On Her Way Up: Yankees Tap Woman as Minor League Manager

Rachel Balkovec, a groundbreaking baseball coach, will become the manager of a team in the Yankees’ minor league system, making her the first woman to lead an affiliated professional baseball squad.

Balkovec, 34, will manage the Tampa Tarpons, the low Class A affiliate of the Yankees, for the 2022 season, which begins in April. The Yankees hired her in November 2019 as a hitting coach in their minor leagues. She was believed to be the first woman hired as a full-time hitting instructor by a big-league team.

The news of Balkovec’s promotion to manager was first reported by The Athletic and was confirmed by a Yankees official.

Balkovec began working in professional baseball in 2012, on a temporary contract as a strength and conditioning coach for the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league affiliate in Johnson City, Tenn., where she was the Appalachian League’s strength coach of the year. She was the Cardinals’ minor league strength and conditioning coordinator in 2014 and 2015 and the first woman to hold a full-time position in that field in major-league-affiliated baseball.

In 2016, she was the Houston Astros’ Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator. Two years later, she became the strength and conditioning coach for the Astros’ Class AA Corpus Christi Hooks.

Balkovec was a catcher on the softball teams at Creighton and the University of New Mexico. She has a master’s degree in kinesiology from Louisiana State. She left the Astros in 2018 to pursue her second master’s degree, in human movement sciences, at Vrije University in the Netherlands. While there, she also served as an assistant hitting coach for the country’s baseball and softball programs.

She taught herself Spanish to be a more effective communicator. And before the Yankees hired her, she was working at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven baseball training center in Washington State. At Driveline, she was researching eye tracking for hitters and hip movement for pitchers.

Balkovec faced resistance when she applied for strength and conditioning jobs in baseball years ago. When she changed her first name on her résumé and applications to “Rae” from “Rachel,” she got calls back from teams. But she has said officials on the other end of the line were taken aback when they discovered she was a woman. Some wouldn’t call back, and some said they wouldn’t hire a woman.

“I view my path as an advantage,” she said in December 2019. “I had to do probably much more than maybe a male counterpart, but I like that because I’m so much more prepared for the things and the challenges that I might encounter. And I want to encourage young women or women in general that maybe it’s not fair we have to work a little harder. OK, fine. But I’m glad I had to because now I’m well and way more prepared than if it was handed to me early.”

Balkovec’s promotion to manager represents the continued ascent of women in this male-dominated industry, particularly on the field. That progress has come amid significant hurdles.

In 2020, Alyssa Nakken became the first woman to work as a full-time coach in the major leagues, with the San Francisco Giants. Kim Ng, a former Yankees assistant general manager, became the first woman to ascend to general manager, with the Miami Marlins. And Bianca Smith was hired as a minor league coach in the Boston Red Sox’ organization, making her the first Black woman to serve as a coach in affiliated professional baseball.

As of Jan. 1, 2021, there were 22 women who had either on-field coaching or player development roles, up from three in 2017, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. Despite the progress, that institute’s latest report card gave Major League Baseball and its 30 teams a C grade for gender hiring.

As a manager, Balkovec will be responsible for guiding the team’s coaches, players and staff; helping players develop; and making in-game tactical decisions, including running a pitching staff. This latest step may be one of several more in her career. Last year, she told the “Locker Room Talk” podcast that she dreamed of becoming a general manager.

“I hope that happens within 10 years, but obviously that’s a role that is coveted by many. I don’t know when, where, how or whatever,” she said, adding later, “I have plenty to learn as a hitting coach, but that’s definitely the North Star.”