Rachel Balkovec is the New York Yankees’ new minor league manager, but this isn’t her first time in uniform. As a player, she spent six years with the team and became one of their top prospects before injuries derailed her career. Now as a coach on their farm system, Rachel hopes to help others find their way back onto a roster-and get them into Yankee Stadium.,
Rachel Balkovec has worked her entire life for this moment. The New York Yankees minor league manager is finally getting the chance to manage in the major leagues.
BALKOVEC, RACHEL Her father was in Target buying a chair while she was recovering after being struck in the face with a baseball late last month. He needed to take a seat.
Balkovec has no furnishings after 34 years of living. She just purchased a condo, which surprised some who knew her more than the news that she had been hired by the New York Yankees to manage a minor league baseball club in January. Balkovec’s worldly assets have consisted of whatever fit in the back of her automobile throughout her adult life. It was simple to move on to the next opportunity because of the Spartan lifestyle, but now it’s time to adjust. Quite a bit.
When her Class A Tampa Tarpons face the Lakeland Flying Tigers today, Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a minor league affiliate of an MLB franchise. The significance of the occasion is such that credential requests for a pregame press conference were sent out four days ahead of time, with instructions to come 30 minutes early.
Balkovec’s primary concern in recent days appeared to be whether she’d be able to recover quickly enough to make it to Lakeland today. During a practice on March 22, she was hit in the face by a batted ball. While she joked on Instagram that the injury put an end to her modeling dreams, physicians advised her to rest for 5-7 days. She was unable to attend her first spring training game.
Balkovec’s left eye was momentarily blinded, according to her sister Stephanie.
Stephanie Balkovec, who came from New York to Tampa to be with her sister, said, “This was horrific, and she got fortunate in every sense of the word.”
Rachel urged her sister to go to Best Buy and buy a TV while she was sleeping. Stephanie said, “She was eager to watch the game one-eyed from bed.” They did purchase light fixtures and knobs for her new apartment, so not everything went to waste. She was on the phone the most of the time, though, checking in on her squad.
Rachel Balkovec may have been waiting for this moment for the last 12 years, as she has moved between 15 cities and three countries, but her journey began much earlier, when someone had the audacity to tell a stubborn young girl “no.”
Every move and halt had a purpose, and they led you to feel that Balkovec would never be able to establish roots. She has a lot of locations to visit.
Balkovec, a center fielder, was hired as a minor league hitting instructor by the New York Yankees two years ago. Gregory Bull/AP Photo
BALKOVEC isn’t interested in making this a “powder-puff feminist” tale. She aspires to inspire women and has dreamed of forging new paths since she was a youngster. The novelty of being a novelty, on the other hand, may wear a person down.
She made the media rounds when the Yankees hired her as a minor league hitting instructor two years ago, hearing people tell her she’s an inspiration and hearing all the you-go, lady clichés. She felt as though something crucial had been overlooked: she had dedicated her whole life to this.
Balkovec adds, “I’m being completely honest with you.” “I believe I’ve put an end to the entire [I’m-an-inspiration-to-young-girls] craze.” I’m not sure, dude. I’m not the girl down the street. I’m not the kind of girl 8-year-olds should look up to. I’m undoubtedly the kind of girl 22-year-olds should idolize.
“So many people tell me, ‘Oh, you’re fresh to the game,’ and so on. No, I’m not new to this place. I’m not this passionate because I wanted to beat my chest when I first got into pro ball. This is who I am, and if anybody was meant to undertake anything like this, it was me.”
A short story: Balkovec was a fourth-grader at St. Robert Bellarmine in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1997 or maybe 1998, when a teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. Balkovec informed the students in a room full of plaid skirts and clean white blouses that she aspired to be the NFL’s first female kicker. It would never happen, a guy seated next to her stated, laughing.
That same youngster, with hat in hand, presented her with an alumni achievement award at Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha two decades later.
Isn’t it a motivational story? Telling Balkovec that or saying “the sky’s the limit” will make her uncomfortable.
Jim Balkovec didn’t tell his middle kid she could be anything by putting her on his knee. He got up at 3 a.m. every morning to be at the airport by 5 a.m. for his American Airlines customer service job, and he received attendance honors. He instilled in his girls the belief that if they desired anything, they had to work for it.
Balkovec characterized her parents as “realistic Midwestern folks” twice in one interview. Bonnie Balkovec, her mother, was the first person in her immediate family to get a college diploma. She was already a mother at the time, and she went to night school when Jim got home from work.
They had a basketball hoop and lived in a 1,500-square-foot home with black shutters. Fridays were “Cheetos Nights,” when Stephanie, Rachel, and Valerie would gather on an old blanket in front of the TV with their parents to watch “Full House” and “Family Matters.”
Jim and Bonnie scraped up enough money to put the girls through private school, but there were occasional reminders that they were different. Their friends wore American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch. The Balkovecs had garage-sale clothes and off-brand tennis shoes.
“My parents purposefully made it difficult for us,” Stephanie Balkovec explains. “They didn’t give us anything.”
Rachel used to play football and swore off gowns when she was younger. She aspired to be Michelangelo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ superhero. She sat in front of the TV with her father on Saturdays watching Nebraska football games because she wanted to make him happy.
Passions had shifted by the time she reached high school, and her NFL ambitions had evaporated. Balkovec, on the other hand, was certain about the second element of her plan: she was going to smash down walls.
Balkovec, in catcher’s gear in the rear row, and Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha celebrate their district title. Erin Hartigan, a lifelong acquaintance, is featured in the first row, far left. Courtesy Erin Hartigan is a writer.
KATIE POPE mutters, “Dammit, Katie,” whenever she’s standing in front of a room full of physicians and the nerves get the best of her. Balkovec comes to mind.
Balkovec used to tell her that crossing her arms showed a lack of confidence. “You’re not going to be taken seriously.”
Balkovec was 13 years old at the time.
Pope presently works as a clinical expert. In retrospect, she thinks that having Balkovec as a friend was like having her own personal coach. She’d never met someone quite like her before. Someone who would take a weighted bat to the on-deck circle and swing for the fences, and who was so engrossed in her job as a catcher that she’d sometimes let out a sound that sounded like a grunt when she threw to second. Someone who exuded self-assurance.
“I was an uncomfortable child in elementary school, definitely a nerd,” Pope admits. “She was the first close friend I ever had. She saw a lot more promise in me than I did. She inspired me, and if I had any doubts about anything — career, guys — she was a great sounding board. She’d whip me back into shape and resurrect me.”
As an adolescent, Pope was always too bashful to dance. They listened to a lot of hip-hop in the early 2000s, and Balkovec was the one who ultimately persuaded her — “You can frickin’ dance!” and they jumped about to Nelly until the light fixtures shook.
Pope wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable. Balkovec was concerned that being huge and strong would make her unappealing to guys. She, on the other hand, never appeared to exhibit her anxieties.
Balkovec’s high school coach, Keith Engelkamp, says catcher looked to be the right position for her. It gave her more control and enabled her to touch the ball more often. Balkovec was intended to fire to second base during a practice exercise, but the pitcher neglected to move, and Balkovec’s throw smacked her in the back of the head. She had been knocked out.
“Coach, she was supposed to [get] out of the way,” Balkovec told Engelkamp.
(The pitcher was just good.)
Balkovec credits her success to a “perfect storm” of strong-willed instructors and teammates. Her ASA team, the Omaha Finesse, was coached by the late Joe Negrete, a skin-thinning taco restaurant owner who was renowned among his players as a hard-ass. If you sobbed in his dugout, he’d chase you out.
Balkovec struck out once while playing in front of a lot of college coaches and then slammed her helmet down in the first-base dugout. Despite the fact that Negrete was coaching third, his voice echoed across the field: If she did it again, she’d be gone.
She didn’t do it again.
Reduce the volume? Only if it results in a negative vibe. Erin Hartigan, a longtime colleague and friend, appreciates Balkovec’s odd behavior. When Hartigan was trying out for a club team in eighth school, Balkovec did what she always did to newcomers: intimidated them. It was Balkovec’s method of finding out who individuals were and what they could bear, according to Hartigan.
For five years, they were teammates. Both of them aspired to play collegiate softball and set goals for themselves. Balkovec and Hartigan would both do weights before school if Balkovec did. Balkovec developed a pros and drawbacks list for Hartigan as she was deciding which scholarship to take.
“You want to be on her side,” Hartigan adds, “because she’s going to win.” “She wants to win, but she also knows she’ll kick your you-know-what.”
Hartigan went to West Texas A&M, and Balkovec, future journeywoman, committed to Creighton University, roughly 20 minutes from her house. Her freshman year, she developed the yips, a sudden inability to accurately throw the ball.
Balkovec moved to the University of New Mexico, where she made an instant impact, according to former Lobos graduate assistant Lindsay Leftwich. “Everyone wanted to follow her right away, which was very great to see,” adds Leftwich.
Balkovec, on the other hand, could not get rid of the yips, no matter how hard she tried. She chose to push her squad in the weight room once she realized she couldn’t assist them on the field.
Her background in strength and conditioning led to an internship with an athletic training firm, followed by a graduate assistant position at LSU, where she reconnected with Leftwich, who is now an assistant coach for the LSU softball team.
Balkovec’s way to stability seems to be softball coaching or instruction. Her passion, though, had changed to a different sport. She’d dated a baseball player at New Mexico who was picked, and she was interested by minor leaguers’ thorough player development.
She was also aware of the constraints she faced as a softball player.
“There are a lot of impediments to high-level coaching for women right now [and] for definitely when I came in 10 years ago,” she adds. “If you want to be at the top of your field in any manner — money is one example — but if you want to be at the top of your field in any way, women’s sports are lagging behind.” That was something I noticed.
“Now, there’s something to be said for, ‘We need to grow women’s sports, and you should get involved and contribute.’ But I’m hoping that what I’m doing today will benefit women in general.”
Balkovec was enthralled by minor leaguers’ substantial playing development. Getty Images/New York Yankees
BALKOVEC’S BIG BREAKTHROUGH IN BASEBALL CAME IN 2012, when she was hired as a strength and conditioning coach for the St. Louis Cardinals’ rookie-level club, Johnson City. She worked as a receptionist on the side and was named the Appalachian League’s 2012 strength coach of the year after a stellar performance in Johnson City.
Unpaid internships and softball jobs were the only options.
She relocated to Phoenix in 2013 and completed two internships while waiting tables, one of which was unpaid and the other of which at $30 a day may as well have been.
It was her most difficult year, according to Balkovec. She applied for at least eight internships but was unsuccessful in obtaining any of them. She interviewed with one MLB club, which she would not name, and was informed she was the person he wanted to employ by a member of the organization. He phoned her a few weeks later and told her he couldn’t employ her because the administration refused to recruit a woman.
She was working as a waitress one day when she saw a Cactus League baseball game on TV. She broke down in tears in the restroom.
“I felt like I was on my own world,” recalls Balkovec.
Katie Pope and her husband, Jeremy, were living in Phoenix at the time, and over a bottle of wine, they listened to her rant. Katie was always there for her, but she didn’t always understand why she was putting herself through so much.
“There were times when I thought to myself, ‘God, you’re on the struggle bus and you’re so clever — why do you feel the need to be in baseball?’ According to Pope. “She didn’t need any outside incentive since she already had it established in her head. She was human, thus she had doubts. But I could also see her immediately reverse the situation.”
Balkovec’s every action had a purpose, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time while she was sleeping on the Popes’ sofa. Another first for a woman was when the Cardinals hired her as their minor league strength and conditioning coordinator in 2014. She became the Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator for the Houston Astros two years later, working at the club’s Dominican Academy. By listening to the musicians, she learnt herself Spanish.
Balkovec’s ability to encourage competition — and learning — via team-building activities impressed Astros assistant GM Pete Putila.
“Given that these individuals were from a different nation and spoke a different language,” Putila adds, “it was a unique task.” “I mean, she was in complete command there. The kids had a good time as well. She just demanded perfection from the athletes and found methods to get it.”
Balkovec, though, wanted to reinvent herself after almost a decade in strength and conditioning. To pursue a second degree in Amsterdam, she maxed up her credit cards and liquidated most of her belongings. She aspired to be a hitting instructor.
Her research and development fellowship at Driveline Baseball came as a result of her biomechanics specialization. Driveline, a baseball instruction facility in the Seattle region, is similar to a vehicle maintenance shop. Balkovec worked on gaze tracking for batters, but she made the most impact in the motion capture lab.
Pitchers must toss while standing in their slide shorts or underwear with luminous markings all over their bodies to capture data, and the embarrassment of pitching half-naked in front of a bunch of strangers resulted in sub-optimal results.
When Balkovec arrived, she immediately began asking the pitchers what kind of pump-up music they preferred, and she continued to break the ice with either encouragement or trash talk.
Driveline’s sports science manager, Anthony Brady, adds, “We went from athletes throwing 5 to 7 mph lower to athletes [setting personal records] in the lab.” “Rachel was concerned about establishing the tone for the lab culture and getting everything out of the athletes,” says the researcher.
Kyle Lindley, a sports science engineer at Driveline, was one of her closest collaborators. Balkovec would come up with crazy ideas, and Lindley would have to tell her no, that won’t work. Lindley claims that she was revolutionary in other respects, such as her concept of arm care. Pitchers are often afraid of injuring their arms if they undertake a lot of upper-body lifting. Balkovec attempted to force everyone into the gym.
“She’s had a significant influence on my life in various aspects,” he adds. “What she’s gone through in order to achieve what she wants… She just makes wagers on herself that other people would avoid. That’s something I’m not likely to do.”
Balkovec researched batters’ biomechanics and gaze tracking. Getty Images/New York Yankees
Balkovec finally appeared to command the respect she’d craved for in late 2019, after all of the resumes, side-eye stares, and cross-country disappointment. Dillon Lawson, a member of the Yankees’ front office, was spitballing prospective possibilities for a new minor league hitting instructor when he mentioned Balkovec.
Call her right now, was the answer.
He’d worked with her in the Astros’ organization and admired how she held herself to high standards, not just for herself but also for others around her.
“Her faith in you helps you trust in yourself even more,” he explains. “It’s infectious.”
Lawson, who was elevated to hitting coach for the Yankees this summer, was struck by her eagerness to learn new things. Lawson advised that Balkovec read the biography of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance since they both read a lot of books.
In a mission she calls “culture camp,” Balkovec flew to North Carolina to gain a peek of their dynasty. She also paid a visit to the Vanderbilt baseball club, a perennial powerhouse.
“Not everyone will understand this,” Lawson adds, “but you want everyone could.” “She isn’t a one-time hire. She was never a one-time hire. It makes no difference whether she is male or female; she is an excellent instructor.”
Barriers don’t fall down without a little help from others, and before Rachel Balkovec, there was Debbie Lawson. The mother of Dillon Lawson. She began her career as a journalist before moving into corporate America. She had her share of roadblocks to overcome, as well as rumors of token hiring. She rose through the ranks of Fortune 500 corporations to become a senior executive.
Lawson spoke with his mother extensively while the Yankees were contemplating employing Balkovec. “Don’t give her a position if you can’t support her, if the organization can’t have her back,” she warned him.
Balkovec credits the “perfect storm” of strong-personality coaches and teammates for her success. Icon Sportswire/Joe Robbins
BALKOVEC’S FIRST JOB was at an Omaha movie house. She worked Sundays between games and practices when she was 14, and she came home smelling like popcorn.
Balkovec has been urged to tone down her passion in practically every job she has had. Would they say that to a man? Maybe, but it would be followed by the phrase “badass,” she explains.
“They adored it when I was in high school,” she recalls. “‘Oh, you’re cute; you work extremely hard,’ they say… When you enter the professional sector and you outpace others and do things differently, it becomes a competition, and they don’t like it. ‘Are you simply trying to overdo it because you’re a woman?’ I’ve heard it everything, and this is one of the most common. No, motherf—-er, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, That’s how I’m wired.”
She is, however, much more. Balkovec received a facial on the final Sunday of January, shortly before she dived back into the unknown. She felt she’d best get it done before things got out of hand.
Balkovec’s closest friends are occasionally driven to portray the other side of her, the lady who loves to paint her nails pink and dress up and go dancing, who has wine-and-cheese evenings with the ladies, and who is confident enough of her physique to wear bikinis and post them on Instagram.
Stephanie Balkovec describes her as “a really typical lady who enjoys normal female stuff.”
Rachel isn’t even close to being a workaholic. She takes a break once the season is done, goes on vacation, and takes care of herself. When she signed the contract for her new employment, she was in Belize with her family, and it didn’t seem all that significant.
Anyone who knows her, according to Balkovec, should not be shocked by this or any other ambitions she has. Balkovec aspires to be a general manager one day, but there’s a risk he won’t be able to achieve his goal. That she’ll be clamoring for more.
All she could think about in the months leading up to Opening Day was her managing debut. She went through the rules again and again since she didn’t want to take any chances, but she knew she’d be OK. She has dedicated her whole life to this goal.
“I’m not ashamed to admit I’m anxious,” Balkovec admits. “I’m going to make errors, and I’m going to tweet about them.” ‘Do you suffer from impostor syndrome?’ people ask. ‘Every f—-ing day,’ I’m like. Why do you think that is? I do this because I put myself in high-stress situations.
“I’ve always been apprehensive, but in a good way. Because I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself. You’re merely comfy if you’re not anxious about what you’re doing.”
Rachel Balkovec is the new hitting coach for the New York Yankees, who has worked her entire life for this moment. She graduated with a degree in sports management from the University of North Carolina and was a member of the Women’s National Team. Reference: rachel balkovec yankees hitting coach.
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