Rachel Balkovec: manager of the Tampa Tarpons

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Somewhere above Tampa Bay as she drove down the causeway from Tampa to Clearwater, Fla., Rachel Balkovec asked the Yankees’ two top prospects in the back seat if they’d ever watched the softball.

Antonio Gomez, 20, a wide receiver from Venezuela, said he did. Jasson Dominguez, 19, one of baseball’s top-ranked prospects, said he did too – but they were men playing in his native Dominican Republic. Neither had seen women play varsity softball.

“You’re about to see what female athletes look like,” said Balkovec, 34.

It was while having dinner with these players that week in mid-February, well before the start of the minor league season, that Balkovec realized they probably didn’t know much about his journey.

They knew she was a unicorn — the first woman to serve as a manager in affiliated professional baseball — but they didn’t know much about softball, the sport Balkovec played in college before his winding path and trying up to this point. So Balkovec, manager of the Tampa Tarpons, a Class A affiliate of the Yankees, had an idea: take Dominguez and Gomez to a preseason college softball tournament that was taking place near the Yankees’ spring training facility.

The hiring of Balkovec was a watershed moment for the male-dominated sport of baseball. Countless women can relate to the rejections she’s received for job offers, the fact that she’s built an even more comprehensive resume as a result (she has a master’s degree in sports administration and pursued a second in biomechanics), to his small paychecks and his long road to managing a baseball team.

She shattered glass ceilings in her 10 years working in professional baseball: the first woman to hold a full-time position as a minor league strength and conditioning coordinator (with the St. Louis in 2014); the first woman to serve as a full-time hitting coach on a big league team (with the Yankees in 2019); and now the first female manager. Along the way, Balkovec opened people’s eyes. Spending four hours of a Saturday night taking Dominguez and Gomez to softball games was the latest example.

“I didn’t have this dazzling athletic career, but I was a top athlete,” said Balkovec, a catcher for the Creighton University and University of New Mexico softball teams. “And in the Dominican Republic, for example, you don’t see that often with women. In fact, almost never. And they don’t understand, so I want to show them.

Balkovec said this while driving to pick up Dominguez and Gomez from the hotel where they were staying during a Yankees preseason camp. During the 30-minute drive to the site of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, they talked about the intricacies of softball, from his first forays into professional baseball in 2012 (working as a receptionist for equipment company Marucci early in the morning and, in the late morning, as a strength and conditioning trainee for the Cardinals) and the reason for their trip in the first place.

“I came because Rachel always has good ideas,” Gomez said in English – following a Balkovec rule designed for both players to practice their second language. (Balkovec, originally from Nebraska, frequently responded in Spanish, which she learned from Latin American players over the years.)

Throughout the evening, players learned more about Balkovec, who made his managerial debut on April 8, and what she stood for. As they rode the tournament cart from the parking lot to the softball stadiums, Balkovec explained why she was now more comfortable with her players away from the field.

As a young strength and conditioning coach, she said she would take players to the supermarket to teach them about healthy eating, but she would never take them out to dinner. She called those days “the Wild West” because there were hardly any other women in baseball. She said people feared romantic relationships would develop with the players and that she would never wear a crop top or tank top around them.

“She’s a big thinker, and in any area of ​​life – a coach, a manager, my manager at my job – first and foremost, if you love someone and trust them , you are ready to do whatever he asks,” Balkovec’s sister Stephanie said in a phone interview. “For a long time, in her early days, I used to yell at her because she wouldn’t let them see she was human.”

But, Balkovec said, as she got older, her co-workers and players got to know her better, and society evolved (gradually more women were working in baseball). She no longer worried about how things like clothes were perceived because her priorities were clear. She sees herself not just as a manager but as a life coach for her players, especially those from Latin America who face unique challenges. She not only talks to her players about how to improve their swings and body, but she’s also tough or compassionate when needed, and she talks to them about issues like their off-court goals and how they should respect women.

“It’s part of who Rachel is, someone who cares a lot about these guys, and it’s not always in the most traditional way, like, ‘Oh, let’s go to a baseball game so we can talk about this guy’s slider” or “Let’s watch the video,” Yankees vice president of player development Kevin Reese said in a phone interview. “That’s where you’re probably going to get benefits from Rachel because she sees things from a little different perspective on life and that has a lot of benefits.”

Immediately after stepping off the tournament cart, a fan recognized Balkovec. Gomez and Dominguez laughed at themselves but were impressed.

This continued for the rest of the night. As the three bounced between concurrent University of Texas-UCLA and Michigan State-Louisiana games, Balkovec was stopped at least six more times for an autograph or to pose for photos, including by a girls’ softball team present. It happened to Gomez and Dominguez, a highly touted prospect who signed with the Yankees for $5 million at age 16, three times in total.

“Rachel is so famous!” said Gomez.

During matches, Dominguez and Gomez peppered Balkovec with questions or observations. They highlighted the swings they liked. They cheered after the big plays. (At one point, Gomez joined the Texas fan chant.) They took photos and video of the game. They pointed out that a national network was broadcasting the games. They marveled at pitchers and wondered if they could hit a softball. Dominguez called the games exciting and faster than baseball.

“They are so good!” said Gomez. Dominguez, who had never seen women’s softball, added, “I learned that women are very capable. I would never have imagined in my life to see women doing that, throwing so hard and playing like that.

After the Texas-UCLA game was over, Dominguez and Gomez followed Balkovec so she could greet the UCLA coaches she knew.

Balkovec introduced his players to Kelly Inouye-Perez, UCLA’s softball head coach. Gomez wanted a shot with the UCLA team, and Dominguez, though initially shy, quickly relented. Inouye-Perez told his team about the new Balkovec gig.

“The cool thing is that she’s in a position of power, and that says a lot about the opportunities for us as women and being a woman leader and in the Yankees,” said she declared. ” And that ? »

On the side, Inouye-Perez explained that his team had been fans of Balkovec for some time. And when Balkovec was promoted, Lisa Fernandez, a UCLA assistant coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist, texted him, forgetting Balkovec had his number.

“’Hi, Rachel. This is Lisa Fernandez, the UCLA coach, and I’m so excited for you,” Balkovec recalled. “And I was like, ‘Lisa, you don’t have to explain who you are to me! I had your bat when I was a kid.'”

Inouye-Perez requested a photo with Gomez and Dominguez “so when you go to the big leagues, you’ll remember who I am.” As they posed, Inouye-Perez called out to Balkovec, “Come in here, Coach.”

“Manager,” Gomez retorted with a smile.

During the drive back to Tampa, Balkovec had some parting thoughts for his players.

First, she told Dominguez and Gomez about a pet peeve she hoped not to see in the Tarpons’ next season: players lost on their cell phones in the clubhouse rather than interacting with them. with each other.

Second, she wanted to plant a seed. Part of the reason she aspired to become general manager one day, she told them, was because she wanted to overhaul the talent pool in Latin America. While MLB teams had education programs, she felt there was not enough emphasis on developing players as humans. She noted how corrupt the international amateur signing system could be. She asked their opinion.

Balkovec then told them about his dream that they would both go to college. Gomez called it his plan B.

“If you’re just a good baseball player and making a lot of money, that’s it,” she said, later adding, “You gotta do more. Go to school. Be different. And what’s different about this business is valuing something other than money, ladies, going out – it’s so common.

“It’s the easy life,” Gomez said. But then he offered his perspective. He told Balkovec how she grew up with more opportunities in the United States than in Venezuela. He explained how, when he was 12, his father asked him if he wanted to focus on school or baseball, and he chose the latter. He continued, “It’s different. We weren’t born here.

“I know what you’re saying, but now you’re here,” she replied. “You have money and a bit of security, so you can start thinking about other things beyond that.” She later added, “I know you are young. Its good. It’s something you need to think about in your life. What are you doing here? Just to play baseball? What is your purpose in this world?

“I don’t know,” Gomez said. “Baseball is always tough.”

The conversation continued as Balkovec pulled into their hotel parking lot. When she stopped, Gomez and Dominguez said goodbye and added something few baseball managers are likely to hear from their players.

“Rachel, I love you,” Gomez said. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” added Dominguez. “I like You.”

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