manager with the Miami Marlins — is different. Balkovec will lead the Tampa clubhouse, responsible for overseeing the development of future big leaguers for one of the world’s most celebrated sports franchises.

“The players I’ve worked with, whether they like me, whether they like me, whether they like what I say, whether they like what I say, I have feel like they respect me,” she said.

It’s a trust she’s earned in an unusual way – one that didn’t exist 20 years ago, but not just because of her gender.

A former softball catcher in Creighton and New Mexico, Balkovec has a master’s degree in kinesiology from LSU and another in human movement science from Vrije University in the Netherlands. She has worked strength and conditioning with the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros since entering pro ball in 2012, and has also spent time at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven center that has trained many major leaguers. She is an expert in the science of performance, precisely that the teams of experts covet.

When the Yankees hired her as a minor league hitting coach in 2019, she was at the forefront of women entering uniformed jobs, but she wasn’t the only coach without traditional playing experience. .

Getting to 95 mph isn’t the same skill as teaching someone else, and as teams shifted focus in the hiring process to reflect that, it created a pathway for women like Balkovec or Alyssa Nakken, who is part of the San Francisco Giants major. league coaches since 2020.

“There wasn’t a ton of debate about whether baseball was ready or whether the world was ready,” said vice president of baseball operations Kevin Reese, who made the decision to promote Balkovec. “We try to find the best people and put them in the best position to make an impact here.”

Reese, introduced Wednesday under a new title after being promoted to senior director of player development, helped hire Balkovec in 2019 and has been hugely impressed with her expertise and ability to lead, including with young Latin American players. The Nebraska native taught herself Spanish after becoming Houston’s strength and conditioning coach in 2016, and some of her most notable work has been with New York’s Spanish-speaking players, including the best prospect Jasson Dominguez.

FILE - Rachel Balkovec coaches Jasson Dominguez during American League batting practice at the MLB All Star Futures game, July 11, 2021, in Denver.

FILE – Rachel Balkovec coaches Jasson Dominguez during American League batting practice at the MLB All Star Futures game, July 11, 2021, in Denver.

General manager Brian Cashman has had a woman as assistant general manager since Ng was hired in 1998. When she left in 2001, Jean Afterman was appointed to the position and has been there ever since. Balkovec has expressed interest in one day working in the front office and potentially becoming a general manager herself.

“The sky’s the limit,” Cashman said. “She is determined. She is strong. She has perseverance.”

She needed it. After moving into her temporary position in St. Louis in 2012, she began applying for baseball jobs with what she knew was a solid resume. And yet, only one team responded.

His point of contact with that club said his bosses wouldn’t let him hire a woman in a strength and conditioning role. Worse still, this person called other teams with vacancies, and they all told him the same thing.

“At that exact moment, my level of naivety went from 10 to zero,” she said.

One of his sisters suggested changing his name to “Rae Balkovec” on his resume, and the tactic worked to at least get hiring managers on the phone. The Cardinals brought her back as full-time strength and conditioning coordinator in 2014.

She rarely had issues with players related to her gender – “so few that it’s not worth mentioning,” she said. Being the only woman in this pioneering role, however, was lonely.

FILE - American League's Adley Rutschman, left, talks to Rachel Balkovec during the third inning of the MLB All Star Futures baseball game, July 11, 2021, in Denver.

FILE – American League’s Adley Rutschman, left, talks to Rachel Balkovec during the third inning of the MLB All Star Futures baseball game, July 11, 2021, in Denver.

Now she thinks there will be 11 women with field jobs in Affiliate Ball next year, and she is able to compare their experiences with them. Tennis great Billie Jean King was among the many who praised her for her work in Tampa, and she’s developed a support network that has bolstered her confidence that she’s ready for the role.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I congratulate Rachel on this historic milestone,” commissioner Rob Manfred said. “As manager of the Tampa Tarpons, she will continue to demonstrate her expertise and leadership in the Yankees organization. We wish Rachel well in this new capacity and appreciate her mentorship to the growing network of women in baseball operations. and player development roles.”

The task before him, however, is the same as for any other skipper: to get the best out of the players in his clubhouse.

“My goal is really to know the names of the girlfriends, the dogs, the families of all the players,” she said. “My aim is to develop them as young men and youngsters who have immense pressure on them. My aim is to support the coaches who are on staff.

“We’re going to talk more throwing and hitting details with them, and defense. It’s really just to be a supporter and to facilitate an environment where they can be successful.”

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