D-backs name Gajownik as 1st woman skipper at High-A level
PHOENIX -- When Ronnie Gajownik was growing up in Orlando, Fla., her dad would sometimes take her out of school to go to a Spring Training game with him. Baseball was a passion for her, but as she would stare out onto the field, there was something she didn't see -- people who looked like her. Instead, it was a game played, coached and managed by men.
Thanks to women like Gajownik, that is no longer the case.
After serving as a coach in the Arizona D-backs' Minor League system in 2022, Gajownik (pronounced Gah-jow-nick) was named manager of the High-A Hillsboro Hops on Friday as the club released its Minor League coaching staffs for 2023.
"I know that if my dad took me out of school on a Wednesday and we went to a baseball game and I saw a female coach on the field, I know Thursday my life would have been changing in the trajectory of where I want it to go," Gajownik said. "So the visibility aspect of it is huge, because, again, it's showing little girls and showing women that we're breaking the glass ceiling and we're leaving breadcrumbs for everybody behind us for us just to keep adding on to it to see how far we can go."
Last year, Rachel Balkovec became the first female manager in professional baseball when she led the Yankees' Class A team, the Tampa Tarpons. This year, Gajownik will become the first woman to manage at the High-A level. The two recently spoke by phone after Balkovec learned of Gajownik's promotion.
"It was definitely beneficial, and I know that her and I are going to have a really good friendship," Gajownik said. "I know that her and I can lean on one another, if needed."
Gajownik, who won a gold medal in the 2015 Pan-American Games as part of Team USA's women's baseball team, started with the D-backs in 2021 as a video assistant at Hillsboro. It's a job that has proven to be a great pipeline into the organization for coaches, scouts and analysts.
When Arizona farm director Josh Barfield visited Hillsboro during the season and interacted with Gajownik, he came away from the experience thinking that she would make an excellent coach.
"It was just her knowledge of the game," Barfield said. "She had a playing background. And the way she's able to communicate -- the hunger she possessed, the desire to learn and grow -- it just all stood out."
As other members of the organization made stops in Hillsboro, they came to the same conclusion: Gajownik belonged in coaching.
So when they were making out the Minor League staff assignments for 2022, Gajownik was ticketed to be a coach on one of the D-backs' Rookie Arizona Complex League teams.
However, a line drive off the bat of top prospect Corbin Carroll changed all of that.
Carroll was taking front toss from Double-A Amarillo coach Javier Colina, and he smoked a ball that shattered Colina's foot. Colina would need surgery and pins inserted, and Amarillo therefore needed a coach, so the D-backs promoted Gajownik, who spent the season coaching first base.
"She went out there and it took her about two seconds to fit right into the group," Barfield said. "She did a great job working with the guys in Amarillo. She's just got such an ease about her, the way she connects with people. I think some of the best coaches -- obviously they have good content and she has that. But I also think they're incredible connectors and she's definitely one of those. She shows leadership, she shows initiative."
Gajownik also served as a coach last fall for the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League, and when the D-backs were putting together their coaching staffs for this year, she was, in Barfield's words, "an easy choice."
“On behalf of the entire organization, we congratulate Ronnie on this significant milestone as she becomes the second female team manager in Minor League Baseball and at the highest developmental level,” said D-backs team president and CEO Derrick Hall. “We look forward to witnessing her continued growth within player development as she shapes and develops the future stars of the D-backs, while continuing to be a tremendous point of pride for the enterprise.”
Gajownik returns to Hillsboro, where her professional baseball career started and where she already has relationships. She knows the owner, the general manager, the people in the front office and her wife also works in the organization.
"It feels great to get this opportunity, especially with the Diamondbacks," Gajownik said. "They saw my potential in me as a coach and as a person, and then obviously taking that chance with me last year. So this opportunity means a lot to me. Hopefully, everybody who's been involved with me and also hopefully all the little girls and the women who are seeing this know that if you're qualified, you can do it. And ... that's all you need to be. If you're qualified, you can go ahead and do whatever it is you're passionate about."