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Yankees' Rachel Balkovec: 'I want to be a visible idea for young women'

Rachel Balkovec worked a minor-league hitting instructor for

Rachel Balkovec worked a minor-league hitting instructor for the Yankees in 2020 and 2021. Credit: New York Yankees

There was a dark moment in the winter of 2012 after Rachel Balkovec nearly landed a full-time job in minor-league baseball. She had interviewed well and was told she would be hired the next day before not hearing anything again. As she looked for answers in the weeks that followed, she learned the truth: Those in upper management didn’t want a woman, and the other minor-league affiliates looking to fill positions at the time didn’t, either.

So at the behest of her sister, she changed the name on her stacked resume to "Rae" and watched as the interested emails rolled in. It worked until it didn’t: She eventually had to get on the phone, and her voice revealed that she wasn’t the man the decision-makers assumed she was.

It’s been a long time since then — and the experiment with the name change was short-lived — but on Wednesday, when Balkovec was announced as the new manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the Yankees' low Class A affiliate, that period of time was sharp in her memory.

As the first woman to manage an MLB-affiliated baseball team, she well understands the responsibility that comes with the term "trailblazer." What once seemed like an impossibility has become a legitimate avenue for other women in baseball.

"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. I just don’t subscribe to that," she said in her introductory news conference. "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 and that’s fine . . . It’s something that I take seriously. It’s something I’m really passionate about and I know the impact."

Balkovec, 34, originally from Nebraska, was hired by the Yankees to be a minor-league hitting coach in 2019. Before that, she worked in the Cardinals' and Astros' organizations as a strength and conditioning coach and coordinator. She’s believed to be the first female hitting coach in professional baseball and, with the Cardinals, was named the Appalachian League’s strength coach of the year.

The former Division I softball catcher has masters' degrees in kinesiology and biomechanics and says she uses both to help her players maximize their talents.

Balkovec describes herself as a coach who’s direct about her standards, honest and upfront, who cares about her players on a personal level. She’s nearly fluent in Spanish, a language she picked up so she could communicate with Latino athletes.

"There wasn’t a ton of debate as to whether baseball was ready or the world was ready," said Kevin Reese, recently promoted to the position of Yankees vice president of player development. "It was just, we’re trying to find the best people and put them in their best positions to have a huge impact here. That was the only question we really asked."

Reese called the decision a no-brainer, and he met no resistance from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

In general, the Yankees have a storied history in promoting women’s involvement with the sport. Cashman has hired two female assistant general managers in his tenure. His first was Kim Ng in 1998; she now is the Marlins' GM (the first woman to hold the position in Major League Baseball). The second was his current second in command, Jean Afterman.

Cashman said Wednesday that he hopes hirings like these become less notable in the future because they’re so common. Baseball isn’t quite there yet, though — the news conference had more than 100 reporters in attendance.

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

Balkovec said that when she first became interested in working in baseball, she didn’t realize how difficult the path would be. Gender discrimination wasn’t on her mind until she got to experience it in sharp detail, working a waitressing job in Phoenix while her resume was consistently overlooked.

She collected multiple internships, worked in Latin America and finally earned a full-time position with the Cardinals in 2014. In her decade in baseball, she’s gotten little pushback from players, most of whom just care that their coaches know what they’re doing, she said.

"The biases and stereotypes are going to be around forever, but I do think we’ve made a ton of progress," she said. "It’s pretty apparent and it’s exciting to see. We definitely have a lot of room to grow. There were times in my career when I felt extremely lonely. I literally didn’t have anyone to call."

And though that’s no longer the case — the number of women in uniform is growing slowly — there’s still plenty of work to be done, she said. Still, she wouldn’t take back anything that brought her to this moment.

"I’m glad my path was difficult," she said. "When people want you to give up, that’s the moment where you need to say thank you. I want to say thank you to the people who discriminated against me because it changed me as a person, and as difficult as it was, I’m very glad I went through that experience."

Rachel Balkovec

Age: 34

Born: Omaha, Nebraska

Played softball at Creighton and the University of New Mexico, has a BS in exercise science, and masters degrees in kinesiology and biomechanics

Strength and conditioning intern in the Cardinals minor-league system, Los Tigres Del Licey in the Dominican Republic, Arizona State University and Chicago White Sox.

2014: Strength and conditioning coordinator for the Cardinals, and in 2016 became the Astros’ Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator

2018: Astros minor-league baseball strength and conditioning coach

2019: Apprentice hitting coach for the Netherlands’ national baseball and softball teams and later became a research and development intern at Driveline Baseball, a player development program

2019: Hired by the Yankees as a minor-league hitting coach

2022: Hired as manager of the Tampa Tarpons, making her the first female manager in professional baseball

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