Shortly after news broke that Rachel Balkovec had been hired to become the first female manager in professional baseball affiliate history, the messages poured in. last two years. She heard about Jean Afterman, the team’s longtime assistant general manager whom Balkovec had looked up to and sought advice over the years.
But the message that most thrilled Balkovec was from Billie Jean King, the former tennis star and activist who fought for equal gender rights. On Sunday night, King wrote in part on Twitter, “Baseball history!”
Balkovec’s reaction? “OK, I can die now. My career is over. Billie Jean King congratulated me.
Balkovec, 34, recalled that in a video call with more than 100 reporters Wednesday, the day after he was officially announced as the 2022 manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the Yankees’ Class A affiliate. Major league teams don’t normally hold press conferences for their minor league managers, but this was a breakthrough hire and a breakthrough coach.
In 2014, two years after beginning an internship with the St. Louis Cardinals as a strength and conditioning coach for one of their affiliates, the Cardinals hired her as their league strength and conditioning coordinator. minor, making her the first woman to hold a full-time minor in affiliated baseball.
The Yankees first added her to their farm system in November 2019, making her the first woman hired as a full-time hitting coach by a big league team. After impressing Yankees officials and players, she will now lead a team.
“The first word that comes to mind in this situation is simply gratitude,” Balkovec said before naming the names of some people who paved the way for him.
She singled out the Yankees and their general manager, Brian Cashman, for leading by example with past hires of Kim Ng and Afterman as assistant general managers. She named the Cardinals officials who hired her as a strength and conditioning coach “when there weren’t any women around and it was really the dark ages in that regard.” And she thanked her parents, who lent her money when she had little and helped her pursue her dreams in a male-dominated industry that was hard to break into.
“My father and my mother, they deserve an award,” Balkovec said. “They literally raised three girls to absolute hell. And we didn’t know and I literally didn’t know that wasn’t possible.
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During her interview, which lasted nearly an hour, she told stories from her journey and talked about the steps she took to continue on her path to where she is now.
Balkovec, a former college softball player, explained how eight colleges approached her about jobs in women’s sports in 2013 and she faced resistance when she wanted to work in baseball and for the men’s teams, so it became a chip on his shoulder.
She said she struggled to garner interest from teams when applying for strength and conditioning coaching jobs, changing her name to “Rae” on her resume at her sister’s suggestion, suddenly hearing the team officials, but they balked when they found out she was female.
She recounted how, four years ago, while working as a strength and conditioning coach for the Houston Astros’ class AA Corpus Christi hooks, she studied physics with flashcards while sitting on the floor of a toilet stall in the women’s restroom because there was no space for her in the San Antonio Missions stadium clubhouse.
She told how, three years ago, she slept on a mattress she pulled out of a dumpster in Amsterdam, where she was completing her second master’s degree, in human movement science, at the University of Vrije. She talked about how the overwhelming majority of players welcomed her, how she learned Spanish to better connect with those in Latin America, and the slowly growing number of women in baseball.
“Prejudices and stereotypes are going to be around forever, but I think we’ve made a ton of progress,” she said. “There will be 11 women in uniform next year.”
She later added, “Just the way people react to me and the way they talk to me, it becomes more normal. It’s pretty obvious and it’s just exciting to see the progress we’ve made. “We certainly have a lot of room to grow. But it’s really exciting. There have been many times in my career where I’ve felt extremely alone and I literally didn’t have anyone to call who had gone through the same experiences.
The decision to promote Balkovec was easy, said Yankees vice president of player development Kevin Reese. He had brought together some of his top lieutenants to discuss employee roles at various minor league levels for the upcoming season. Everyone praised Balkovec, including Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ new major league hitting coach who first worked with her in the Astros’ farm system and lured her to the Yankees there. two years old.
“Which is funny,” Reese said, “and I’ve talked to a number of people like, ‘Hey, was that hard? Was there a lot of debate? Everyone was on board. “
When asked if he could have imagined a female manager, say, 10 years ago, Reese, a former Yankees outfielder, said no.
“I’ve worked with Jean and some of the people Rachel has mentioned before and there’s no reason it hasn’t been considered before,” he said. “But there weren’t necessarily as many opportunities for people – men, even – who didn’t have a playing background. More and more of these people are showing up today and showing that they have a lot of worth.
When Cashman appointed Ng to be his assistant general manager in 1998, he did so, he said, because she was the best person for the job, but he was surprised by the widespread attention that this decision received.
“At the time, I remember saying, ‘Well, hopefully we can get to a point where it’s not newsworthy anymore, it’s just kind of a fluke,'” a- he declared. All these years later, he says, he noticed a similar reaction to hiring Balkovec.
Balkovec added, “I’ve been in baseball for 10 years. So it’s kind of interesting to me that there’s so much attention now.
Cashman said gender equity wasn’t considered as much in the baseball industry in the past — “but that doesn’t make it right.” He credited pioneers in and around the sport such as the executive of the Boston Red Sox Elaine Weddington Steward, the first woman hired as assistant general manager in Major League Baseball, or Ng, now of the Miami Marlins, the first woman hired as general manager.
“There’s always someone emerging who isn’t afraid, who wants it and chases it, and is strong enough to take it,” he said. “Unfortunately, in some categories it takes longer than others. And sadly, society has failed to recognize the equal, if not greater, strength and power that women possess.
Balkovec’s hiring was historic enough to prompt MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to issue a statement of congratulations and well wishes. After calling Ng’s hiring as GM in 2020 a step forward, he said, “I’m delighted to see the game continue to make significant progress on various levels.”
Manfred also praised Sara Goodrum, the Astros’ new director of player development, and the other women working in the sport “who are setting a positive example for our next generation of fans” and proving baseball is for everyone. Balkovec said she takes that responsibility seriously.
“I don’t think you sign your name on the dotted line to do something like that and then say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a model,'” she said, later adding, ” People ask me, ‘Why are you on social media?’ I want to be a visible idea for young women. I want to be a visible idea for dads who have daughters. I want to be there. I have two jobs.