Trailblazing women rising through game: 'There's really no limit'

March 9th, 2022

All across professional baseball, women are making an unprecedented impact. The number of women working in both on- and off-field roles in the game is growing like never before, blazing trails in the sport’s coaching, scouting and executive ranks alike.

The sport is experiencing an influx of women in prominent positions in nearly every corner of the industry, many of whom have carved out a place in history in the process by obtaining on-field coaching jobs that traditionally have only been filled by men. MLB Network celebrated this progress in honor of International Women’s Day on Tuesday, when Lauren Gardner hosted “A Conversation: Women on the Field."

The hour-long special highlighted Yankees Minor League manager Rachel Balkovec, Giants coach Alyssa Nakken, Red Sox Minor League coaches Bianca Smith and Katie Krall, D-backs Minor League coach Ronnie Gajownik, Cubs Minor League coach Rachel Folden and A’s Minor League catching instructor Veronica Alvarez, some of the many women breaking gender barriers in the baseball world.

“We just want the opportunity to prove we’re capable of doing the job, and once we get that job, we’re deserving of fair and equal treatment,” said Alvarez, a four-time member of the USA Baseball Women’s National Team. “A few years back, we weren't even an option. Now that we’re a major consideration, [it] shows the steps we have made.”

Together, these women provide public faces for a greater movement occurring throughout the game. Balkovec recently became the first full-time manager of a Major League affiliate team; Smith is the first Black woman to land a coaching role in pro ball; the Red Sox are the first organization to have two women on their coaching staff; Nakken is the first woman to serve as a full-time coach at the big league level; Folden is helping change the perception that baseball and softball must be considered separately; and Gajownik is one of the 10 total women who will work as on-field coaches across Major and Minor League Baseball in 2022.

“I read all the fan mail I get. It’s incredible,” Nakken said. “There’s some stories that you’re reading about, ‘I’m a 70-year-old woman and was not able to play sports. My granddaughter can see what she can do.’ There’s really no limit. That’s where I obviously feel a huge responsibility of being out there and talking about it.”

Balkovec played collegiate softball at Creighton and New Mexico before venturing into pro baseball, holding player development roles in the Cardinals and Astros organizations as well as stints with the Dutch national team and Driveline. She joined the Yankees as an organizational hitting coach in 2019, and was recently promoted to manage the Low-A Tampa Tarpons. Throughout her career, Balkovec has often been the first woman to hold her position.

"I feel responsible to be a visible idea for young women, fathers, mothers or anyone out there who gleans inspiration for their daughters,” Balkovec said. “I don’t believe you sign up for an opportunity like this, and say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ I think leaders don't say no, because they feel responsible to do those things and create other opportunities for other people.”

Krall is a Northwestern grad who spent two years working for MLB as a coordinator of league economics and operations -- as well as shorter stints in the Cape Cod League, at Google and in the Reds’ front office -- before becoming Double-A Portland’s development coach this year. Smith played softball at Dartmouth, coached at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Dallas, and interned with the Rangers and Reds before joining Boston as a hitting coordinator.

“I love being curious, asking questions, asking other coaches what they think, and I love encouraging our players to ask me questions,” Smith said. “If I can’t give you a reason for how we’re doing something, we either shouldn’t be doing it or I need to learn more about it.”

Gajownik won gold with Alvarez at the 2015 Pan Am Games, before landing assistant coaching gigs with Liberty University and the University of Massachusetts softball programs. She joined the D-backs player development department last April and will be the developmental coach at High-A Hillsboro this season.

“Growing up, I played baseball until my dad told me I needed to play softball. I cried for about a day or two, until I got used to it,” Gajownik said. “If you know the game, and you care about the players on and off the field, they want to listen … I could be purple with polka-dotted hair, but if you’re helping them out and you show that you care about them, they’re going to eat that up.”

Folden is entering her third year as a hitting instructor in the Cubs organization, where she is the first woman to hold an on-field position. She played professional softball and also founded Folden Fastpitch, a progressive baseball and softball lab focused on incorporating biomechanics, science, technology and data.

“What you're seeing with this influx of women into baseball and professional sports is also people with nontraditional backgrounds,” Folden explained. “Maybe they didn’t play the sport. But we’re becoming very good at digesting the data and understanding it, and then it’s the communication to the player that is the key. If you can communicate with players what they're seeing, and you can speak their language, that's coaching.”