TAMPA, Florida. – Every opening day is special, but this year is historic for Major League Baseball.
On Friday, for the first time in 146 years of history, a woman was in charge of a team affiliated with Major League Baseball when Rachel Balkovec assumed the role of manager of the Tampa Tarpons.
The trail Balkovec blazed to get to this point was anything but easy, but the 34-year-old said it was worth it.
“The amount of messaging I’ve gotten from Yankees coaches and staff has been incredible. There’s been every angle of support,” Balkovec said at his first press conference, a first for the Tampa Tarpons as well. , before the season opener.
Balkovec learned early on just how thick Major League Baseball’s glass ceiling was when it began trying to crack more than a decade ago.
Despite his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, his master’s degree in sports administration, his graduate studies as a strength and conditioning coach at Louisiana State University and his strength and conditioning internship with the St. Louis Cardinals, Balkovec has not could not be recalled by the teams.
Her phone finally started ringing when she started changing her name from “Rachel” to “Rae” Balkovec on apps. But, even then, she received many more “noes”.
LILY ‘Boat parade or bust’: Baseball fans optimistic about season ahead as Rays return to Tropicana Field
“Things have evolved, obviously. I was blatantly discriminated against at the time and some people say don’t say it, but that’s just part of what it is and what happened. I think it’s important to say that because it lets you know how much has changed,” Balkovec said. “Here we are 12 years later at my first press conference as manager, so things have exchange.”
Balkovec credits that change to the Yankees, but her determination is what kept her from giving in to everyone who told her that her gender, not her qualifications, was what mattered most.
LILY The Buccaneers program helps women launch their careers in professional sports
Eventually, she broke in. In 2014, Balkovec became the first woman to work as a full-time major strength and conditioning coach. But, after seven years in that role with the Yankees and Astros organizations, she faced a new set of resistance when she attempted to move into post coaching.
It was 2018, but the scene was frustratingly familiar.
“The transition to becoming a hitting coach was also extremely difficult,” Balkovec said. “I had to make some really tough decisions in my career to continue.”
One of those decisions involved leaving the country. Balkovec was able to work as an apprentice hitting coach for the Dutch national baseball and softball teams while working on a second master’s degree in human movement science at the University of Vrije. She was so short of money that she says she slept on a mattress she pulled out of a dumpster.
LILY Rays opening day: Hero FHP trooper who stopped DUI suspect during Skyway 10K to throw first pitch
“If you ask me why I did this, I think it’s that at some point, just look at each other and go what is my purpose on this planet? And if I don’t do this, who’s going to come behind me and And if the answer is OK, it’s just me, so I don’t really feel like I have a choice,” Balkovec said. “I know I’m capable of doing this. I know I’m the right person for this. I know as a woman, I know I can be respected in any room I walk into, so if I choose not to do that and I have the opportunity, then it’s disrespectful to the other women who come up behind me.”
In 2019, the Yankees hired Balkovec as their minor league hitting coach, making her the first woman to be named to that role in professional baseball history.
She says the last three years are light years beyond what she had experienced a decade earlier. Finally, for the first time in his career, his next move went without a mountain of resistance.
“It felt like it 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. I didn’t have to sleep on a mattress in a trash can. A lot of things have changed. A lot of positive changes,” Balkovec said. “I’m happy to be here now.”
Many Balkovec players already know her from her years as a batting coach. New players say she is their very first coach.
“From the day I shook her hand, I could feel an energy and a vibe that she definitely has more than enough power to be captain of this team,” pitcher Chandler Champlain said.
LILY Fitness journey leads women to treasured friendship and lasting health
It was the moment of his hiring that, according to Champlain, surprised him the most.
“It’s a little disappointing that it took until 2022 to open our eyes and see that this is an opportunity, it’s possible,” Champlain said. “It’s a really proud day, I think, for the organization, for New York Yankees baseball. I think having women in this sports culture, it’s just a really great day.”
More than 1,000 student-athletes received tickets donated by the Lakeland Flying Tigers, although Balkovec managed the road team in Friday’s game.
“It gives us hope that we can get through this,” said Norah Laurore, a sophomore at Ridgeview Global Studies Academy in Davenport, who attended the game.
A first lesson is that women in sport should be a team game.
“It’s important to us, we get her back and we’re here for her,” Ridgeview track and field coach Natalia Lopez said.
Balkovec’s first home game at Steinbrenner Field is on Tuesday, April 12.