Afterman, Nakken discuss women in MLB

January 29th, 2021

Whenever Yankees assistant general manager and senior vice president Jean Afterman is asked to pick her theoretical walk-up song, she always opts for a “cheeky” answer: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” by James Brown. The title aptly describes Afterman’s experience working in Major League Baseball, which has historically been a male-dominated industry.

Lately, though, Afterman has started to feel a little less alone. Over the past year, she has seen several women elevated to prominent roles across MLB, including Giants assistant coach Alyssa Nakken, who joined Afterman in discussing her trailblazing career in baseball during a virtual panel hosted by the University of San Francisco on Thursday.

“Hopefully, we're entering into a new world order, where really it's your talent, your intelligence, your thinking outside the box, your ability to inspire others -- hopefully all of these things are important, rather than your gender or your physical traits,” Afterman said.

“Women should know that these jobs are possible and available. It's still a 'Man's Man’s Man’s World,' unfortunately, and women have to be bigger, better, faster, smarter, to get the same jobs. I happen to think we are. But you still have to get bigger, better, faster, smarter, so sometimes you have to add just a little bit of an edge. But jobs are there. You have to go for it. Go for your dream.”

Afterman joined the Yankees in 2001, when she was hired to replace Kim Ng as the club’s assistant GM. In November, Ng broke one of the sport’s most significant gender barriers when the Marlins named her the first female GM in MLB history.

The long-awaited ascension of Ng, and the promotion of women like Nakken into coaching roles, gives Afterman hope that more women will receive opportunities to work in baseball in the future. In 2019, the Yankees hired Rachel Balkovec as a Minor League hitting coach, making her the first woman to be employed as a full-time hitting instructor for an MLB organization. Rachel Folden joined the Cubs as a Minor League hitting coach shortly after.

More women have joined the ranks this offseason, with Bianca Smith landing with the Red Sox as a Minor League coach and Sara Goodrum rising to become the Brewers’ new Minor League hitting coordinator.

Nakken, the first woman to work as a full-time coach on a Major League staff, credited Giants manager Gabe Kapler for his commitment to diversity and for his willingness to hire people from non-traditional backgrounds. She held a variety of roles in her first season with San Francisco, including working with first-base coach Antoan Richardson to oversee the club’s outfield and baserunning instruction.

“It's been overwhelmingly positive,” Nakken said. “Quite honestly, the response hasn't been anything too drastic from the players. They really just see me as another coach, just another person in the clubhouse. When we all first put on our uniforms for Spring Training last year, it was just an exciting time. Everybody was eager to get the season rolling. I feel so respected by the players, and it's just quite the honor to be able to work alongside them and the staff each and every day. It's been quite a fun ride, and we're really excited to get going here in 2021.”

Nakken said she also received support from numerous Office of the Commissioner executives, like Tyrone Brooks, who serves as Senior Director of the Front Office and Field Staff Diversity Pipeline Program. After Nakken was hired by the Giants in January 2020, MLB sent out a mandate to all 30 clubs requiring them to create locker room space for female staffers, a step that was appreciated by women across the league.

“The other women from the other teams, whether they were analysts, strength coaches or others, would come to me and just say like, ‘Thank you, I now don't have to like put my clothes under a table in a corner and try and find a space to change,’” Nakken said. “I think that was just a big improvement, but it also shows just how far we have to go. I mean, come on, it's 2020. We're just now finding spaces for females to put on their uniform to go to work.”

To Afterman, it was a sign of progress, though she hopes more changes will come as more women begin to see themselves represented in MLB’s power structure.

“One of the things that I think I've alluded to before is that little girls, teenage girls, young women, they need to physically see women in these positions,” Afterman said. “And that's why, Alyssa, your being in a Major League dugout is so important because little girls -- and little boys -- can see women in these positions. If you can see women in these positions, you can envision yourself in these positions.

“I think that, from a front-office perspective, and I think also from a coaching perspective, it's not a matter of physical strength. It's a matter of brain power, and brain power is gender neutral. Although, I tend to think women -- no offense, but I think women are a little bit smarter.”