NEW YORK — Rachel Balkovec is aware of the negativity on her social media and tries to leave it there. Her sisters watch as well and can’t help but convey certain dismissive reactions to her barrier-breaking trip.
“It’s funny to me,” Balkovec said. “Because it’s the American dream.”
In the clubhouse? She hasn’t seen any of that toxicity there.
Balkovec was introduced Wednesday as the coach of the New York Yankees’ Florida State League Lower Class A affiliate. By taking over the Tampa Tarpons, Balkovec will become the first female manager in affiliate baseball history, a designation that has been 10 years in the making for the former college softball player.
“If you know my history and you have a pulse, I think it’s very difficult not to be behind what’s going on here,” he said.
Nearly a decade after changing her name on resumes to disguise her gender and enter baseball, the 34-year-old has broken down several barriers on her way to this title. She was the first woman to serve as a full-time minor league strength and conditioning coach, then the first to serve as a full-time hitting coach in the minors.
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 be in charge of the clubhouse in Tampa, tasked with overseeing the development of future major leaguers for one of the world’s most storied sports franchises.
“The players I’ve worked with, they like me, they don’t like me, they like what I say, they don’t like what I say, I feel like they respect me,” he said.
It’s a trust that was earned through an unusual route, one that didn’t exist 20 years ago, but not just because of her gender.
A former softball catcher at Creighton and New Mexico, Balkovec has a master’s degree in kinesiology from LSU and another in human movement sciences from Vrije University in the Netherlands. He has worked in strength and conditioning with the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros since his first foray into professional baseball in 2012, and also spent time at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven center that has trained numerous major league players. She is an expert in performance science, precisely the expert teams are coveting.
When the Yankees hired her as a minor league hitting coach in 2019, she was at the forefront of women moving into uniformed jobs, but she wasn’t the only coach with no experience in the traditional game.
Hitting 95 mph isn’t the same skill as teaching someone else, and as teams have shifted their approach in the hiring process to reflect that, it’s created a path for women like Balkovec or Alyssa Nakken, who is part of the coaching staff. of the San Francisco Giants in the Major Leagues since 2020.
“There wasn’t a lot of debate about whether baseball was ready or the world was ready,” said vice president of baseball operations Kevin Reese, who made the decision to promote Balkovec. “We’re trying to find the best people and put them in the best position to make an impact here.”
Reese, presented Wednesday with a new title after being promoted from senior director of player development, helped sign Balkovec in 2019 and was overwhelmingly impressed with her experience and leadership skills, even with young Latin American players. The Nebraska native taught herself Spanish after becoming Houston’s Latin American strength and conditioning coach in 2016, and some of her most notable work has been with New York’s Spanish-speaking players, including prospect Jasson Dominguez. .
General manager Brian Cashman has had a female assistant GM since he hired Ng in 1998. When she left in 2001, Jean Afterman was appointed to the job and has been there ever since. Balkovec has expressed interest in one day working in the front office and becoming a general manager herself.
“The sky is the limit,” Cashman said. “She’s determined. She’s strong. She has perseverance.”
She needed it. After serving his temporary position with St. Louis in 2012, he began applying for baseball jobs with what he knew was a rock-solid resume. And yet, only one team responded.
His point of contact with that club said his bosses would not allow him to hire a woman for a strength and conditioning position. Worse yet, that person called other teams with openings and they all told him the same thing.
“At that very moment, my level of naivety went from 10 to zero,” he said.
One of her sisters suggested changing her name to “Rae Balkovec” on her resume, and the tactic worked to at least get the hiring managers on the phone. The Cardinals brought her back as a full-time strength and conditioning coordinator in 2014.
He has rarely had problems with players related to his gender, “so few that they are hardly worth mentioning,” he said. However, being the only woman in that pioneering role was lonely.
Now, she believes there will be 11 women with outfield jobs in affiliate baseball next year, and she can compare experiences with them. Tennis great Billie Jean King was among the many who complimented her on the job in Tampa, and she developed a support network that bolstered her confidence that she’s ready for the job.
“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I congratulate Rachel on this historic milestone,” said Commissioner Rob Manfred. “As manager of the Tampa Tarpons, she will continue to demonstrate her experience and leadership in the Yankees organization. We wish Rachel the best in this new capacity and appreciate her mentorship for the growing network of women in baseball operations and management roles. player development.
However, the job ahead of him is the same as that of any other employer: get the most 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,” he said. “My goal is to develop them as young, young men who have a lot of pressure on them. My goal is to support the coaches that are on staff.
“We’re going to talk more about the practicalities of pitching and hitting with them, and defense. It’s really just about supporting and facilitating an environment where they can be successful.”