'Take the Field' inspires women at Meetings

December 7th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- A year ago, Major League Baseball launched its Take the Field program to promote and help prepare women for on-field roles. The second Take the Field event provided evidence of the progress made in the interim 12 months.

On the panel for the two-day program that began Friday, ahead of baseball’s Winter Meetings, were two women who are indeed taking the field. Rachel Folden and Rachel Balkovec were hired last month by the Cubs and Yankees, respectively, as Minor League coaches. Take the Field is hosted by the MLB Diversity and Inclusion Department.

“It’s been nothing but positive,” Folden said of her early weeks with the Cubs. “In the Cubs’ organization, everybody’s just on board with, ‘Can you help us win a World Series? That’s all we want to do.’ I just want to start working, to work with players and help make the team better.”

After the Winter Meetings, Folden will head to Arizona to begin working with players during the Cubs’ winter Instructional League. She’ll be based at the organization’s training complex in Mesa, Ariz., as the lead hitting lab tech, and she'll also serve as the fourth coach for the Cubs’ Arizona Rookie League team.

Balkovec will report to Tampa, Fla., by Feb. 1 for her new duties as a Minor League roving instructor for the Yankees. She has been a baseball pioneer before, as the first woman to serve as a full-time strength and conditioning coach in affiliated professional baseball. She was the Cardinals’ Minor League strength and conditioning coordinator from 2014-15 then was a strength and conditioning coach in the Astros’ organization. She switched in '18 to working with hitters and was working at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven performance training center in the Seattle area, when the Yankees called.

“It might be harder; our paths might be more difficult,” Balkovec said of women in baseball. “But I see that as a positive. I think it’s a huge advantage to be an underdog. It requires you to raise your level.”

More than 50 women who are targeting career paths in coaching, scouting or player development are participating in the program this year. More than a dozen of those women are hoping to follow Folden and Balkovec into coaching jobs.

The Take the Field event is not a mere panel discussion or quick Q-and-A. It is held over two days to give the participants ample time for face-to-face discussions with representatives from Major League organizations and to hold workshops to develop professional skills. The discussions are designed to help women gain knowledge about the culture of the sport and ways to break into the profession. Major League staffers conduct mock interviews to conclude the program, helping the attendees fare better when they are called for actual interviews.

Yankees area scout Kelly Rodman broke into the game before the Take the Field program existed. A graduate of scout school, she went to the Winter Meetings in 2013 as a job hopeful. She recalled encountering Yankees general manager Brian Cashman by chance and asking for advice on how to break in.

“You get that foot in the door, and you just keep it in there,” she said Cashman told her. “That’s going to open up other doors.”

How does a woman get her foot in the door of areas traditionally dominated by men? Several panelists offered the common advice to show potential employers their expertise and passion for the sport, but to know it’s OK to have some learning to do.

“Sometimes, you’re afraid to speak up because you might be wrong,” Rodman said. “Well, speak up -- you might be right. If you don’t know, that’s OK, too. … Go and say something because it’s your voice, and your voice is powerful.”

Folden said she became a better coach when she realized many of her players weren’t carrying the one-on-one lessons into game performance. She sought out other coaches and asked questions about their tools and techniques. That’s when she came to the conclusion that she needed to incorporate technology and data into her coaching, which opened her to concepts that were universal to both baseball and softball. That started her on the path that led to the Cubs.

“You have to be willing to go out and fail just to learn something new,” Folden said.