Trailblazers Balkovec, Goodrum cross paths with Marlins

March 21st, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- Two years ago at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, Rachel Balkovec stopped Sara Goodrum in the hotel lobby to chat. Baseball trailblazers over the past decade, their paths had never crossed.

Now they work together in the Marlins’ front office as the director of player development and director of special projects, respectively.

Over the offseason, both interviewed for the farm director role, which Balkovec wound up getting. But Goodrum was so impressive that Miami wanted to find a role for her.

“I think, ultimately, both of them have such great experience, such great backgrounds,” said Peter Bendix, the Marlins’ new president of baseball operations. “And then you layer on top of that the care factor and how they truly care about getting better.

“They truly care about people, about coaches, about helping people grow and learn and develop, which is such a big part of the culture that we're building.”

Balkovec and Goodrum join a growing list of women within the organization, which includes president of business operations Caroline O'Connor, Major League analyst Jennifer Brann, assistant director of pro scouting Alexandria Rigoli and manager of player care and service Colleen Mitchell.

Sara Goodrum is in her first season as the Marlins' director of special projects.

While Balkovec and Goodrum have similar player development backgrounds, their journeys were different reaching this juncture.

When the D-backs captured the 2001 World Series, 8-year-old Goodrum became a diehard baseball fan. She went on to play softball at the University of Oregon from 2012-15 and just knew she wanted to work in sports. As an undergraduate research assistant at the Bowerman Sports Science Center, she decided to pursue opportunities in that field and earned a bachelor’s degree in human physiology. Goodrum later received a master’s degree in exercise and sports science from the University of Utah.

Balkovec played softball at Creighton and New Mexico prior to serving as a graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach at LSU in 2012. Leading up to her master’s degree in sport administration, she searched online job postings and noticed that all of the emails had men’s names. So she asked Melissa Moore -- a groundbreaker in her own right as a master strength and condition coach by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association -- where all the women were. Moore laughed, then dished out a harsh truth.

“I think I was naive in a positive way, where I didn't know that there weren't women in professional baseball,” Balkovec said. “And it only hit me when I started looking for jobs. ‘Oh, well, my résumé is good enough. I'm at LSU. It's one of the top athletic institutions. Why would I have a problem?’ Which is funny, looking back.

“‘Oh, you have a great résumé, but we don't hire women.’ It's so hard to imagine right now, but that was happening just 10 years ago.”

Much has changed since then. Six internships and six jobs later, you can find Balkovec’s Single-A Tampa Tarpons jersey -- the one she wore from 2022-23 as the first full-time female manager for a Major League-affiliated team -- in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

No one could have predicted that in 2012, when Balkovec showed up for her first day as a strength and conditioning intern with the Cardinals, looked around the complex and realized she was the only woman around. Goodrum experienced the same as an intern for Milwaukee in ’17.

Marlins farm director Rachel Balkovec spent two seasons as a Minor League manager.Tom Hagerty/

Since there weren’t as many women as there are today in baseball organizations, Balkovec and Goodrum relied on the mentorship of men. Before becoming the first woman to hold the position of Minor League hitting coordinator with the Brewers in 2021, Goodrum learned from Bryson Nakamura, who established the Integrative Sports Performance department in Milwaukee. He also had completed his doctorate at the aforementioned Bowerman Sports Science Clinic in Oregon.

“That's something I've actually really thought a lot about, and it's something that I think is really important, even to this day, that there's men in high leadership roles that support women -- and younger women, in particular -- in their career path,” said Goodrum, who in Houston recently worked closely with new Pirates assistant general manager Sarah Gelles.

“I think you're starting to see more women being at those higher levels that can now be mentors, and I think as the years progress, you're going to start hearing women's names more frequently, as well, because the people coming up are now getting into those roles to be mentors a little bit more frequently. Which is really exciting. But at the end of the day, I also still think it's really important for men to be supporting that and learning and understanding what are the needs of young women in this game.”

One of those people was now-Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, who sat on a panel with Balkovec six years ago. When they spoke afterward, he asked if she wanted to be in the front office. Without thought, she blurted out, “Yes!” and elaborated with the desire to be a general manager.

Ever since, Balkovec has made chess moves toward that goal. She was the first full-time female hitting coach in an MLB organization and full-time strength and conditioning coach in affiliated baseball. Then at age 30, Balkovec gave up all of her possessions, depleted her savings and sold her car to spend a year in the Netherlands earning her master’s in biomechanics. When she returned stateside, she was a research and development intern at Driveline Baseball. A week before the Yankees hired her as a Minor League hitting coach in 2019, Balkovec overdrafted her checking account.

“I thought I was going to get to the game and make all kinds of change -- beyond my gender, that is -- and it took me five years to realize that if I wanted to make large change, I would have to be in a different role,” Balkovec said. “I'll never forget that moment. It was kind of like, ‘Uh oh. OK. This career is over for me.’ I kind of have been shaping this different career path.”

Over the years, Goodrum strove for the title, like the one of director of player development she held with the Astros from 2022-23. Not anymore. She just hopes to impact people in the industry she loves the same way others did for her.

Goodrum fondly remembers a meaningful moment during her tenure as the hitting coordinator in Milwaukee’s organization, where she received a September callup to the big league club. After the Brewers clinched the National League Central in the final game, then-bench coach Pat Murphy pulled Goodrum and Theresa Lau, the assistant athletic trainer who started at the same time as Goodrum in ’18, onto the field for a photo.

Sara Goodrum and Theresa Lau in 2018.Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers

“I have a lot of gratitude toward the amount of coaches that I've interacted with over the years,” Goodrum said. “Regardless of the role I've been in, they have gone out of their way to make sure that they're looking out for me, and you feel that they care about you. They want to see you succeed. It took me a little while to kind of come to that realization that there's a lot of people that want to see me succeed. Once I had that realization a few years ago, it really freed me up to really be myself.”

And that’s exactly how Balkovec and Goodrum can pay it forward for future generations while also making their mark on the Marlins’ organization. Neither takes her standing in the industry for granted.

“Hell yeah, I think about it every day,” Balkovec said. “I'm wearing a uniform because I feel responsible for it, and I don't have to as a farm director. I'm wearing it out of functionality, too, because I'll be out on the field or doing whatever. But also, there's still plenty people in the world that don't even know that women coach, anything, let alone in a baseball uniform. It's a huge responsibility. It's on my mind every single day.”