Title IX stories: Yankees' Class-A manager Rachel Balkovec never gave up quest

Wed, Jun 22, 2022
MLB News (AP)

Title IX stories: Yankees' Class-A manager Rachel Balkovec never gave up quest
By Anna Katherine Clemmons
Special to AP Sports

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of AP Sports' series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was enacted into law on June 23, 1972. The series tells the stories of significant women in sports today, both celebrating the progress that has been made and recognizing the barriers that still remain.

Rachel Balkovec is apologizing. The manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the Low-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, is three minutes late for a 6:30 a.m. interview. She doesn't like being late. Her team played a doubleheader the day before, and she has a 16-plus-hour day ahead of her. But still.

Balkovec is also very direct. She has exactly 35 minutes, she says. Then she needs three minutes for a wardrobe change before dashing over to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' facility, less than a mile from Steinbrenner Field. She has a professional development opportunity with the Bucs' coaching staff (which includes assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust, one of a handful of women coaching in the NFL), which they have been trying to schedule for months. She'll be back at Steinbrenner Field by noon to follow her structured game-day routine before a 6:30 p.m. game.'

She is kind but firm. No distractions and no negotiations of her time. And no shadowing her during her day's regimented process.

That direct approach has been central in Balkovec's path to becoming the first woman to manage a minor-league affiliate of an MLB team. And as with many trailblazing women "firsts" in professional sports since Title IX's passage 50 years ago, pressure and media attention have followed.

Rachel Balkovec speaks on her journey to managing the Tampa Tarpons, the New York Yankees' Low-A affiliate.

But this was not a token promotion by the Yankees, nor an overnight ascension by Balkovec. The former softball catcher worked relentlessly toward this role for more than a decade, sometimes working several jobs and unpaid internships simultaneously, at other times selling all of her possessions to fund her next opportunity.

"When I first got into [baseball], almost everyone said that it wasn't a good idea," Balkovec said. "I had to take a lot of risks and know that I would have to do a lot more work. Six internships to get the first full-time job, working three jobs until I was 27 years old. I'm proud that I did all of that, and I'm happy that was my path."

Her path to this point, that is. Because while she is enjoying this role and this season, the 34-year-old has no plans to slow down.

*** *** ***

Growing up, Balkovec's dream was to work in professional sports - as the first-ever female NFL kicker. She spent hours practicing in her family's backyard in Omaha, trying to kick the football over nearby power lines. "I missed out on that [goal] a little bit," Balkovec said, smiling. "But I got a good consolation prize."

Her older sister, Stephanie, says their parents were hard on their three daughters but also very supportive. Each child worked throughout high school and college. Stephanie and Rachel had to buy their cars from their parents with the money they earned (and had to pay for their own car insurance).

"They made our lives difficult on purpose," Stephanie said. "They wanted to make it so that their kids could be completely independent in the world - to be able to do literally anything and not need them [to do it]."

Balkovec took that lesson, well, literally.

After playing softball at Creighton University and then the University of New Mexico, Rachel first considered a career in baseball when she was enrolled in a master's program in kinesiology at LSU.

She worked as a graduate assistant with LSU's strength and conditioning program, and there she learned about baseball's extensive minor-league system. She was intrigued and thought a strength and conditioning coaching position would be a great way to immerse herself in player development. She also began researching baseball in Latin America and was fascinated by the academy network.

Balkovec's first postgraduate position was an internship as a strength coach with the Rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals, then a minor-league affiliate of St. Louis, where she won the Appalachian League's 2012 Strength Coach of the Year Award.'

But no job offers followed.

She moved to Phoenix and began taking prerequisite courses toward a possible PhD in nutrition. For most of 2013, after applying for multiple baseball positions without any luck, she worked at Lululemon and waitressed at a restaurant while interning with Arizona State's baseball and softball teams. In the fall of 2013, the Chicago White Sox hired Balkovec as a weight room intern at their Arizona facility. For $30 per day, she monitored the weight room, helped spot players and cleaned the room and equipment.

At the time, Balkovec says, women often weren't considered for these jobs, largely because of worries that they would be a "distraction." But in hiring her, Balkovec said, White Sox conditioning coordinator Dale Torborg told her, "You're a woman - I don't care. My wife is an ex-pro wrestler, and she can kick ass. I won't be weird about it."

Balkovec interned with the White Sox through the winter, but the organization didn't have any openings in the spring.

As Balkovec continued applying for positions, her sister, Stephanie, suggested that she change the name on her resume from Rachel to Rae. She took her first name out of her email address and deleted the word "softball" from her experience as an NCAA Division I softball catcher. Gender aside, her resume was solid: She had completed multiple baseball-related internships, she had worked in the Dominican Republic, she had extensive playing experience, and she had a master's degree.

As soon as she changed her name and materials to appear as though she were a man, Balkovec received multiple callbacks. Several potential employers initially emailed her as Rae; when she replied and signed the email "Rachel," they didn't write back.'

"My thought was, yes, they will find out I am a woman, but if they talk to me, they'll hear that I know what I'm talking about," Balkovec said.

During one call, the interviewer asked for "Rae." Balkovec responded, "This is she," and the caller stumbled through his next sentences. Balkovec was out with friends, so she asked if they could talk the next day. She never heard from him again. "I called him, I emailed him - he never responded," Balkovec said. "I felt very awkward."

Awkward enough that the gender nomenclature changes were short-lived; she changed her name back to Rachel, she says, fairly quickly. When none of her MLB-related job applications led to interviews, she applied to work at Eric Cressey's Sports Performance Center outside of Boston and was accepted.

But just before she moved, the Cardinals called, asking if she'd be interested in a full-time strength and conditioning coordinator position. "I was like, 'What?'" Balkovec said. "I can't even get my name in anywhere for an internship, and you're calling me for a job?" She was hired in late January 2014.

Balkovec gives credit to then-Cardinals strength coaches Rene Pena and Pete Prinzi, who, she says, "were always willing to hire a woman." Balkovec was the only female strength coach in baseball for the next four seasons.

In 2016, the Astros hired Balkovec to be their Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator out of their Dominican Academy. Two years later, she accepted another position, this time as the strength and conditioning coach for the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks.

"It was just saying yes to things that probably other people don't say yes to," Balkovec said. And at every stop, she had a tunnel-vision focus. She had to, because each time, someone would ask: "How are you going to do that? No other woman has done that."

*** *** ***

Balkovec said that in many moments, she felt like giving up. One of those moments happened in 2018. She had left the U.S. and returned to school, at 30 years old, to earn her second master's degree, this one in human movement science at Vrije University in Amsterdam. She had maxed out a $20,000 credit card and sold all of her possessions to pay her tuition.

"What am I really doing this for?" she asked herself. "What is my purpose?" She got out a piece of paper and wrote down her ultimate vision: to be the general manager of a Major League Baseball team.

She held on to that paper as she sat through computer coding class and as she studied for her physics final. She also relied on a quote from Buckminster Fuller: "What is my job on the planet? What is it that needs doing, that I know something about, that probably won't happen unless I take responsibility for it?"

"For me," Balkovec said, "it's kind of like, if I don't do it, then who is going to?"

Balkovec studied the career trajectory of Sue Falsone, who worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers for six years, beginning in 2007, first as the team physical therapist and later as head athletic trainer. Falsone was the first female head athletic trainer in any of the U.S.'s four major professional sports.

Seeing that, Balkovec thought to herself, "If there's a woman in the dugout who's a physical therapist, why can't a strength and conditioning coach be possible?"

Now, in her position, Balkovec accepts the visibility of her "firsts" because of the impact she knows it can have. She often signs autographs and takes photos with young female fans following games. "I know how insanely impactful it was for me to have somebody like [Falsone]," she said. "And to know that I can pay it forward is really important."

The Yankees hired Balkovec in 2019 as the first female full-time hitting coach for a minor-league team. She arrived the first day and saw the pinstripes hanging in her locker. That moment, she says, is when she really realized it had all been worth it.

Then, in December 2021, during a late afternoon meeting with Yankees Vice President of Player Development Kevin Reese, hitting coach Dillon Lawson and Director of Player Development Eric Schmitt at the franchise's facility in Tampa, Balkovec learned that she'd be the Tarpons' next manager.

"I was so focused on being a hitting coach that it was a surprise at the moment," she said. "But internally, it wasn't that big of a deal. Becoming a strength coach, becoming a hitting coach, that was grueling. But becoming a manager from a hitting coach was a normal role change."

Maybe not so normal for the first woman minor-league manager, however. Tarpons pitching coach Grayson Crawford learned he'd be on Balkovec's staff when she called him in mid-January. They chatted for 45 minutes, getting to know each other. He was curious how she would approach being the first female manager. But as he got to know her, through meetings, mini-camp and spring training, he saw that her hard work - her hours of study, her high IQ for the game, her intellectual curiosity - would quell critics' questioning.

"Her work ethic is second to none," Crawford said. "And her drive is as much as any."

During the team's first practice, each person went around and introduced himself or herself. "Hi, my name is Rachel," Balkovec said. "I'm going to be head coach. You can call me Rachel, Rach, Coach, Mom - whatever you want to call me, whatever you feel comfortable with."

"She makes you feel like you're at home," said Tarpons pitcher Chandler Champlain, one of the Yankees' top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America. "She's got that perfect, happy medium, where she can flip the switch anytime to be a coach or be a friend."

And, Champlain added, she doesn't hold back from demanding a lot. But she also has a natural ability to meet each player where they are, a critical skill for developing Low-A players, some of whom are in the early stages of what might one day be major-league careers.

*** *** ***

Tampa's Opening Day was April 9, 2022, at the Lakeland Flying Tigers. The home team had donated 1,000 tickets to local softball teams, and young women filled the stands. Prior to the first pitch, the stadium rang out with fans' cries of "Let's go, Rachel!" - even though she was the opposing manager.

The game was broadcast on the YES Network. Balkovec put on a headset midgame to talk with the on-air commentating team.

"How are you feeling so far?" the analyst asked her.

"Well, we're losing," Balkovec replied as she adjusted the headset and her baseball cap.

When the TV talent asked about her "emotions, being here and being the manager of a ballclub," Balkovec responded, "Just grateful. I know there's a lot of young women in the stands, and it's incredibly wonderful to be a visible idea for them. I'm feeling grateful for the women who've come before me, and for the Yankees, who've given me this opportunity."

During rain delays, when clubhouse card games often ensue, relief pitcher Zach Messinger said Balkovec will pull up a chair and ask those assembled what game they're playing before joining in.

On other days, she will shag fly balls in the outfield and ask Messinger about specific pitch grips, so she can utilize them when throwing BP in the cages.

"There's a level of respect between us and her," Messinger said. "Obviously, she's our manager, but any time we have feedback, she's very open to us coming up to her."

Balkovec says she is about 80 percent fluent in Spanish, which she often speaks with Latin-born players. She started learning the language during her 2012 internship, asking questions of players and forcing herself to hold conversations in Spanish.

Messinger says that opponents often ask him what it's like to play for a female manager. "I tell them, 'I've been on ball clubs where it's very much a boys' club, and now I've had a couple of months with Rachel,'" he said. "'And I couldn't really tell you the difference.'"

While the players and Balkovec's coaching staff have acclimated to her in a manager's uniform, some others have been slower to adapt. At the All-Star Futures Game in Denver last year, Balkovec became the first woman to ever serve as coach. Walking into the clubhouse, a security attendant stopped her.

"Excuse me, ma'am, this is the clubhouse," he said as he tried to refuse her entry.

"I know," Balkovec replied, in full uniform.

"So yes, there's still confusion," she said. "But I don't get mad about it. Change is change, and nobody likes change - it's uncomfortable, it's new, it's different. So it's my job to change somebody's mind. And what an honor that is."

While Balkovec is the first female manager in pro baseball, she is not the first female. Rather, she's part of a growing trend of close to two dozen women hires across MLB. Many of those women are in a What's App group called AGEB (Alliance for Gender Equity in Baseball). Job titles in the group vary from athletic trainer to on-field coach to player development. Through the group chat, participants network, mentor one another and discuss the intricacies and challenges of their jobs.

"To have a community is something I am adjusting to, because for so long I just didn't," Balkovec said. "There was literally no one to go to to talk about struggles or triumphs or anything. So I'm having to adjust, like, 'Oh, I can reach out to this community.'"

Balkovec has not watched any TV, she says, save for the MLB Network, since the new year. She doesn't drink. She doesn't go out. She doesn't travel for fun until the offseason, when she picks an international destination where baseball is not a known entity. She is focused on maximizing each minute of the day because, she says, she can't afford not to.

"Of course there are times where it's difficult or I want to give up," Balkovec said. "In my mind, if you're not feeling like you're in a pressure situation, are you really moving the needle? For yourself, personally, or for the world?"

When her Tarpons role was announced, many incorrectly assumed it was Balkovec's career pinnacle. But she still aspires to be a major-league general manager down the road.

"I feel like every time I get hired to do something now, people are throwing me a graduation party," she said. "And I'm like, 'Wait, I'm still a freshman! Don't hype it too much because there's still a lot of work to be done.'

"I'm not done yet."

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a national freelance writer and an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia.

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