TAMPA, Fla. -- Around 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, after the Tarpons had gone through fielding drills and finished batting practice on a sweltering 92-degree afternoon, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred walked into the home dugout and shook hands with Tampa manager Rachel Balkovec.
It was the Commissioner’s first time meeting Balkovec, who broke a major barrier last month by becoming the first full-time female manager in affiliated baseball history, and his first chance to see some of this year’s Minor League rule changes in action as the Yankees’ Low-A Tampa affiliate hosted the Lakeland Flying Tigers at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
Manfred and Balkovec spent more than 10 minutes talking in the Tarpons’ dugout, with the Commissioner asking questions about Balkovec’s background, her early experiences as a Minor League manager and rule changes like the pitch clock and the Single-A Southeast’s automated ball-strike (ABS) “challenge” system. He came away fascinated by everything he heard.
“She struck me as one of those people who you would expect to break new ground. I mean, she's really impressive,” Manfred said before the game. “When you think about her background, the different things that she's done and working her way to the point that she's really broken barriers, really impressive.”
Manfred visited Tampa’s Minor League ballpark on Tuesday after a previous meeting with Rays and Marlins players at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. He was especially interested to see the pitch clock, which is having a massive impact on Minor League game times this season.
How big of a difference has it made? Consider that the average nine-inning Minor League game last season lasted 3 hours and 3 minutes. Through May 16, the average nine-inning Minor League game with a pitch clock was down to 2 hours and 35 minutes.
“The reports that I've received on the pitch clock, it's been really effective in the Minor Leagues. It's hard to find people who've had a negative thing to say about it, if they've actually seen the game,” Manfred said. “I just think that the pace of the game, in terms of moving things along, [is] a really important issue for our fans, and giving people an opportunity to see it in the Minor Leagues is really important.”
At Steinbrenner Field, the pitch timer can be seen beyond the center-field fence or behind both on-deck circles. The clock ticks down from 14 seconds as soon as the pitcher has the ball, or 18-19 seconds with runners on base, although many pitchers -- including the Tarpons’ Tyrone Yulie and the Flying Tigers’ Garrett Burhenn on Tuesday night -- began their deliveries with 7 or 8 seconds remaining.
“There's definitely some things that can improve, but for this being the first year, I think it's been very smooth and it has done its job in shortening the games,” Balkovec said. “I don't know how it looks in the future at higher levels, but I think for us it's been fine. With some adjustments, it could be something that sticks around for a while.”
Manfred also got an in-person look at the ABS challenge system. Umpires still call balls and strikes in this league, but in “Challenge Games,” their calls can be appealed -- with three challenges per team, and all successful appeals retained -- to the ABS system. It worked in the first inning Tuesday, when a strike call to the Flying Tigers’ Izaac Pacheco was challenged and overturned to be a ball.
“It’s a great addition,” Balkovec said. “Umpires makes mistakes. They make mistakes, and they know they make mistakes. It's like it gives them an opportunity to go, 'Hey, are you going to use a challenge? No problem. My bad. I made a mistake.' … I think it's been a positive thing as well, and I think it's been a smooth process.”
Near the end of their wide-ranging conversation, Manfred congratulated Balkovec -- who rose from strength and conditioning roles to hitting coach jobs to this historic post -- for her groundbreaking achievements and the example she’s set while doing so.
“It's a huge thing. We talk about our on-field product looking like America so that fans identify with it,” he said. “Women are an important part of our fan base. Baseball has always had a reputation for being a leader on equity and inclusion issues, and we've made important progress. [Marlins general manager Kim Ng] and Rachel and others just really making strides that I think are important for the future of the game.”
“It's pretty powerful to hear that from somebody like him,” Balkovec said afterward. “Understanding all of his background in the game and knowing how much he's seen, it makes it more powerful that he'd say some of those things he said to me.”
Balkovec goes about her day like any other Minor League manager. Before Tuesday’s game, she directed the club’s defensive work and chatted up players and coaches in the outfield during batting practice. But there are occasional reminders -- not just visits from the Commissioner, either -- about what she’s accomplishing on a daily basis.
“I would say I forget about it every day, and I think about it every day,” she said. “When I'm going through my day or I'm coaching or whatever, I don't think about it, and I'm not worried about it -- mostly because I get respect from everybody. … It just really doesn't matter. Then, I think about it every day when a little girl asks for my autograph. Every day, it's on my mind, and every day I forget it at some point, because I'm just doing my job.”