RACHEL BALKOVEC WAS home recovering from getting hit in the face with a baseball late last month, and her dad was at Target buying a chair. He had to sit somewhere.
Thirty-four years of life, and Balkovec has no furniture. She recently bought a condo, which to those who know her was more shocking than the news that the New York Yankees tabbed her in January to manage a minor league baseball team. Throughout adulthood, Balkovec’s worldly possessions have consisted of whatever fit in the back of her car. The Spartan lifestyle made it easy to move on to the next opportunity, but now it’s time to adapt. A little.
Today, Balkovec is set to become the first woman to manage a minor league affiliate of an MLB team when her Class A Tampa Tarpons play the Lakeland Flying Tigers. The moment is big enough that credential requests for a pregame news conference were distributed four days in advance, with instructions to arrive 30 minutes early.
Balkovec’s only worry in recent days seemed to revolve around whether she’d heal up fast enough to make it to Lakeland today. On March 22, she was struck in the face by a batted ball during a drill. While she joked on Instagram that the injury dashed any modeling hopes, it was serious enough that doctors ordered her to rest for 5-7 days. She missed her first scheduled spring training game.
Her sister Stephanie says Balkovec temporarily lost vision in her left eye.
“This was terrifying,” texted Stephanie Balkovec, who immediately flew from New York to Tampa to stay with her sister, “and she got lucky in every sense of the word.”
While Rachel was resting, she asked her sister to go to Best Buy to purchase a TV. “She was desperate to watch the game one-eyed from bed,” Stephanie said. They also ordered light fixtures and knobs for her new condo, so not all was lost. Most of the time, though, she was on the phone, checking up on her team.
It could be said that Rachel Balkovec has been waiting for this moment for 12 years, as she bounced around 15 cities and three countries, but really, this journey started long before that, when someone had the audacity to tell a headstrong little girl ‘no.’
Every step and stop had a purpose, and they lead you to believe that setting down roots is impossible for Balkovec. She has too many places to go.
The New York Yankees hired Balkovec, center, as a minor league hitting coach two years ago. AP Photo/Gregory Bull
BALKOVEC DOES NOT want this to be a “powder-puff feminist” story. She wants to empower women, and has envisioned herself blazing trails since she was a child. But the novelty of being a novelty can wear on a person.
When the Yankees hired her as a minor league hitting coach two years ago, she did the media rounds, and heard people tell her she’s an inspiration, heard all the you-go, girl clichés. She felt as if one important element had been left out: She worked her entire life for this.
“I’m being really honest with you,” Balkovec says. “I think I’ve killed the whole, I’m-an-inspiration-to-young-girls [thing]. I don’t know, man. I’m not the girl next door. I’m not the girl that 8-year-olds should probably look up to. I’m probably the girl that 22-year-olds should look up to.
“I hear from so many people, ‘Oh, you’re new to the game’ and this and that. No, I’ve been here. I’m not this intense because I showed up to pro ball and I wanted to beat my chest. This is just who I am, and if anyone was destined to do this, it was me.”
Quick story: In 1997 — or maybe ’98 — Balkovec was a fourth-grader at St. Robert Bellarmine in Omaha, Nebraska, when a teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. In a room full of plaid skirts and crisp white blouses, Balkovec told the class she wanted to be the first female kicker in the NFL. A boy sitting next to her laughed and said it would never happen.
Two decades later, that same boy, hat in hand, presented her with an alumni achievement award at Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha.
It’s an inspiring story, right? Tell Balkovec that, or throw in a “sky’s the limit,” and she’ll absolutely squirm.
Jim Balkovec didn’t put his middle child on his knee and tell her she could be anything. He awoke at 3 a.m. every morning to be at the airport by 5 a.m. for his customer service job at American Airlines, and won attendance awards. He taught his daughters that if they wanted something, they’d have to earn it.
Twice in an interview, Balkovec described her parents as “practical Midwestern people.” Her mother, Bonnie Balkovec, was the first person in her immediate family to get a college degree. She was already a mom by then, going to night school after Jim would get home from work.
They lived in an average-looking 1,500-square foot house with black shutters and a basketball hoop. Fridays were “Cheetos Nights,” and the three little girls — Stephanie, Rachel and Valerie — would gather on an old blanket in front of the TV and watch “Full House” and “Family Matters” with their parents.
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 aimed to make it purposely hard on us,” Stephanie Balkovec says. “They did not hand anything to us.”
Growing up, Rachel played football and swore off dresses. She wanted to be Michelangelo, the superhero on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She wanted to make her dad happy, so she’d sit in front of the TV with him on Saturdays watching Nebraska football games.
By the time she entered high school, passions changed, and the NFL dreams faded. But Balkovec had no doubt about the other part of her plan: She was going to break barriers.
Balkovec, back row in catcher’s gear, and Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha celebrate winning a district championship. Her longtime friend Erin Hartigan is pictured in the front row, far left. Courtesy Erin Hartigan
WHENEVER KATIE POPE is standing in front of a room of doctors, and the nerves hit and she inadvertently crosses her arms, she mutters, “Dammit, Katie.” And she thinks of Balkovec.
Crossing your arms, Balkovec constantly told her, conveys a lack of confidence. “Nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
Balkovec was 13 years old.
Pope is a clinical specialist now. Looking back, she says being friends with Balkovec was sort of like having her own personal coach. She’d never met someone like her. Someone who’d take a weighted bat to the on-deck circle and swing for the fences, who was so immersed in being a catcher that she’d occasionally let out a sound that resembled a grunt when she threw to second. Someone who was so confident.
“I was an awkward kid in grade school, for sure a dork,” Pope says. “She was my first close friend. She saw more potential in me than I saw in myself. She motivated me, and if I’ve ever been doubtful of anything — career, boys — she was always a very strong sounding board. She’d whip me into shape and pick me back up.”
Pope was always too embarrassed to dance as a teenager. They listened to a lot of hip-hop in the early 2000s, watched the Keanu Reeves movie “Hardball” way too many times, and Balkovec was the one who eventually convinced her — “You can freakin’ dance!” and they bounced around to Nelly until the light fixtures shook.
Pope wasn’t alone in her awkwardness. Balkovec worried about whether boys would like her if she was big and muscular. But she never seemed to show her insecurities.
Catcher seemed to be the perfect position for Balkovec, her high school coach Keith Engelkamp says. It allowed her to be in control and touch the ball often. One day in practice, the team ran a drill in which Balkovec was supposed to fire to second, but the pitcher forgot to move, and Balkovec’s throw nailed her in the back of the head. She was knocked unconscious.
“Coach,” Balkovec told Engelkamp, “she was supposed to [get] out of the way.”
(The pitcher was fine.)
Balkovec says she benefited from the “perfect storm” of strong-personality coaches and teams. Her ASA club, the Omaha Finesse, was coached by the late Joe Negrete, a skin-thickening man who ran a taco restaurant and was known by his players to be a hard-ass. If you cried in his dugout, he’d run you out of there.
One time, in a game in which a number of college coaches were watching, Balkovec struck out and proceeded to slam her helmet down in the first-base dugout. Negrete was coaching third, yet his voice boomed across the field: If she ever did that again, she was gone.
She never did it again.
Dial it down? Only when it leads to negative energy. Erin Hartigan, a longtime teammate and friend, is thankful for the exasperating ways of Balkovec. They met in eighth grade, when Hartigan was trying out for a club team and Balkovec did what she normally would to newcomers: intimidate them. Hartigan says it was Balkovec’s way of figuring out who people were and what they could handle.
They were teammates for five years. Both of them yearned to play college softball, and held themselves accountable. If Balkovec lifted weights early before school, then Hartigan would, too. When Hartigan was trying to figure out which scholarship she’d accept, Balkovec made a pros and cons list.
“You want to be on her team because she’s going to win,” Hartigan says. “She wants to win, but she also knows, ‘I’m going to 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.
She transferred to the University of New Mexico, and according to former Lobos grad assistant Lindsay Leftwich, Balkovec immediately made an impression. “People instantly wanted to follow her, which was so cool to watch,” Leftwich says.
But no matter how hard she worked, Balkovec could not shake the yips. When she eventually concluded that she couldn’t help her team on the field, she decided to push them in the weight room.
Her knowledge of strength and conditioning led to an internship at an athletic training company, then a graduate assistant role at LSU, where she was reunited with Leftwich, who’s now an assistant for the LSU softball team.
Softball — coaching or training — seemed to be Balkovec’s path to stability. But her interests had shifted to another sport. She’d dated a baseball player at New Mexico who was eventually drafted, and she was fascinated by the extensive player development of minor leaguers.
She also recognized the limitations she faced in a career in softball.
“There are a lot of barriers to high-level coaching for women right now [and] 10 years ago for sure when I got in,” she says. “If you want to be at the highest level in your field in whatever way — pay is one example of that — but if you want to be at the highest level period, women’s sports are still behind. And I saw that.
“Now, look, there’s an element to, ‘We need to build women’s sports and you should get into it and help it.’ But hopefully what I’m doing right now is helping women in general.”
Balkovec was fascinated by the extensive player development of minor leaguers. New York Yankees/Getty Images
BALKOVEC’S BIG BREAK in baseball came in 2012, when she received a temporary contract as strength and conditioning coach for Johnson City, the St. Louis Cardinals’ rookie-level affiliate. She worked as a receptionist on the side, and did so well in Johnson City that she won the Appalachian League’s 2012 strength coach of the year.
The only offers it yielded were unpaid internships and softball jobs.
In 2013, she moved to Phoenix and worked two internships — one unpaid, and another that at $30 a day might as well have been — while waiting tables.
Balkovec calls it her toughest year. She applied for at least eight internships and didn’t get any of them. She interviewed with one MLB team, which she won’t mention, and a member of the organization told her she was the person he wanted to hire. A few weeks later, he called her and said he couldn’t hire her because the administration didn’t want to hire a woman.
One day she was waitressing and glanced up at the TV, which was playing a Cactus League baseball game. She went to the bathroom and cried.
“I felt like I was on a planet by myself,” Balkovec says.
Katie Pope and her husband, Jeremy, were living in Phoenix at the time, and listened to her vent over an occasional bottle of wine. Katie was behind her no matter what, but she didn’t necessarily understand why she was putting herself through it.
“There were points where — god, you are on the struggle bus and you are so smart — Why do you feel like you have to be in baseball?” Pope says. “She just had it set in her mind, and she didn’t need a whole lot of extra outside motivation. She had moments of doubt; she’s human. But I could also watch her quickly turn it around.”
It didn’t seem like it at the time, when she was crashing on the Popes’ couch, but nearly every move Balkovec made had purpose. In 2014, the Cardinals hired her as their minor league strength and conditioning coordinator, another first for a woman. Two years later, she became the Houston Astros’ Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator, working at the club’s Dominican Academy. She taught herself Spanish by listening to the players.
Astros’ assistant GM Pete Putila was struck by Balkovec’s ability to spur competition — and learning — through team-building activities.
“It was a unique challenge given that these players were from a different country speaking a different language,” Putila says. “I mean, she really took control there. The kids had fun, too. She just always expected excellence and found ways to get that from the players.”
But after nearly a decade in strength and conditioning, Balkovec wanted to reinvent herself. She maxed out her credit cards and sold most of her possessions to pursue a second degree in Amsterdam. She wanted to be a hitting coach.
Her focus was biomechanics, and it led to a research and development fellowship at Driveline Baseball. Driveline, a training center in the Seattle area, is sort of the car mechanics shop for baseball players. Balkovec studied gaze tracking for hitters, but one of her biggest contributions came in the motion capture lab.
To collect data, pitchers are required to throw while standing in their sliding shorts or underwear with reflective markers all over their body, and the awkwardness of throwing half-naked in front of a group of strangers led to sub-optimum performances.
When Balkovec came in, she started asking the pitchers what pump-up music they wanted to listen to, and further broke the ice with either encouragement or trash talk.
“We went from athletes throwing 5 to 7 mph lower to athletes [hitting personal records] in the lab,” says Anthony Brady, Driveline’s sports science manager. “Rachel was super adamant about setting the tone for the culture in the lab and getting everything out of the athletes.”
She worked closely at Driveline with Kyle Lindley, a sports science engineer. Balkovec would come up with wildly ambitious ideas, and Lindley would be the one who’d have to tell her no, that’s not going to work. But she was innovative in other ways, Lindley says, like her philosophy of arm care. Pitchers are generally hesitant to do much upper-body lifting out of fear they’ll damage their arms. Balkovec tried to push everyone into the weight room.
“She’s made a profound impact in some ways on my life,” he says. “What she’s gone through to pursue what she wants to do … She just takes these bets on herself that most people wouldn’t. That I probably wouldn’t.”
Balkovec studied biomechanics and gaze tracking for hitters. New York Yankees/Getty Images
AFTER ALL OF the resumes, side-eye looks and cross-country disappointment, Balkovec finally seemed to command the respect she’d yearned for in late 2019. Members of the Yankees’ front office were gathered around a table, spitballing possible candidates for a new minor league hitting coach, and Dillon Lawson floated Balkovec’s name.
The response was swift: Call her now.
He’d worked with her in the Astros’ organization, and marveled over the way she set high standards not only for herself, but for everyone around her.
“Her belief in you definitely makes you believe more in yourself,” he says. “It’s contagious.”
Lawson, who was promoted to Yankees’ hitting coach in the offseason, was impressed with her constant desire to learn new things. Lawson and Balkovec read a lot of books, and she suggested he read the biography of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance.
Balkovec traveled to North Carolina to get a glimpse of their dynasty in a venture she calls “culture camp.” She also visited the perennial powerhouse Vanderbilt baseball team.
“Not everyone will understand this, but you wish everyone could,” Lawson says. “She’s not a token hire. She never was a token hire. Whether she’s male or female, it doesn’t change the fact that she is a great coach.”
Barriers can’t tumble down without others doing a little pushing, and before there was a Rachel Balkovec, there was Debbie Lawson. Dillon Lawson’s mom. She started out as a journalist, then entered corporate America. She faced her share of hurdles, and whispers of token hires. She became a top-level executive and worked for Fortune 500 companies.
When the Yankees were considering hiring Balkovec, Lawson talked to his mother at length. “Don’t you dare offer her a job if you can’t support her,” she told him, “if the organization can’t have her back.”
Balkovec says she benefitted from the “perfect storm” of strong-personality coaches and teams. Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire
BALKOVEC’S FIRST JOB was at a movie theater in Omaha. At 14, she worked Sundays between games and practices and went home smelling of popcorn.
In nearly every one of her jobs, someone has inevitably told Balkovec to dial down her intensity. Would they tell a man that? Maybe, she says, but it would be followed by the word, “badass.”
“When I was in high school, they loved it,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re cute; you work really hard’ … But when you get in the professional world and you’re outpacing people and you’re doing things different, then it becomes a competition and they don’t appreciate it. I’ve heard it all, and this is very typical: ‘Are you just trying to overdo it because you’re a woman.’ No, motherf—er. This is how I am.”
But she’s more than that. On the last Sunday of January, just before Balkovec once again dove into the unknown, she got a facial. She figured she’d better do it before everything really ramped up.
People closest to her are sometimes compelled to convey the other side of Balkovec, the woman who likes to paint her nails pink and dress up and go dancing, who has wine-and-cheese nights with the girls, who’s proud enough of her body to wear swimsuits and post it on Instagram.
“She’s a pretty normal chick who likes normal chick things,” Stephanie Balkovec says.
Rachel wouldn’t even classify herself as a workaholic. When the season is over, she stops, goes on vacation and takes care of herself. She was in Belize with her family when she signed the contract for her new job, and it didn’t feel the least bit monumental.
Anyone who knows her, Balkovec says, shouldn’t be surprised by this, or any bigger plans. Balkovec wants to be a general manager someday, but there’s a chance that even that won’t be enough. That she’ll want more.
In the months before Opening Day, all she could think about was her managerial debut. She pored over the rule book because she didn’t want to leave anything to chance, but deep down, she knew she’d be ready. She’s worked her whole life for this.
“I don’t mind saying I’m nervous,” Balkovec says. “I’m going to make mistakes, and they’re going to go on Twitter. People are like, ‘Do you struggle with imposter syndrome?’ And I’m like, ‘Every f—ing day.’ You know why? Because I put myself in stressful situations.
“I’ve been nervous my whole life, in a good way. Because I’m pushing myself. If you’re not nervous about what you’re doing, then you’re just comfortable.”