Balkovec out 'to be a visible idea' in baseball

January 13th, 2022

As the first female manager in affiliated professional baseball, Rachel Balkovec understands that her new job description goes beyond deciding to rest a slumping outfielder or push a fatiguing pitcher through one more inning.

With each lineup card she fills out this season for the Low-A Tampa Tarpons, Balkovec hopes her journey will have a purpose beyond wins, losses and her players’ statistics -- a touchstone example of the promise that careers in professional sports can be within reach for all.

“I don’t think you sign your name on the dotted line to do something like this and then say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a role model,’” Balkovec said. “I want to be a visible idea for young women. I want to be a visible idea for dads that have daughters; I want to be out there. I have two jobs, and that’s fine.”

The 34-year-old Balkovec was formally introduced as the Tarpons’ new manager on Wednesday, having earned a promotion from a hitting coach role in the rookie-level Florida Complex League. Balkovec has been a coach in professional baseball for a decade, becoming the first female full-time hitting coach in an MLB organization when she took on her previous role in 2019.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I congratulate Rachel on this historic milestone," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "As manager of the Tampa Tarpons, she will continue to demonstrate her expertise and leadership in the Yankees’ organization. We wish Rachel well in this new capacity and appreciate her mentorship to the growing network of women in baseball operations and player development roles.

“When Kim Ng was hired as the general manager of the Marlins prior to the 2021 season, it was a meaningful step forward. I am pleased to see the game continue to make important progress at various levels. Major League Baseball is committed to providing a supportive environment for women and girls to pursue our sport as players, coaches, umpires and executives. We are proud of Rachel, new director of player development Sara Goodrum of the Astros and all the women across our sport who are setting a positive example for our next generation of fans and proving, on and off the field, that baseball is a game for everyone.”

One of 10 women set to serve as on-field coaches for Major or Minor League teams in 2022, Balkovec has received an avalanche of similar sentiments and best wishes in the days since her new post became official, including a congratulatory message from tennis legend and equality ambassador Billie Jean King, who has been part of the Dodgers' ownership group since 2018.

Balkovec's distinguished resume includes a coaching assignment in the Australian Baseball League after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 Minor League season and selection to the coaching staff for the 2021 All-Star Futures Game at Coors Field.

She had been preparing for another season as a hitting coach when Kevin Reese, the Yankees’ vice president of player development, approached her to gauge interest in a managerial post. Balkovec told Reese that she would make mistakes; Reese pledged the organization would offer support, envisioning her in a leadership role.

“We’re trying to find the best people and put them in their best positions to have a huge impact here,” Reese said. “That was the only question that we really asked. This is just putting a really good employee into an elevated position and hoping that it’s going to go really well, just like it is with every hire.”

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that Balkovec more than fills the necessary prerequisites that the organization seeks in its managerial candidates, describing the former collegiate softball catcher as someone “willing to go to the ends of the Earth to accomplish her goals.”

Balkovec has an extensive background in cutting-edge analytics, researching eye tracking for hitters and hip movement for pitchers at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven performance center in Washington state. She also has a pair of master's degrees in the science of human movement.

“Who can we provide for our players that will help them develop to the best versions of themselves that they can possibly be?” Cashman said. “Rachel is going to be one of those people that are going to be impacting our Yankees players’ futures in such a positive way. She’s earned the opportunity, and the future will be what she makes it.”

With the FCL Yankees, Balkovec worked closely with several of New York's top prospects, including center fielder Jasson Dominguez -- the franchise's No. 2 prospect (and No. 17 overall) per MLB Pipeline. Dominguez was promoted to Low-A Tampa, the club Balkovec will be managing, during the middle of last season.

“It’s been awesome to have a lot of guys reaching out, congratulating me and saying they’re excited,” Balkovec said. “They already know there are going to be high standards and very clear standards. It goes back to honesty and being direct with them. They can definitely expect some loud music in the clubhouse, just a fun environment.”

During a 50-minute Zoom interview attended by more than 100 media members on Wednesday, Balkovec reflected on a journey that has included stints as a strength and conditioning coach in the Cardinals, White Sox and Astros organizations.

She recalled changing her name to “Rae” on resumes, being flatly turned down for a position by one Major League club simply upon the basis of her gender, and -- while serving as an apprentice hitting coach for the Netherlands' national baseball and softball programs -- sleeping on a mattress pulled from an Amsterdam dumpster.

Those experiences created a pathway for Balkovec to take on the Tarpons’ managerial position, where she intends to foster strong communication with her developing players. Balkovec said that she hopes it is simply a first step toward a career in the Majors, either in the dugout or a front office -- potentially even as a big league general manager.

As she frequently says on social media, Balkovec is #notdoneyet.

“It’s the American dream,” Balkovec said. “There’s definitely been some dark times in my career that I’ve been able to overcome, by myself and with the support of those around me. I think that everybody can enjoy a piece of my story.”