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Saturday, January 29, 2022

New York Yankees minor league manager Rachel Balkovec says she’s living ‘American dream’ with new role

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NEW YORK – Rachel Balkovic realizes the negativity in her social media feeds and tries to leave it there. Her sisters see it too, and can’t help but pass on some humiliating reactions to her journey to break barriers.

It’s funny to me,” Balkovich said. Because it’s the American dream.

In the club? You didn’t see any of that toxicity there.

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Balkovec was introduced Wednesday as the manager of the lower-level New York Yankees branch of the Florida State League. Upon taking charge of the Tampa Tarpons, Balkovec will become the first female coach in the history of affiliated baseball, a 10-year rendezvous for the former college softball player.

“If you know my story and you have a pulse, I think it’s very hard not to get over what’s going on here,” she said.

Nearly a decade after changing her name in bios to hide her gender and break into baseball, the 34-year-old has smashed many barriers on her way to that title. She was the first woman to work as a full-time strength and conditioning coach, and then the first to work as a full-time hitting coach for minors.

That promotion — a year after former Yankees employee Kim Ng became the first female general manager of the Miami Marlins — is different. Balkovec will run the club in Tampa and is tasked with overseeing the development of the two major leagues in the future for one of the world’s most popular sports franchises.

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“The players I’ve worked with, whether they like me, or they don’t like me, they like what I say, they don’t like what I say, I feel like they respect me,” she said.

It’s a confidence she’s gained via an unusual path – one that hasn’t been around for 20 years, but not just because of her gender.

Balkovec has a master’s degree in kinesiology from LSU and another in human kinesiology from Vrije University in the Netherlands, and is a former masker in Creighton, New Mexico. She has worked hard and conditioning with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros since breaking into professional ball in 2012, and has also spent time at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven center that has coached several key players. She’s an expert in performance science, specifically looking back over teams.

When the Yankees hired her as their minor league hits coach in 2019, she was at the forefront of women storming careers in uniform, but she was hardly the only coach without a traditional playing background.

Hitting 95 mph isn’t the same skill as teaching someone else to, and with teams shifting focus in the hiring process to reflect that, he’s created a track for women like Balkovec and Alyssa Nakken, part of the San Francisco Giants main league coaching staff since a year 2020.

“There hasn’t been a lot of controversy about whether baseball is ready or the world is ready,” said Vice President of Player Development Kevin Reese, who made the decision to promote Balkovich. “We try to find the best people and put them in the best position to make an impact here.”

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Reese, who was introduced Wednesday under a new title after being promoted from Senior Director of Player Development, helped recruit Balkovic in 2019 and has been hugely impressed with her experience and leadership ability, including with young Latin American players. The Nebraska native taught herself Spanish after becoming a strength and conditioning coach in Houston in Latin America in 2016, and some of her notable work has been with Spanish-speaking New York players, including prospective Jason Dominguez.

General Manager Brian Cashman has served a woman as Assistant General Manager since Ng was appointed in 1998. When she left in 2001, Jan Afterman was appointed to the position and has since been appointed. Balkovec has expressed her desire to one day work in the front office and potentially become General Motors herself.

“There is no limit to the sky,” said Cashman. “She’s determined. She’s strong. She has perseverance.”

She needs it. After her stint with St. Louis in 2012, she began applying for baseball jobs with what she knew was his solid resume. However, only one team responded.

Her point of contact with this club said his superiors would not allow him to appoint a woman to the role of strength and conditioning. Even worse, this person called other teams with vacancies, and told them all the same.

“At that very moment, my level of naivety went from 10 to zero,” she said.

One of her sisters suggested changing her name to “Rae Balkovec” on her resume, and this tactic at least worked to get hiring managers over the phone. The Cardinals brought her back as a full-time strength and conditioning coordinator in 2014.

She rarely had problems with players related to her gender — “very little is hardly worth mentioning,” she said. Being the only woman in this leading role was lonely.

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Now, she thinks there will be 11 women in field jobs at associate ball next year, she’s able to compare the experiences with them. Tennis great Billie Jean King was among the many who congratulated her on the Tampa job, and she developed a support network that cemented her confidence that she was ready for the role.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I congratulate Rachel on this historic achievement,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “As the director of the Tampa Tarpons, she will continue to demonstrate her experience and leadership at the Yankees. We wish Rachel well in this new capacity and appreciate her mentorship of the growing network of women in baseball operations and player development roles.”

However, the task ahead of her is the same as any other leader – make the most of the players in her club.

“My goal is to find out the names of the girlfriends, the dogs, and the families of all the players,” she said. “My goal is to develop them as guys and guys who have a tremendous amount of pressure on them. My goal is to support the coaches who are in the apparatus.

“We’ll talk more about foolishness and hitting with them, being defensive. It’s really about being a pro, and facilitating an environment in which you can be successful.”

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