Bianca Smith had a smile on her face for pretty much all of her 30-minute Zoom session with reporters. She had an enthusiasm in her voice that didn’t diminish even when she talked about the toughest moments of trying to establish herself in a male-dominated industry.
The newly hired Minor League coach for the Boston Red Sox -- the first Black woman to land a job as a coach in professional baseball -- deserved the moment of pure joy she shared with reporters on Thursday.
• Red Sox hire Smith, first Black female coach
Smith worked long and hard (sometimes for no pay) in baseball to blaze this path to the Red Sox. She will start by working at the team’s player development complex in Fort Myers, Fla., with a focus on helping position players excel at their craft.
At 29 years old, Smith sees plenty of more space to climb on that baseball mountain. And she is willing to put in all the work she can to do it.
How about one day managing a Major League team?
“For sure,” Smith said, when asked if that is her goal. “I had an uncle who once told me, ‘Don’t limit yourself.’ This is when I still wanted to be GM. I told him and he said, ‘Why not president?' I was like, ‘Oh, right, I didn’t think about that. I guess I could do that.’
“Don’t limit myself. I want to go as high as I can. I want to continue to challenge myself, and right now, yes, that is MLB manager. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Obviously, I changed my idea about being a GM, but as much as I love coaching, I want to be in that position [of manager]. I want to learn as much as I can and get to that role.”
With her tireless work to get to this point, Smith has now created hope for other minority women who have dreams of a life in baseball -- much like Kim Ng has done for many years, particularly when she was named general manager of the Miami Marlins to become the first woman to hold that title in the four major sports in North America.
“I remember it popping up on my phone and I just started cheering in my office,” Smith said. “I was so excited. I’ve been following her career for years. It was about time. She was so big for me, my parents knew her name because I talked about her all the time. That was a huge moment for me. I was so excited to see that. Like I said, I thought it was about time. She should have been hired [as a GM] years ago, if not decades ago. No, that was really important to me. I think I posted that everywhere I could.”
Just a few weeks later, Smith is the one who has made history.
“I'm recognizing that people are inspired by this story,” Smith said. “I've had people reach out and say that I am now their role model, and it's still kind of weird to think about, to be honest, since it really wasn't my intention when I took the job. But I'm happy if my story can inspire other women, other women of color, other people of color -- really, anybody.
“I don't want to put limits on it. If anybody is inspired by this story, even better. I guess my biggest thing I would want to say is continue to follow your dreams. It's hard work, but it's also worth it. Anything that is easy is not really as much fun. I love the challenge.”
On the Case
So how did Smith go from softball player at Dartmouth -- where she also played club baseball -- to a coach for the Boston Red Sox?
As you might have guessed, there have been a lot of steps in between. The first thing she had to do was forget about her original career goal of being a veterinarian.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian for the longest time, even worked for our local veterinarian as a high schooler. I took one biology class and went, 'No, this might not be the best path for me,'" Smith recalled. "I kept searching, started working for a local YMCA and realized that I still had a love for sports, even when I wasn't playing. I knew if I was going to work in sports, it was going to be baseball. Football was my backup, but I was going to do whatever I could to stay in baseball. It was a little after my freshman year of college, I decided, OK, I want to work in this game.”
After Smith graduated from Dartmouth, she searched for the right grad school. Baseball helped her narrow it down. To every grad school she applied to, Smith made it clear she wanted to have an active role in the baseball program.
Only one school responded favorably to that request, and it was Case Western in Cleveland.
“She looked me up and came to Cleveland to visit the school in the spring of that senior year, and we sat and talked in our dugout for 10, 15 minutes and got to know each other,” said Case Western baseball coach Matt Englander. “And by the end of it, I said, ‘OK, I’d like to hire you, I can’t pay you, but I’d like to hire you to be the director of baseball operations.'
“She was like, 'Great, what does that mean?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, you’re the first one. I’ve never had one before. I think it means you help out with pretty much everything -- on the field, off the field’. But she was so smart, driven, you could tell, she genuinely wanted to make a career and a living out of this and wanted to be around the game. It was kind of an easy decision."
Smith originally planned to stay at Case Western for two years to get her MBA. But she was having so much fun coaching the baseball team, she tacked on two years and also got her law degree.
Nobody in the Case Western baseball program ever gave much of a thought to Smith’s gender or skin color. They were just thrilled to have her.
“That was nothing that either I or any of the guys cared about,” Englander said. “She did a lot of things, and coaching was part of it, but she would do everything from handle relationships with parents and alumni to organizing events, helping us with our travel plans, throwing soft toss, hitting ground balls, hitting fungos -- pretty much everything. Our guys really don’t care what you look like, where you come from, any of that. We were happy that we had a smart, talented person on board with us trying to pull in the same direction.”
While Smith's work at Case Western helped her build a foundation of coaching and administrative experience, another huge step came when she landed a baseball operations internship with the Cincinnati Reds, with a focus on player development and scouting.
“Getting on the field and just getting to listen to the coaches, interact with the players, talk with the players -- that influenced me a lot,” Smith said. “It wasn’t just teaching mechanics or going over their metrics. It really was, 'How are you feeling?' Things like that, particularly people who aren’t in baseball, they don’t really think about it. There’s more to coaching than just telling them, here’s what your swing looks like. Here’s what your delivery looks like. It’s not just that.
“They also inspired me to learn more on the analytics side and the biomechanics side. That was a huge part of my development. I still keep in touch with the coaching staff and the front office. Any time I have questions and want to run strategy by them, they’re more than willing to talk to me, so it’s been beyond great.”
Learning about biomechanics and analytics was a huge help for Smith when she went to her most recent college coaching stop at Carroll University, where she was assistant coach and hitting director while also serving as the assistant athletic director.
“She’s done a great job,” said Carroll baseball coach Stein Rear. “She’s come in and became our hitting coordinator and really implemented a hitting program. She’s really helped to incorporate a lot of different technology into what we’re doing.”
The expertise that Smith brought to Carroll is beyond what Division III baseball players are used to.
“She was able to pick up on such minor details,” said Carroll catcher TJ Pfaffle. “I know specifically with me, we worked on my hitting during the offseason, and she was able to pick up some stuff with my timing of my front leg and just working on ways we could improve my timing. Normally, at our level, you get moreso of a team-based type of practice. It’s not really based on the individual, not on what one person can do but what the whole team can do. She was able to kind of come in and add that specific coaching that some of us, including myself, really needed.”
Baseball junkie ready for next level
Smith remembers her obsession with baseball starting when she was 2 or 3 years old, thanks to her mother helping to draw her to the sport. She also credits Hollywood.
“I have to give credit to those moves that came out in the '90s -- Rookie of the Year, The Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield. I saw those and that continued my love of the game. And then I kind of studied it on my own, learned the strategy,” Smith said.
“Bianca loves baseball,” Englander said. “And she played softball because that’s what was available to her, and I’m sure she loved softball too, but she really is passionate about playing, coaching, watching, being a part of baseball. I know she would leave practice and then go home and watch MLB Network, like, all night, and come back to work. She’s addicted to the sport, she loves it. She started to go from somebody who loves to play and watch the sport to somebody who started to understand it at a basic and intricate and complex level.”
If outsiders are surprised at Smith’s history-making ascent, those who have worked with her just looked at it as the next step in her progression.
“Honestly not,” said Carroll athletic director Michael Schulist. “I’m sure most of the country was in shock that obviously the first Black woman was able to land a job as a [coach in professional baseball]. I’ve known Bianca now for two years and I knew the day was coming at some point soon.
“Since Day 1, it was clear baseball was her passion. She was brought up through baseball and she took a job here to have an opportunity to continue her coaching career with baseball. I knew it was just a matter of time before she was going to be off to big things. I’m extremely excited and happy for her. But to say I’m surprised this day came would be a lie.”
As Smith counts down the days to Spring Training, she looks forward to being able to have the most-single-minded focus thus far in her professional career.
“Super excited,” Smith said. “The idea that I get to just coach, I still haven't really wrapped my head around it. Yes, I've been coaching for multiple years, but all of my coaching positions have always been with either a secondary duty, or I had to work a second job so I could coach. This will be the first time I just get to focus on coaching. I'm beyond thrilled about that. Really, the idea that I just get to coach, I can't stop getting excited about it. As soon as I got that offer, the smile on my face just wouldn't go away for a while.”
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.