Rachel Balkovec: Tampa Tarpons manager

CLEARWATER, Florida – Somewhere above Tampa Bay, while driving down the embankment connecting Tampa with Clearwater, Florida, Rachel Balkovec asked in the back seat two of the Yankees ’best potential players if they had ever watched softball.

Antonio Gomez, 20, a catcher from Venezuela, said he was. Jasson Dominguez, 19, one of the best-ranked prospects in baseball, said he also had – but that these were men who played in his native Dominican Republic. Neither has seen women play softball in college.

“You will soon see what the athletes look like,” said Balkovec, 34.

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

They knew she was a unicorn – the first woman to serve as a manager in related professional baseball – but they didn’t know much about softball, a sport Balkovec played in college before she won and tried to get to this point. So Balkovec, manager of Tampa Tarpons, a lower-class A subsidiary of Yankees, had an idea: to take Dominguez and Gomez to a pre-season college softball tournament held near the Yankees Spring Training Center.

Balkovec’s employment is a turning point in the male-dominated baseball sport. Countless women can refer to the rejections she received for creating jobs, to her creation of an even more comprehensive resume as a result (she has a master’s degree in sports administration and a degree in biomechanics), her low salaries and a long way to lead a baseball team.

She broke glass ceilings during her 10 years in professional baseball: the first woman to hold a permanent position as a coordinator of strength and fitness in the lower league (with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014); the first woman to work as a full-time punching instructor on a major league team (with the Yankees 2019); and now the first woman manager. Balkovec opened people’s eyes all the way. Spending four hours Saturday night leading Dominguez and Gomez to softball games was the latest example.

“I didn’t have this brilliant sports career, but I was a top athlete,” said Balkovec, a softball team catcher at the University of Creighton and the University of New Mexico. “And in the Dominican Republic, for example, you just don’t see it that often in women. In fact, almost never. And they don’t understand that, so I want to show them. “

Balkovec said this while driving for Dominguez and Gomez from the hotel where they stayed during the Yankees pre-season camp. A 30-minute drive to St. Pete / Clearwater Elite Invitational, discussed the intricacies of softball, her early forays into professional baseball in 2012 (working as a receptionist for Marucci equipment company in the early morning and, in the late morning, as a strength and fitness trainee for cardinals) and the reason their travels in the first place.

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

During the evening, the players learned more about Balkovčeva, who made her debut as a manager on April 8, and what she represented. As they rode the touring carts from the parking lot to the softball stadium, Balkovec explained why she is now more comfortable hanging out with her players off the field.

As a young strength and fitness trainer, she said she would take the players to the supermarket to teach them how to eat healthy, but she would never take them to dinner. She called those days the “Wild West” because hardly any other woman is in baseball. She said that people are afraid to develop romantic relationships with the players, and that she would never wear a T-shirt or a sleeveless T-shirt around them.

“She is a great thinker in any sphere of life – coach, manager, my manager in my work – above all, if you like someone and trust him, you are willing to do whatever they ask,” Balkovec’s sister Stephanie said by phone. interview. “For a long time in her early days, I yelled at her because she didn’t let them see her as a human being.”

But, says Balkovec, as she got older, her colleagues and players got to know her better and the society developed (little by little, more and more women worked in baseball). She no longer cared about how things like clothes were experienced because her priorities were clear. She sees herself not only as a manager, but also as a life coach to her players, especially those from Latin America who face unique challenges. She not only talks to her players about how to improve their swings and their bodies, but is also firm or compassionate when needed, and tells them about things like their goals off the field and how they should respect women.

“That’s part of what Rachel, someone who cares a lot about these guys, isn’t always in the most traditional way, like‘ Oh, let’s go to a baseball game so we can talk about this type of skater ’or‘ Let’s watch the video, ’” he said. is Kevin Reese, vice president of player development for the Yankees, in a telephone interview. “You’ll probably get some extra benefits from Rachel because she looks at things through a slightly different outlook on life and that has a lot of benefits.”

The fan recognized Balkovac immediately after he got out of the tournament cart. Gomez and Dominguez laughed to themselves, but were impressed.

This continued until the end of the night. While the three of them jumped between the University of Texas-UCLA and Michigan-Louisiana State matches at the same time, Balkovec was stopped at least six more times for autographs or posing for photos, including the presence of a youth women’s softball team. That happened to Gomez and Dominguez, a highly praised potential person who signed a contract with the Yankees for $ 5 million when he was 16, a total of three times.

“Rachel is so famous!” said Gomez.

During the matches, Dominguez and Gomez bombarded Balkovac with questions or observations. They pointed out the swings they like. They cheered after the big shows. (At one point, Gomez joined the chanting of Texas fans.) They took photos and videos of the game. They pointed out that the national network broadcasts matches. They wondered at the pitchers and wondered if they could hit softball. Dominguez called the games exciting and faster than baseball.

“They’re so good!” said Gomez. Dominguez, who has never seen women’s softball, added: “I have learned that women are very capable. I have never in my life imagined seeing women doing this, throwing so hard and playing like this. ”

When the Texas-UCLA game ended, Dominguez and Gomez followed Balkovec so she could greet the UCLA coaches she knew.

Balkovec introduced her players to Kelly Inouye-Perez, UCLA softball head coach. Gomez wanted a photo with the UCLA team, and Dominguez, although initially shy, soon relented. Inouye-Perez told her team about Balkovec’s new performance.

“It’s great that she’s in a position of power, and that says a lot about the opportunities for us as women and about being a women’s leader in the Yankees, too,” she said. “How about that?”

On the other hand, Inouye-Perez explained that her team had been cheering for Balkovec for some time. And when Balkovec was promoted, Lisa Fernandez, UCLA assistant coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist, sent her an SMS, forgetting that Balkovec had her number.

“Hey, Rachel. This is Lisa Fernandez, the coach from UCLA, and I am very excited about you ‘, Balkovec recalled. And I said, ‘Lisa, you don’t have to explain who you are! I had your bat when I was a kid. ‘”

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

“Warden,” Gomez replied with a smile.

On her return to Tampa, Balkovec had a few farewell thoughts for her players.

She first told Dominguez and Gomez about the anger she hoped she would not see during the upcoming Tarpons season: the players got lost in their mobile phones at the clubhouse instead of communicating with each other.

Second, she wanted to plant a seed. Part of the reason she wanted to become general manager one day, she told them, was because she wanted to revise through Latin American talent. While MLB teams had educational programs, she felt that not enough emphasis was placed on the development of players as people. She pointed out how corrupt the international amateur signing system can be. She asked for their opinion.

Balkovec then told them her dream that they would both go to college. Gomez called it his plan B.

“If you’re just a good baseball player and you’re making a lot of money, that’s it,” she said, adding later, “You have to do more. Go to school. Be different. And it’s different in this business to put value on things other than money, ladies, going out – it’s so common. “

“It’s an easy life,” Gomez said. But then he offered his perspective. He told Balkovac that she grew up with more opportunities in the United States than he did in Venezuela. He explained how, when he was 12, his father asked him if he wanted to focus on school or baseball, and he chose the latter. He continued: “It’s different. We were not born here. ”

“I know what you’re saying, but you’re here now,” she replied. “You have money and a little security, so you can start thinking about other things besides this.” She later added: “I know you are young. It is OK. It’s 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 when Balkovec turned into the parking lot of their hotel. When she stopped, Gomez and Dominguez said goodbye and added something that few baseball managers will probably hear from their players.

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

“Thank you,” Dominguez added. “I love you.”

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