Rachel Balkovec: Manager at Tampa Tarpons

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Somewhere above Tampa Bay, while driving down the causeway that connects Tampa to Clearwater, Fla., Rachel Balkovec asked two top Yankees prospects in the back seat if they had watched softball.

Antonio Gomez, 20, a catcher from Venezuela, said he has. Jasson Dominguez, 19, one of baseball’s highest -ranked prospects, said he is too – but it’s the guys who play in his native Dominican Republic. Neither saw the girls play softball in college.

“You can almost see what female athletes look like,” Balkovec, 34, said.

During a dinner with the players that week in mid-February, long before the minor league season began, Balkovec realized they probably didn’t know much about his background.

They knew she was a unicorn – the first woman to serve as manager in fellow professional baseball – but they knew very little about softball, the game Balkovec played in college before he twisted and tried. path up to this point. So Balkovec, the manager of the Tampa Tarpons, a lower Class A member of the Yankees, had an idea: take Dominguez and Gomez to a preseason college softball tournament that takes place near the training facility in spring with the Yankees.

Balkovec’s hiring was a watershed moment for the male-dominated baseball game. Countless women can account for the rejections she received for job openings, as she built a more comprehensive résumé as a result (she has a master’s degree in sport administration and is pursuing a second, in biomechanics) , on his meager salary and his long tenure. way to run a baseball team.

She broke glass ceilings during her 10 years working in professional baseball: the first woman to hold a full-time position as a minor league strength and conditioning coordinator (with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014); the first woman to serve as a full-time hitting instructor on a major league team (with the Yankees in 2019); and now the first female manager. All the way, Balkovec opened people’s eyes. Spending four hours on a Saturday night taking Dominguez and Gomez to softball games is the latest example.

“I don’t have this dazzling career in sports, but I’m a high -level athlete,” said Balkovec, a catcher on the softball teams at Creighton University and the University of New Mexico. “And in the Dominican Republic, for example, you don’t see that very often in women. In fact, almost never. And they don’t understand it, so I want to show them.

Balkovec said this as he drove to pick up Dominguez and Gomez from the hotel they were staying at during the Yankees ’preseason camp. During the 30-minute drive to the St. Louis area. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, they talked about the intricacies of softball, his early participation in professional baseball in 2012 (working as a receptionist at equipment company Marucci in the early morning and, late in the morning, as a strength and conditioning intern for the Cardinals) and the reason for their trip in the first place.

“I came because Rachel always had good ideas,” Gomez said in English – following a Balkovec’s rule designed for both players to practice their second language. (Balkovec, a Nebraska native, always responded in Spanish, which he learned from Latin American players over the years.)

Throughout the night, players learned more about Balkovec, who made his managerial debut on April 8, and about what he represents. As they rode the tournament trolley from the parking lot to the softball stadiums, Balkovec explained why he was more comfortable interacting with his players away from the field.

As a young strength and conditioning coach, he said he would take players to the supermarket to teach them how to eat healthy, but he wouldn’t take them to dinner. She called those days “the Wild West” because there were hardly any other girls in baseball. He said people are afraid of developing a romantic relationship with the players, and he would never wear a crop top or tank top around them.

“He’s a great thinker, and in any walk of life – a coach, a manager, my manager at my job – first and foremost, if you want someone and you trust them, you’re ready to do what they ask, ”Balkovec’s sister, Stephanie, said in a telephone interview. “For a long time in his youth, I always yelled at him because he wouldn’t let him be seen as human.”

However, Balkovec said, as she grew older, her teammates and players got to know her better and society improved (gradually, more women worked in baseball). She no longer worries about how things like clothing look because her priorities are clear. He sees himself not only as a manager but as a life coach of his players, especially Latin Americans who face unique challenges. Not only does he talk to his players about how to improve their swings and their bodies, but he is also strong or compassionate when needed, and he talks to them about things like their outdoor goals. in the field and how they respect women.

“That’s part of who Rachel is, someone who really cares about these guys, and it’s not always in the most traditional way, like‘ Oh, let’s go to a baseball game so we can talk about the slider. this guy ’or‘ Let’s watch a video., ’” Kevin Reese, Yankees vice president of player development, said in a phone interview. “That’s where you might get some of Rachel’s benefits because he sees things through a slightly different lens of life and that has a lot of advantages. “

Immediately after getting off the tournament trolley, a fan recognized Balkovec. Gomez and Dominguez laughed to themselves but were impressed.

It went on all night. While the trio bounced between simultaneous University of Texas-UCLA and Michigan-Louisiana State games, Balkovec was stopped at least six more times for an autograph or to pose for photos, including a softball team of young women in attendance. That happened to Gomez and Dominguez, a preferred prospect who signed the Yankees for $ 5 million when he was 16, a combination of three times.

“Rachel is so famous!” Gomez said.

During the games, both Dominguez and Gomez asked Balkovec questions or observations. They teach the swings they want. They cheered after the big games. (At one point, Gomez joined the Texas singing.) They took photos and took videos of the game. They pointed out that a national network broadcasts the games. They were amazed at the pitchers and wondered if they could hit a softball. Dominguez calls the games exciting and faster than baseball.

“They are so good!” Gomez said. Dominguez, who has never seen women’s softball, added, “I’ve learned that women are very good. I can never imagine in my life seeing women do it, throw it and play like it.

When the Texas-UCLA game was over, Dominguez and Gomez followed Balkovec so he could say hello to the UCLA coaches he knew.

Balkovec introduced his players to Kelly Inouye-Perez, UCLA’s head softball coach. Gomez wanted a photo with the UCLA team, and Dominguez, while initially shy, later agreed. Inouye-Perez told his squad about Balkovec’s new gig.

“The cool part is that she’s in a power position, and it says a lot about the opportunities for us as women and as a female leader and for the Yankees,” she said. “How about that?”

On the side, Inouye-Perez explained that his team has long been fans of Balkovec. And when Balkovec was promoted, Lisa Fernandez, an assistant UCLA coach and three-time Olympic gold medal winner, sent him a text message, forgetting that Balkovec had his number.

“’Hey, Rachel. This is Lisa Fernandez, the coach from UCLA, and I’m so excited for you, ’” Balkovec recalled. “And I was like,‘ Lisa, you don’t have to explain to me who you are anymore! I had your bat when I was a child. ‘”

Inouye-Perez asked for a photo with Gomez and Dominguez “so that when you go to the big leagues, you’ll remember who I am.” As they posed, Inouye-Perez called to Balkovec, “Come here, Coach.”

“Manager,” Gomez said with a smile.

During the drive back to Tampa, Balkovec had some parting thoughts for his players.

First, he tells Dominguez and Gomez about a petty rage he hopes will not be seen in the Tarpons ’future season: players lose their cellphones at the clubhouse rather than interact with each other.

Second, he wanted to plant a seed. About why he aspires to be general manager one day, he told them, because he wants to overhaul the talent pipeline from Latin America. While MLB teams have educational programs, he feels that there is not enough emphasis on developing players as people. He noticed how bad the international amateur signing system was. He asked for their opinions.

Balkovec then told them about his dream that they could both go to college. Gomez calls it his Plan B.

“If you’re just a good baseball player, and you can make a lot of money, that’s all,” he said, adding later, “You have to do more. Go to school. Differentiation. And different from this business is putting value on other things beyond money, women, going out – that’s very common.

“That’s the quickness of life,” Gomez said. But then he offered his perspective. He told Balkovec how he grew up with more opportunities in the United States than Venezuela. She explains how, when she was 12, her father asked her if she wanted to focus on school or baseball, and she chose the latter. He continued, “It’s different. We were not born here. ”

“I know what you said, but now here you are,” he replied. “You have money and a little bit of security, so you can start thinking about other things beyond this.” He later added, “I knew you were young. OK ra. This is something you need to think about in your life. What are you doing here Just to play baseball? What is your purpose in this world? ”

“I don’t know,” Gomez said. “Baseball is still tough.”

The conversation continued as Balkovec headed to the parking lot of their hotel. When he stopped, Gomez and Dominguez said goodbye and added something some baseball managers are likely to hear from their players.

“Rachel, love you,” Gomez said. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Dominguez added. “Loved tika.”

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