Sports

A Groundbreaking Hiring Caused Little Fuss: ‘Everybody Was on Board’

Soon after the news broke that Rachel Balkovec had been hired to become the first woman to serve as a manager in affiliated professional baseball history, the messages poured in. She heard from players she worked with as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ minor leagues the past two years. She heard from Jean Afterman, the team’s longtime assistant general manager whom Balkovec had looked up to and sought guidance from.

But the message that thrilled Balkovec most 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, “History made in baseball!”

Balkovec’s reaction? “OK, I can die now. My career’s over. Billie Jean King congratulated me.”

Balkovec, 34, recalled this while on a video call with over 100 journalists Wednesday, the day after her hiring as the 2022 manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the low Class A affiliate of the Yankees, was officially announced. Major league teams don’t normally hold news conferences for their minor league managers, but this was a groundbreaking hire and a groundbreaking coach.

In 2014, two years after she began an internship with the St. Louis Cardinals as a strength and conditioning coach for one of their affiliates, the Cardinals hired her as a minor league strength and conditioning coordinator, making her the first woman to hold a full-time position in that field in affiliated baseball.

The Yankees first hired her for their farm system in November 2019, making her the first woman hired as a full-time hitting instructor 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 just gratitude,” Balkovec said before she rattled off the names of some people who paved a path for her.

She pointed to the Yankees and their general manager, Brian Cashman, for setting an example with the past hires of Kim Ng and Jean Afterman as assistant general managers. She named the Cardinals officials who hired her as a strength and conditioning coach “when there were no women around and it was very much the dark ages in that regard.” And she thanked her parents, who lent her money when she had little and helped her chase her dreams in a male-dominated industry that was hard to break into.

“The first word that comes to mind in this situation is just gratitude,” said Balkovec, who began her career with the St. Louis Cardinals and has found new heights with the Yankees. Credit…Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP

“My father and mother, they deserve an award,” Balkovec said. “They literally raised three girls to be absolute hellions. And we didn’t know and I literally didn’t know that wasn’t possible.”

During her talk, which lasted nearly an hour, she recounted stories of her journey and spoke of the steps she’d taken to continue her path to where she now stands.

Balkovec, a former college softball player, talked about how she had eight colleges contacting her about jobs in women’s sports in 2013 and faced resistance when she wanted to work in baseball and for men’s teams, so it became a chip on her shoulder.

She talked about she struggled to get interest from teams when was applying to jobs as a strength and conditioning coach, changing her name to “Rae” on her résumé at her sister’s suggestion, suddenly hearing back from team officials but them balking when they discovered she was a woman.

She talked about how, four years ago while working as a strength and conditioning coach for the Houston Astros’ Class AA Corpus Christi Hooks, she was studying physics with flashcards sitting on the floor of a bathroom stall in the women’s restroom because there was no space for her in the clubhouse at the San Antonio Missions’ stadium.

She talked about how, three years ago, she was sleeping on a mattress that she had pulled out of a dumpster in Amsterdam, where she was getting her second master’s degree, in human movement sciences, at Vrije University. She talked about how the overwhelming majority of players have been receptive of her, how she learned Spanish to better connect with those from Latin America and the slowly growing number of women in baseball.

Credit…New York Yankees

‘Bias and stereotypes are going to be around forever, but I do think we’ve made a ton of progress. There are going to be 11 women in uniform next year.’

Rachel Balkovec

“Bias and stereotypes are going to be around forever, but I do think we’ve made a ton of progress,” she said. “There are going to be 11 women in uniform next year.”

She added later, “Just the way that people react to me and the way that they talk to me, it’s becoming more normal. It’s pretty apparent and it’s just exciting to see how much progress we’ve made. We definitely have a lot of room to grow. But it’s really exciting. There were many times in my career where I felt extremely lonely and I literally didn’t have anyone to call who had been going through the same experiences.”

The decision to promote Balkovec was easy, said Kevin Reese, the Yankees’ vice president of player development. He had gathered some of his top lieutenants to discuss roles for employees at different minor league levels for the upcoming season. Everyone spoke highly of Balkovec, including Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ new major league hitting coach who first worked with her in the Houston Astros’ farm system and lured her to the Yankees two years ago.

“The funny thing,” Reese said, “and I’ve talked with a number of people about like, ‘Hey, was this tough? Was there a lot of debate?’ Everybody was on board.”

Asked if he could have imagined a female manager, say, 10 years ago, Reese, a former Yankees’ outfielder, said no.

“I’ve gotten to work with Jean and some of the people that Rachel mentioned before and there’s no reason that this shouldn’t have been considered previously,” 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 those people are showing up today and showing that they have a lot of value.”

When Cashman hired 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 hiring received.

“Back then, I remember saying, ‘Well, hopefully we can get to a point where this is no longer newsworthy, it’s just kind of happenstance,’” he said. All these years later, he said, he noticed a similar reaction to Balkovec’s hiring.

Added Balkovec: “I’ve been in baseball for 10 years. So it feels a little interesting to me that there’s so much attention now.”

Cashman said that gender equity wasn’t considered as much in the past in the baseball industry — “but that doesn’t make it right.” He credited pioneers in and around the sport such as the Boston Red Sox executive Elaine Weddington Steward, the first woman hired as an assistant general manager in Major League Baseball, or Ng, now of the Miami Marlins, the first woman hired as a general manager.

“There’s always someone that emerges that’s not afraid, that wants it and that goes after it, and is strong enough to take it,” he said. “Unfortunately in some categories it takes longer than others. And unfortunately society had failed to recognize the strength and equal power, if not more power, that women possess.”

Balkovec’s hiring was historic enough to prompt Rob Manfred, the M.L.B. Commissioner, to issue a statement of congratulations and well wishes. After calling Ng’s hiring as a G.M. in 2020 a step forward, he said, “I am pleased to see the game continue to make important progress at various levels.”

Manfred also commended 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 who proved that baseball was for all. Balkovec said she took that responsibility seriously.

“I don’t think you sign your name on the dotted line to do something like this and then say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a role model,’” she said, adding later, “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 that have daughters. I want to be out there. I have two jobs.”

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