“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
-- R. Buckminster Fuller
It takes four tries to complete a phone conversation with Rachel Balkovec, the new and most-assuredly noteworthy manager of the Tampa Tarpons. The first female to manage a team in affiliated baseball, Balkovec is en route from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Tampa, Fla., on this mid-January Friday morning. She’s somewhere in Texas between El Paso and Austin, not totally sure where, and the thrice-interrupted conversation is at the mercy of some sparsely located cellphone towers.
A cross-country road trip evokes thoughts of beauty and romance, but this 13-ish-hour hitch probably won’t rank among the most memorable segments. There’s not a whole lot of landscape in the flat, brownish-green expanse of West Texas, just power lines, oil derricks and tumbleweeds. A few days from now, the road will end on the west coast of Florida, but that’s not the ultimate destination.
We’re supposed to be using this time to celebrate Rachel Balkovec, to recognize a triumphant moment while we dodge the falling shards from a shattered glass ceiling. And we will, you can count on it. But what has made Balkovec’s rise so fascinating, and what will no doubt continue to thrill and inspire in the months and years to come, is that the Tarpons gig, while front-page news in some circles, is just a continuation of her life in the sport, a journey no one sees ending in a Single-A manager’s office. Hers is a life built atop an opposing, yet codependent reliance on competitive fire and quiet nurturing, of naivete and the pursuit of knowledge, of representation and a conscientious invisibility.
As Balkovec settles into her home in Tampa, the next stop along a life in constant motion that has seen the Nebraska native pursue her dream in locales all over the globe, the 34-year-old will once again hang two pieces of paper in a prominent spot. Now desperately in need of framing, worn from trips around the planet, the messages contained on each center her life. The first contains just four words: “BE A GENERAL MANAGER.” (Don’t worry about the second sheet yet; we’ll get there eventually.) The papers have a way of reminding Balkovec that whether she’s in the Dominican Republic or the Netherlands or Australia or, perhaps someday, the Bronx, “I just have to keep the sights set on the future,” she says. “And also remind myself of my purpose in life.”
The papers, like their crafter, represent the pursuit of an impossible dream. They brush past this historic moment and look forward, stopping time to appreciate the shoulders that Balkovec, herself, has stood on, while bracing to support those who will stand -- and, indeed, are already standing -- on hers.
“In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”
Discussing Balkovec’s hiring, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman noted the discomfiting reality of suspended progress. He had hired Kim Ng as his assistant general manager in 1998, and as he announced her hiring, Cashman said that he hoped it would quickly become commonplace. The Red Sox had elevated Elaine Steward to assistant GM in 1990, and less than a decade later, there was a second woman in the role.
Yet as Cashman noted this past January, and as Jean Afterman -- who replaced Ng as the Yankees’ assistant GM in December 2001 and continues to hold the role today -- says, the lack of continuity and progress has been disheartening.
“It was Elaine at the Red Sox, and there was Kim, then there was myself, and then there was a dead … stop,” Afterman says, colorfully peppering her sentiment with a well-earned expletive.
While Cashman, Afterman and anyone else who cares to see a more representative baseball landscape are right to be disappointed by a lack of overwhelming progress, there are still positive developments to celebrate. Today, Ng is the Miami Marlins’ general manager, the first woman to hold that role for a big league organization. The San Francisco Giants have Alyssa Nakken as a full-time coach, and there will be at least 11 women in uniform for big league teams and their affiliates this year, as well as an ever-increasing number of women in front-office positions.
For Julie Croteau, that evolution has been a long time coming. “My entire life, I’ve seen that baseball is not a gendered game,” says Croteau, who is recognized as the first woman to play men’s NCAA baseball. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she played first base, including in games against a Catholic University team that featured Cashman at second base. “It doesn’t surprise me that women can fill these positions. A lot of people have known that for a really long time. And we’re just finally seeing it happen. Each one of those positions -- manager, base coach, strength coach, assistant coaches -- each one of those roles, once it’s happened, there’s a precedent, and there’s less reason for it not to happen again in the future.”
Croteau’s perspective has changed as the world has evolved, in no small part due to her own actions. Before she played for St. Mary’s, before the professional stint with the Colorado Silver Bullets, before appearing as a baseball double in A League of Their Own, Croteau and her parents had to file a sex discrimination suit against her high school. The boys on the team joined their coach in fighting against her, insisting that the varsity team had to field the best 17 players possible, a list they said couldn’t possibly include a girl. (As for the reality that the team had finished 4-13-1 the previous year? Well, there’s a reason that high schoolers rarely craft legal briefs.)
The court still ruled against Croteau, but St. Mary’s allowed her to try out for its team, and she earned a spot. Several years later, upon being signed by the Silver Bullets -- a professional women’s team that played against men -- she put the experience of her life to that point in perspective. “It’s a dream I didn’t even dream,” she told The Associated Press. “I was afraid to dream it. High school [varsity baseball] was my dream.”
Speaking now, in the afterglow of Balkovec’s ascension, Croteau is elated at the shift. “In terms of what young girls or young women can dream about now, the whole landscape has changed; everything is possible, right?” she says. “In high school, I do remember when we [lost] that suit crying, and saying, ‘I hope I made a difference for someone.’ And really believing that. And of course, I’d love to believe that part of my negative experience helped other people not have that same experience. But I think that all progress in life is cumulative.”
Afterman regularly points out that Cashman is the only GM in professional sports to have hired two female assistant GMs back to back, and she’s equally keen on insisting that such decisions are never made for history’s sake. “At the Yankees,” Afterman says, “we’re all about winning, and hiring the best and promoting the best. Women in our organization are not a novelty, and it’s nothing new.” Still, Cashman says, harking back to his college games against Croteau, “There’s always a first. There’s always someone that emerges, that’s not afraid, that wants it, that goes after it, and is strong enough to take it.
“And unfortunately, in some categories, it takes longer than others. And unfortunately, society had failed to recognize the strength and power and the equal power -- if not more power -- that women possess.”
“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.
Dillon Lawson had just been hired as Yankees Minor League hitting coordinator after the 2018 season when he found himself sitting at a table with the organization’s player development staff. They were brainstorming some potential hires to coach hitting in the organization, Lawson recalls, and one of the first names he mentioned was Balkovec’s. It wasn’t a favor for a friend, and it certainly wasn’t with cheap headlines in mind.
“I was not in a position to hire someone and miss on them,” says Lawson, now entering his first season as the Yankees’ Major League hitting coach. “I needed to hire people that were good. She is more than qualified to have the hitting coach position, the managerial position. I would say she’s overqualified for those jobs.”
Lawson and Balkovec worked together in the Astros organization, after her stints with the Cardinals and White Sox, plus time with Licey in the Dominican Winter League (to say nothing of the work she put in with college programs and the Arizona Fall League). She had come up through the ranks as a strength and conditioning coach, but found herself so taken by the way Lawson discussed his craft that she would pop in on hitting meetings whenever possible. Watching him teach hitting -- talking about the skill in ways totally alien to her despite years spent playing high-level college softball and working with professional baseball organizations -- called to mind the lessons from another one of her mentors, current Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert: When everyone’s at a crowded door, you should be looking for the empty door on the other side of the building that no one’s going in. You should find the edge, because it’s going to make you unique.
You don’t see a lot of strength and conditioning coaches rising to become general managers, so Balkovec felt a need to get on the field and evaluate players from a baseball standpoint. And as Lawson kept indulging her curiosity with a steady stream of books and magazine articles -- including some research works by a professor in Amsterdam named Dr. David Mann -- Balkovec saw a new road.
“The body is the body, right?” she says, noting that she had been coaching players for seven seasons to that point, just not with a focus on skill work. “It doesn’t change when you go from the weight room to the cages. You’re just accomplishing a different task.”
Lawson, too, saw the unusual background not as a detriment, but as a potential advantage. “She would start talking about how they squat and how we could switch it to do this, make this adjustment, and that we’d likely see some difference, some positive effects in the cage or on the field,” he says. “And so, it started back then, just kind of thinking about what she did as the strength coach, how that affected hitting. It’s clear she can digest information, she can think critically, she can apply that information, she can assess the results of her efforts, and then do it again.”
So -- as is her style -- Balkovec took everything one step further. It wasn’t enough to read the articles that Lawson sent her way, the ones that she had to stop poring over about 10 times each to Google the unfamiliar terminology. If Mann -- regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts in eye-tracking analysis, a new frontier that could help the ever-more-analytical baseball world find a new edge -- had answers, then she would go to the source.
The program at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam called for several months of study, then a research project. Balkovec wanted to conduct her research in eye-tracking at Driveline Baseball, a state-of-the-art and highly regarded facility outside Seattle. Several months into the program, she presented her research proposal to Mann. “And what she sent me wasn’t very good,” he says. “It was way below the level that I would expect.” Balkovec laughs at being reminded of the initial proposal; she’s not offended by the memory at all. “I had come with so much practical experience into this research environment where there’s all these researchers that are writing research papers, and they don’t ever set foot on a baseball field,” she says. “I was coming in like a barbarian. I didn’t know how to write research papers!”
She used the next month to revise her proposal. Her classmates would spend weekends enjoying Amsterdam’s nightlife or skiing in Switzerland, while Balkovec lived like a hermit. “I was so focused. I was in this worldwide tourism mecca, and I did nothing there.” It’s not that she’s indifferent to adventure or travel. Even beyond selling everything she owned to move to Amsterdam on a whim, Balkovec has a bit of a thing for jumping from one part of the world to another, and a tendency for buying one-way tickets that, if she’s not careful, could land her on some watch lists. In 2020, when the Minor League season was shut down due to COVID-19, she decamped for Australia and coached with the Sydney Blue Sox. A few years earlier, she spent a few weeks in a tiny village in Laos, one that you can’t find on Google Maps. It was like a sensory deprivation chamber, where the lack of any English speakers and the time difference allowed her to recharge with almost no inputs. It’s not all that different from what she did in the Netherlands.
Going to Amsterdam wasn’t about getting away; it was about diving in. She would ask herself why she was “studying neurology in this godforsaken place, where they only get six hours of sunlight during the winter and you’re just miserable,” and the answers focused her mission. School wasn’t anything new to Balkovec, who earned her bachelor’s degree while playing softball at New Mexico and got a master’s while working at LSU. But those degrees were a means to play and coach. This time, she was pursuing the knowledge, not some letters next to her name. In fact, as she points out, she never even completed the program. “People didn’t understand -- ‘You did all of this coursework, you finished literally everything, you’re almost at the finish line. Why wouldn’t you just finish it?’ I just said, ‘I didn’t need the degree, I needed the information. I needed to learn.’”
About a month after reading her first draft, Mann couldn’t believe the revised proposal. “It went from quite a low-level thing to an incredibly high-level thing in one round, which is more than I think I’ve ever seen anyone do,” he says. “To go from here to there in one round of review has always blown me away.”
“And that,” Balkovec says with pride, “is how you get hired by the Yankees.”
“Never forget, no matter how overwhelming life’s challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about. So be that one person.”
Priscilla Oppenheimer -- whose son, Damon, is the Yankees’ VP of domestic amateur scouting -- spent more than 15 years running the Padres’ Minor League operations. When the team drafted Matt LaChappa in the second round in 1993, the prospect’s mother saw a potential nurturing figure for her son. She asked Oppenheimer to take care of him. So when the pitcher suffered a heart attack in the bullpen in 1996, and another at the hospital hours later that left him with a serious brain injury, Oppenheimer made good on her promise. In the 25 years since, and even after Oppenheimer retired, the Padres have continued renewing LaChappa’s Minor League contract every year, giving him access to health insurance that might be unavailable to him otherwise.
It’s impossible to know whether a man in Oppenheimer’s position would have handled the situation the same way, and it’s also not totally the point. The reality is that while there was some inevitable social media chatter after Balkovec’s hire wondering how a woman might manage a Minor League team, the better question might just be the same one that every front office is constantly asking: How can this decision make us incrementally better? Or to put a finer point on it: What advantages might a woman bring to the role that have never been considered, let alone employed?
Maybe it’s retrogressive to lean on gender norms in today’s environment, but women who have ascended to the highest levels in sports recognize the advantages that they can offer in a room full of men. Afterman says she considers herself fortunate to have worked with people who have embraced her for who she is instead of encouraging her to fit an existing mold. She sees the same potential for Balkovec. “That’s all we’ve got, is just being who we are. And if you’re lucky, as I’ve been, then you have people who recognize and appreciate your authentic self. And if you’re unlucky, then you work with people who want to change you into somebody you’re not.
“As women, we solve problems differently than men do -- that’s something that a woman brings to the job. I think that Rachel is not just any woman. She’s a woman who’s been formed by her life experience and who she is.”
It’s a lesson that Nakken has learned in San Francisco, but it goes back even further. Sue Falsone was the Dodgers’ head athletic trainer in the early 2010s, the first woman to hold that role for any major pro sports team in America. She proudly speaks of the work she did with the players, but also of the four-inch Christian Louboutin heels and fashionable, yet professional dresses that she wore on the team plane.
“For me, it was important to maintain my identity, whether that was through my style, my faith, my values, irrespective to what others wanted me to do in that role,” Falsone says. Yet that insistence on authenticity also helped Falsone access parts of her identity that made her a successful athletic trainer. “I think sometimes women in general sort of have that nurturing thing about them, and I’ve always taken that approach to patients. Patients need to be nurtured, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I mean that in a healing way.”
Balkovec looks forward to creating a culture that is both caring and competitive, with high and clearly communicated standards. Having taught herself Spanish when she was hired as the Astros’ Latin America strength and conditioning coordinator in 2016, she is nearly fluent, and ready to help some of the youngest prospects in the organization, many of whom will still be adjusting to life in the United States. She says that she wants to know their wives’ and girlfriends’ and dogs’ names, and to be someone they can rely on for both physical and emotional support. But she also wants to create her own version of the “competitive cauldron,” a coaching philosophy made famous by Anson Dorrance, whose University of North Carolina women’s soccer teams have won 21 NCAA titles.
The philosophy encourages competition among players, which is particularly useful in a Minor League system where development often takes priority over wins and losses. Balkovec wants to assign everything a point value -- whether it’s arriving on time and keeping a clean locker, or attempting a stolen base and hitting the cutoff man. Based on what she has seen and read, Balkovec is a big believer in using behavioral psychology to get the most out of players. “It’s something that great coaches have done for decades,” she says. “And I am so excited to do it this year.”
She thinks that the balance can work in part because the curiosity of having a woman managing can also tamp down some of the egos that dominate professional sports environments. Forget for one second that most young prospects in the Yankees’ system know Balkovec by this point and have been working with her for several years. More importantly, as she has seen in weight rooms for years, and clubhouses more recently, she knows that players simply have to view her differently than they would most of the coaches they’ve had in their lives.
“No matter what, a former Major League player walks in the room and immediately their ego swallows up everybody else in a Minor League clubhouse,” she says. “And for me, it’s like they don’t ever feel like they’re competing with me. That’s an advantage. I know that I wouldn’t call myself the most empathetic woman out there, but I do think that there’s a sense of it. They call me Mom. As they’re calling me Mom, they’re calling me a loving, caring figure. They’re probably also calling me a strict, loving, caring figure. Because I’m their mom, I’m on them all the time. So, I think that’s the advantage: You’re not competing with me. That just takes out so much worry when you have to have a tough conversation. It’s not me flexing my ego. It’s literally that I care about you.”
“If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.”
There’s a naivete that Balkovec admits to, perhaps even clings to. She has enough experience to be cynical; she famously changed her resume to read “Rae Balkovec” after realizing that she wasn’t getting jobs that she was overqualified for due to the fact that she was a woman. She recalls with gratitude one instance in which she interviewed with a team, and at least the employer had the decency to tell her that she deserved the job but that the owner wouldn’t hire a woman for the role.
“My father and mother, they deserve an award,” she says. “They literally raised three girls to be absolute hellions. And we didn’t know that it wasn’t possible. So, by the time I was 23 … I thought, ‘I’m at LSU! I have this great resume for a young coach. Oh, they’ll hire me.’ And it was quite a bumpy road for a little bit there. But I think that naivete really helped me because I just didn’t know what I was up against. And that was great because I might have stopped.”
Instead, she chose to live a life of purpose, with two guiding principles that she wrote on pieces of paper and hung on the wall. The first -- BE A GENERAL MANAGER -- is a lofty goal that seems more realistic every day.
The other is a quote from legendary architect, author, inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. It is a philosophical exercise that seems crafted specifically for an impatient and ambitious person such as Rachel Balkovec, whose ascent is certainly far from over: “What is my job on this planet? What is it that needs doing, that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?”
Balkovec has lived her life trying to answer those questions. She was born in 1987, just a year before Julie Croteau sued for the right to play high school baseball. Croteau couldn’t conceive of a dream greater than that. Today, young women see so much more. That’s due to figures such as Croteau and Falsone and Nakken and Ng and Afterman, and certainly Balkovec.
Fair or not, the road is harder for pioneers. There is a constant need to accept the counterbalance of celebrating each achievement while demanding more. “Part of me is like, ‘I hope one day, it’s not a huge story that a female gets promoted to manager,’” says Nakken, who insists that she views it as her responsibility -- and her great joy -- to talk about the Yankees’ current Single-A manager in a way that she never would be expected to talk about any other opposing team’s Minor League manager. “But at the same time, I think it’s very necessary that we highlight it, bring it to light, show it in every single headline on every single news station, so that young women and men can see representation from all walks of life in different roles, particularly leadership roles.”
There’s another Fuller quote that seems apropos, one that that the Tampa Tarpons’ new manager has lived, even if it’s not on her wall. “Dare to be naive.” As Balkovec has said, there’s power in the fact that she never gave in, and that she’s not going to now. Ask where her confidence stems from, and she’ll list the players she has worked with, the relationships she has built, the knowledge she has gained. It’s all pretty simple to her. “It’s 10 years of experience,” she says, as if nothing can go wrong.
But her history -- and that of all the women who came before her in the sport, and those who will come after -- is about making the adjustments to stay on the path, but also letting one’s authentic self blaze the right trail. “Any player that’s ever worked with me, which I think is probably into the thousands now, it’s changed their mind, for sure. If they didn’t think it was possible before, they know it’s possible now.
“I just think it’s an honor to be the person that gets to change their mind. Because I know I’m going to change their mind.”