Rachel Balkovec is getting used to being first.
Eight years ago, she was the first woman to work as a full-time strength and conditioning coach in baseball’s minor or major leagues.
Two years ago, she was the first woman to be hired to work as a hitting coach anywhere in professional baseball.
And this year, she will be the first woman to become a full-time manager in the minors or majors, leading the Yankees’ Tampa-based Tarpons Class A team.
Someday, she hopes it won’t be that of a big deal.
“First off, I’ve been in baseball for 10 years, so it feels a little interesting to me that there’s so much attention now,” Balkovec said Wednesday. “But obviously, society’s changed, the world has changed, social media has changed. And so we’re celebrating women in sports, in general, a lot more than we ever were in 2012, when I first got in.”
There was enough interest Wednesday that more than 110 reporters signed on a to Zoom call to hear her and Yankees officials talk about the historic opportunity, and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement.
“I do think we’ve made progress,” Balkovec, 34, said. “In the numbers, obviously — there’s going to be 11 women in uniform (throughout pro baseball in 2022.)
“But also just the way people react to me and the way that they talk to me. It’s becoming more normal. It’s pretty apparent. And it’s just exciting to see how much progress we’ve made. We definitely have a lot of room to grow. But it’s really exciting.”
Balkovec expected to work as a hitting coach again after spending last summer with the Yankees’ Tampa-based complex league squad, but her bosses approached her during a December visit about moving up to the Tarpons’ manager’s job.
She had to be talked into it, liking the chance to grow as a leader. She acknowledged that as a first-time manager she will need some help and said she is glad the opportunity is at the team’s Tampa base.
“It’s absolutely a benefit,” she said. “I love Tampa. It’s been great being there. Knowing some of the community members and just getting to know the town and the city, it’s really a phenomenal place to be. Obviously, having our complex right there is going to be really helpful.
“I’m obviously going to need support, there’s no hiding that. And to have a lot of our staff members there that can just hop over and have a conversation anytime is going to be really helpful.”
Balkovec grew up in Nebraska, played college softball at New Mexico and worked as a grad assistant strength and conditioning coach at LSU while earning a master’s degree in sports administration.
She wanted to work in baseball, with the long-term goal of becoming a general manager — which she still has. She eventually got her start as a minor-league strength and conditioning intern for the Cardinals, and then the White Sox.
She got that ground-breaking first full-time job as a strength and conditioning coordinator for the Cardinals in 2014-15, then moved to the Astros in 2016. Following the 2018 season with Houston’s Double-A team, she decided to expand her skill set by focusing on hitting, serving as an apprentice hitting coach for the Netherlands national baseball and softball programs while earning a master’s degree in biomechanics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She also did eye-tracking research with the high-tech Driveline Baseball group.
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That led to her being hired by the Yankees in November 2019 as a hitting coach and ultimately to the historic opportunity she has now — with the added benefit of making less of a big deal for others to follow.
“We look forward to the days where these are no longer as newsworthy items,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “But it is an impactful and important next step. ... Rachel should be very proud of how far she’s gotten thus far, and the sky’s the limit.
“The coverage is appreciated in the fact that it’s going to continue to send messages worldwide to women that have similar hopes and dreams of finding ways to be impactful and that there’s nothing that is impossible.”
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