Tampa, Florida. – Every opening day is special, but this year is historic for Major League Baseball.
On Friday, for the first time in its 146-year history, a woman will be at the helm of a Major League Baseball team when Rachel Balkovic takes over as head coach of the Tampa Tarpons.
Balkovec’s trail running to get to this point has not been easy, but the 34-year-old says it was well worth it.
“The number of letters I’ve received from my coaches and Yankees staff has been incredible. They were all corners of support,” Balkovich said during her first press conference, also a first for the Tampa Tarpons, before the season opener.
Balkovic learned early on how thick Major League Baseball’s glass ceiling was when I started trying to break it over a decade ago.
Despite having a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, a master’s degree in sports management, graduate work as a strength and conditioning coach at Louisiana State University and strength and internship training with the St. Louis Cardinals, Balkovic couldn’t get a call from the teams.
Her phone finally started ringing when she started changing her name from “Rachel” to “Rae” Balkovec in the apps. But, even then, she received a “no” much more.
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“Things have clearly developed. I was blatantly discriminated against at the time and some people say not to say it but it’s just part of what it is and what happened. I think it’s important to say because it lets you know how much has changed,” Balkovich said. “Here we are 12 years later at my first press conference as director, so things have changed.”
Balkovec credits the Yankees with this change, but it was her sheer determination that kept her from giving in to all those who told her that it was her gender, not her qualifications, that mattered most.
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Eventually, it broke out. In 2014, Balkovich became the first woman to work as a full-time strength and conditioning coach in the majors. But, after seven years in that role with the Yankees and Astros, she faced a new round of resistance when trying to move to a training site.
It was 2018, but the scene was frustratingly familiar.
“The transition to being a batting coach was also very difficult,” Balkovic said. “I’ve had to make really tough decisions in my career to keep going.”
One of those decisions meant leaving the country. Balkovich was able to serve as a trainee batting coach for the Dutch baseball and softball teams while working towards his second master’s degree in human movement sciences at the University of Frei. Criticism was so low that she says she slept on a mattress that she was pulling from a trash can.
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“If you ask me why I did it, I think at some point you just have to look at yourself and go to what my goal is on this planet? And if I don’t do this, who will come after me and if the answer is good, I just don’t feel like I really have a choice.” Balkovich said. “I know I can do it. I know I’m the right person for it. I know that being a woman I know I can get respect in whatever room I walk in, so if I don’t choose to do it and have the opportunity, it’s disrespectful to the other women who come after me.”
In 2019, the Yankees hired Blukovich as a minor-league batting coach, making her the first woman to be hired for this role in professional baseball history.
She says the past three years have felt light years longer than she experienced a decade ago. Finally, for the first time in her career, her next move came without a mountain of resistance.
“I felt like this was a normal role change within an organization and the Yankees deserve credit for that because this time around I didn’t feel like, you know, I didn’t have to sleep on a mattress outside of the bin and that changed a lot,” Balkovich said. Lots of positive change.” “I am glad to be here now.”
Many of Balkovic’s players already know her after her years as a hitting coach. New players say she’s their first-ever female coach.
Bowler Chandler Champlain stated, “Since the day I shook her hand, I’ve definitely felt the energy and vitality that she has is more than strong enough to be captain for this team.”
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Champlain says the timing of her appointment surprised him even more.
“It’s a little disappointing that it took until 2022 to open your eyes and see that this is an opportunity, that it is possible,” Champlain said. “I think it’s a really proud day for the organization, for the New York Yankees for baseball. I think having women in this sports culture, it’s just a really great day.”