Through Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Ten years ago Rachel Balkovec failed to find a job in Major League Baseball that she temporarily shortened her name to “Rae” on nominations, hoping that the gender ambiguity would reduce the discrimination she suffered.
Last month, the most famous franchise in sports came to her with a proposal she hadn’t even thought of – would she be interested in running one of their teams? Balkovec said yes, the Yankees quickly interviewed and hired her, and on Wednesday she was introduced as the first female manager in affiliate baseball history.
Balkovec, 34, will lead the Low-A Tampa Tarpons after two seasons as a minor league hitting coach with the Yankees organization. She has also worked in strength and conditioning for the Cardinals and Astros and at Driveline Baseball, the data-driven baseball academy that has become a popular source among the MLB coaching ranks.
When she started down this path after a college career as a softball catcher, Balkovec didn’t really consider herself a baseball fan. She found the sport slow. She didn’t even know that women didn’t work in professional baseball. She described herself as “naive” to learn this truth around the age of 23, and she attributed this naivety to her decision to go ahead.
If she had known the truth, the suggestion was that she might not have tried.
For years this has been a slow rise. Four years ago on Wednesday, Balkovec said, she was studying flash cards on the floor of a bathroom cubicle with the goal of earning a master’s degree in human movement science from a Dutch school. Three years ago on Wednesday, she said, she still felt unsettled, sleeping on a mattress she had pulled out of a dumpster.
After the 2019 season, however, the Giants pursued her for a quality control role in the major leagues, and the Yankees hired her. She quickly proved herself as a savvy leader and coach, especially of hitters, even when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted her first season. Instead, she traveled to Australia to gain more experience as a coach of the Australian Baseball League 2020.
“She’s ready to go to the ends of the earth to achieve her goals,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “He is someone who will not be denied.”
The hiring of Balkovec marks the third time Cashman has hired a woman for a prominent role. He did so in 1998 and 2001 with Kim Ng and Jean Afterman, both as deputy managing directors. Afterman remains in this role. Ng is now the general manager of the Marlins.
Cashman expressed hope that one day hiring a woman for a baseball supervisory role won’t draw more than 100 reporters to a press conference, as it did on Wednesday.
Balkovec understands the role she is playing in this fight. She said she was inspired by other women, including Sue Falsone, who the Dodgers hired in 2012 as the first athletic coach in America’s major professional men’s sports leagues. She remembered obsessively reading every article published on Falsone.
After joining the Yankees, Balkovec spoke to Afterman for the first time and now heed his advice regularly.
“It’s not just about sitting at the table,” she said. “It’s about talking when you are at the table.”
Speaking up brought her here. Legendary tennis player – and Dodgers minority owner – Billie Jean King even called to congratulate Balkovec this week.
“OK, I can die now,” she said of that call. “My career is over.”
In fact, this is just the beginning.
In all respects except her gender, Balkovec is the typical modern coach – an energetic young leader who has not played in Major League Baseball. The sport has only recently started to leave these kinds inside its fences and more recently has allowed women to follow suit. Today there are 11 women in coaching roles in the sport, including Giants coach Alyssa Nakken and Astros director of player development Sara Goodrum.
Like so many men hired over the past five years, Balkovec performed in college, did internships, and walked to Driveline to gain more experience. She even accumulated additional degrees to make herself attractive to teams.
But she, of course, fought one more barrier than most of her peers.
On Wednesday, she said she was grateful for the discrimination she faced as it forced her to polish her resume. As she struggled with what she said was extreme loneliness, she learned a variety of skills. She became conversational in Spanish. She has researched the science of typing. She has learned to relate to the teens she will now supervise, to ask questions about their girlfriends, their dogs and their families.
Now she will manage some of the sport’s top prospects at an important site in the Yankees’ organization: their spring training complex.
“If you know my story and you have a pulse,” she said, “I think it’s pretty hard not to understand what’s going on here.”
Pedro Moura is the National Baseball Writer for FOX Sports. He recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and the LA Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the southern suburbs of California. Follow him on twitter @pedromoura.
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