The New York Yankees, who play baseball to put themselves in a winning position, have put one or their employees in an unwinnable one. Or have they?
Two weeks ago the Yankees announced their new field manager for their entry level Class A minor league team in Tampa. Ordinarily that kind of release would get no national attention, except for maybe a line of agate type in the daily sports transactions. Except for this time. It went national and viral. Big time national and viral. The new hire wasn’t a Joe or Joey, or Rich or even a Dick. Instead he, oops she, is a Rachel. As in a female. Rachel Balkovec’s the name.
Covid and the end of an ownership-players association labor dispute allowing, Ms. Balkovec will become the first female to manage a team in professional baseball. Never has been done before. To most diehards of the sport, it’s never even been thought about before, either.
Baseball is the last bastion of team sports from the good-ole-boys-days. A baseball purist, and there are still millions of them, would tell you a woman has no place on the field, especially in a professional dugout calling the shots. Jennifer Aniston, who plays Alex Levy on Apple TV’s heralded The Morning Show, summed up the game perfectly during a season one episode when she said, “Baseball is a museum masquerading as a sport.” Not exactly a vote of confidence for a game so esteemed with its past that it won’t let go.
Brian Cashman, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Yankees, said shortly after announcing Balkovec’s new role, “We look forward to the days where these are no longer newsworthy items.”
That won’t be soon. This move by the Yankees is bold and considered a real reach by most baseball fans. Balkovec, 34, comes from an athletic background but she never played organized baseball at any level.
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Balkovec went to nearby Creighton University and was a catcher on the women’s softball team before transferring to New Mexico where she also caught for the Lobos. She graduated UNM with a degree in exercise science and went on to earn a master’s from LSU in kinesiology. She started her baseball career ten years ago as a part-time strength and conditioning coach in Johnson City, Tennessee, an affiliate in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization.
Desiring to get into baseball full time but no opportunities looming, Balkovec passed her idle time by working as a waitress and a sales associate at Lululemon. She applied to 15 different teams for a coaching job but found 15 doors closed. In fact, one team told her flat out they would never hire a woman. So she got innovative and changed her name on her resume from Rachel to the gender-neutral Rae. She then fudged just a little bit more and amended her background from being a Division 1 college softball catcher to being a Division 1 college catcher. My mother would call that a ‘white’ lie, which I found out at a young age is sometimes justifiably acceptable.
Balkovec’s sleight of resume worked when the Houston Astros hired her to be their Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator. She learned Spanish to better communicate with the players. In 2018 she became the strength and conditioning coach for Houston’s AA team in Corpus Christi, TX.
Then she moved to the Netherlands to pursue a second master’s degree in human movement sciences, whatever that might be. While there, Balkovec worked as an assistant hitting coach for Dutch baseball and softball programs. After graduation she came back to the States and went to work for Driveline Baseball, a player development program researching hitters’ eye tracking and pitchers’ hip movement. The Yankees were impressed and in 2019 hired her as an organizational hitting coach, the first woman to hold such a title in the sport. When the pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season, Balkovec coached baseball in Australia before being hired by the Yankees to manage the Tampa Tarpons this season.
“My goal is to know the names of the girlfriends, the dogs and the families of all the players,” Balkovec said in a published interview while Leo Durocher, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver flipped over in their graves. She continued, “My goal is to develop them as young men. My goal is to support the coaches on the staff who will talk the nuts and bolts of pitching, hitting and defense with the players. I really want to be supportive and facilitate an environment where everyone can be successful.”
All of that’s fine but the bottom line is she’s never played baseball at any level. Collegiate softball is not hardball. It’s no surprise some former big leaguers believe the Yankees struck out with this decision. Baseball purists second the motion.
Hours after the Balkovec hiring, I got a text from a former major league manager who asked me, “What is this game coming to?”
Others I spoke with were also skeptical. In fact, some who played in the majors and then upon retirement looked for an opportunity to get into coaching and managing, like Balkovic, were rebuked for not having enough experience. Hundreds of ex-ballplayers seeking the same chance undoubtedly look at this hiring as a collective slap in the face.
“I really don’t understand hiring someone who has never played the game at any professional level,” one ex-big leaguer told me. “Today’s game is run by analytics, so the manager isn’t really managing the game anyway. But where it does matter is having someone who has experience at the highest level, in big games, and then being able to tell a kid, like those who play in Class A, to take a deep breath and here’s what you do in this situation. She doesn’t have that credibility.”
Another added sarcastically, “I know with a woman, on-the-field arguments with umpires can now be won by the manager. Of course I can’t wait until she gets thrown out of a game for the first time and some # ‘Me Too’ lawyer is sitting in the stands and sues the umpire for harassment.”
“I don’t care about color or religion or background,” a former minor league pitcher told me. “ I look for is expertise. Does she have the baseball knowledge and can she convey it? Take (ESPN baseball analyst) Jessica Mendoza for example. She never played baseball, she was a softball player, but I know she can teach hitting. The more I listen to her, the more impressed I am. If Balkovec has expertise and can convey it, then it was a great hire by the Yankees. If not, then this strikeout will be remembered for a long time.”
The Tampa Tarpons play in what was just reclassified as the Low-A Southeast League. Their home games are at George M. Steinbrenner Field where the major league Yankees hold spring training and play pre-season games. The Tarpons are young kids, right out of high school and college making their first foray into pro ball. It’s a lot farther for these raw rookies to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx than the 1,140 miles Rand McNally indicates it is. More times than not, Class A is the end of a dreamer’s career.
To say prior to this season there was little public interest in the Tarpons would be like saying Babe Ruth could hit a fastball while eating a hot dog. Of course he could. Over the last few years, pre-Covid, attendance at a Tarpons game during the week ran about 200-300 which, in a 10,000 seat stadium, means a foul ball for everyone. The turnstiles rarely needed greasing. That can swell to maybe 1,000 on weekends with a popular promotion or give-away.
Julie Kremer is the Director of Business Development and Marketing for the Yankees’ Florida operations. The Tarpons are part of her portfolio. Ms. Kremer sees the Balkovec hire as having a direct, positive impact on the box office.
“Absolutely, without a doubt,” Kremer, in her 21st year with the Yankees said and added, “We have seen a big rush on hits on our website and for ticket inquires in our office. I think this will give a big boost to the team not only on the field but in the stands, too.”
Kremer laughed and continued: “I’m not sure anyone has ever gone to a baseball game to watch someone manage, but we are likely to have that happen with Rachel. All kidding aside, I couldn’t have been any more impressed with the way she handled her introductory press conference. This is not only a great human interest story but she’s one very confident and motivated person.”
College football has had female place kickers, more as a novelty than a depth chart need. The NFL never has and never will have a female player in our lifetime. However, Kansas City, Washington, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Buffalo all have females in junior coaching positions on their staffs. Catherine Raiche is a senior VP in the Eagles’ front office and odds-on to become the first female GM in the league, sooner rather than later.
Years ago, Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in any of the major North American pro sports leagues appearing in two pre-season games as a goaltender for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and 1993. In her debut, the 5’6”, 136 pounder, gave up two goals on nine shots in one period. She stayed in minor league hockey for the next five years playing in 24 games. Today the 49-year-old works as a television hockey analyst in Detroit.
The NBA never had a woman on the court but will, one day, have the first female head coach among the big-four American sports. Becky Hammon, a college basketball standout at Colorado State who then starred for the San Antonio Stars and New York Liberty in the WNBA, was hired in 2014 by universally respected Gregg Popovich to be an assistant coach on his San Antonio Spurs’ staff. That was instant credibility. She became the first female full-time assistant coach in all of the four major professional sports. On December 30, 2020, Hammon was the first female acting head coach in NBA history when she filled in during a game for Popovich who was ejected. A few months ago Hammon, 44, accepted an offer from Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis to become head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, a franchise also owned by Davis. Ironically, Hammon replaces Bill Laimbeer, a man’s-man, who seemingly couldn’t relate and convey well enough to his women players to win despite being surrounded by talent. What goes around.
Today women regularly officiate games in the NFL and NBA. In fact, they no longer stand out as women calling a game. The highest of high compliments: they are seen as officials. Sarah Thomas officiated in the Super Bowl a year ago. No women are calling games in the NHL yet but they’re close, with top minor league circuits now using women in stripes. Of course there are none in the museum of baseball and none on the horizon.
Balkovec doesn’t have any misconceptions about one day being the first female to manage a Major League Baseball team. She knows it’s an ultra-long shot. In fact, she really aspires to learn all aspects of the game well enough to become an MLB general manager. If and when that happens, she won’t be the first. Kim Ng is presently the GM of the Florida Marlins and the highest-ranking female executive in baseball.
So Rachel ‘Rae’ Balkovec, baseball eyes are watching you. You are in a league of your own. Kudos for breaking through a sacred wall. The best thing you can do is have nobody notice you.