Rachel Balkovec has vivid memories of the dark, lonely and challenging chapters in her historic journey to the Tampa Tarpons manager’s office.
Three years ago, she went to Amsterdam to work for the first time as an apprentice hitting coach with the Netherlands national baseball and softball teams while earning a master’s degree in physics and had to sleep on a mattress she pulled out of a dumpster.
The year before, as the strength and conditioning coach for the Astros’ Double-A Corpus Christi (Texas) team, she found herself studying physics flashcards on the floor of a stall in the San Antonio Missions’ women’s restroom because there wasn’t a spot for her in the visiting clubhouse.
A couple years before that, her search for a strength and conditioning job in the minors yielded nothing until she tried changing the name on her resume to Rae. She got multiple e-mail replies and eventually a call from a confused team executive expecting to hear a male voice. After a brief, awkward conversation, she didn’t hear from him again. (An official from another team expressed interest in hiring her before later saying his bosses told him no, because she was a woman.)
Even when she broke her first barrier in affiliated professional baseball — the first woman hired as a full-time strength and conditioning coach when the Cardinals made her a coordinator in 2014 — she had to share the news with a caveat.
“I think when I actually got that job, I had $14 in my bank account,” Balkovec recalled during a Zoom call with more than 100 reporters earlier this week. “I called my parents and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve just made history, can I borrow some money? Because I’m broke, I’ve got to get to spring training.’ So it was a pretty rough year.
“You just reflect back on those times, and it’s unbelievable that I’m sitting here talking to you all right now. But I’m just so glad that I didn’t give up.”
Balkovec, 34, already has accomplished much in baseball.
She was the first woman to work as a full-time strength and conditioning coach, first to be hired as a hitting coach (by the Yankees in 2019) and last week first to be named manager of an affiliated minor or major-league team. Eventually, she wants to be a general manager (where she would be the second woman after Miami’s Kim Ng).
At each step, Balkovec has been aware of the skeptics, critics and worse who aren’t fans of her repeated crashing of the boys’ club.
Want more than just the box score?
Subscribe to our free Rays Report newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t really care. Or pay much attention, notified occasionally by her sisters about what is being said, written or posted about her.
“It’s interesting to me, because I don’t understand the negativity,” Balkovec said. “If you know my story, and you have a pulse, I think it’s pretty hard not to get behind what’s going on here.
“If you know yourself, and you know where you came from, it doesn’t really matter. So that’s just how I kind of deal with the negativity or anything that I hear coming my way. It’s hilarious to me, because it’s the American dream. There’s definitely been some dark times in my career that I’ve been able to overcome myself, and with support of those around me. So I think that everybody can enjoy a piece of my story.”
Her bosses certainly do, confident enough in her leadership abilities, knowledge, determination, passion and perseverance to approach her about the promotion as she worked last year as a hitting coach for the lower- level Florida Complex League team.
They then convinced her to take the manager’s job without worrying about what anyone on the outside thought.
“There wasn’t a ton of debate as to whether baseball was ready, or the world was ready,” Yankees player development vice president Kevin Reese said. “It was just, we’re trying to find the best people and put them in their best positions that have a huge impact here. And that was the only question that we really asked.”
Balkovec acknowledged she will need some guidance in learning how to do a new job. But she is confident her work over the past 10 years and the ways she has found to connect with teenaged and early twenty-something players from various countries — knowing about their families, learning to speak Spanish, playing current (and loud) music — will serve her well, noting that few have pushed back and many have texted congratulations.
“I think the outside perception is always the thing,” Balkovec said. “When players meet me, I think probably there’s a level of curiosity, which, like, that’s normal. Change is change. I was curious, I’m like, ‘Geez, what am I going to look like in a uniform?’ I was curious myself, so I’m not going to blame anyone for being curious or not really understanding the situation.
“But I just know, within five minutes, I walk into the room, the presence that I have, how I speak confidently. … So as soon as I open my mouth and start speaking, I’m speaking in Spanish and English and they hear what I’m saying and it’s aligned with what everybody else is saying and they know I know what I’m talking about, it all just goes away. It’s just so fast, that level of curiosity is like, OK, it’s not a big deal.”
Balkovec knows many will be watching, some to seize on missteps, but — more importantly to her — some seeking inspiration.
“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,’” she said. “I just don’t subscribe to that. People ask why are you on social media … and it’s like, 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.
“It’s just, I have two jobs — and that’s fine. I’m pretty sure Jackie Robinson didn’t sign up for his job and then go, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t want to sign autographs.’ It’s just part of my job. And I take that very seriously.”
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.