Talking baseball and glass ceilings with New York Yankees hitting coach Rachel Balkovec
Trailblazer. Groundbreaker. Hitting coach.
After spending several seasons working in strength and conditioning, Rachel Balkovec joined the New York Yankees in 2019 as a minor league hitting coach, making her the first woman hired as a full-time hitting coach for an MLB team.
As the 2021 season kicks off and she begins her second year with the organization, Balkovec chatted with FOX Sports about facing discrimination, effecting change and her goals for the future.
Editor's Note: This story is part of FOX Sports' series celebrating Women's History Month. This interview has been edited for length. Photos courtesy of Rachel Balkovec and the New York Yankees.
This interview was conducted by FOX Sports' Chloe Chrysikopoulos.
FOX: Tell us about your journey to becoming a hitting coach and the stops you had along the way.
Balkovec: Long story short, I grew up playing softball my whole life, played in college at Creighton University and New Mexico. From there, I got into strength and conditioning as a profession, largely because I was a college athlete and enjoyed that as an athlete. I went to Athletes' Performance for my first internship, and then my graduate internship was at LSU in strength and conditioning. I worked with six teams there, including baseball and softball.
From there, I went to the Saint Louis Cardinals and did an internship with their Rookie League Johnson City Cardinals. Then I went and did an internship in the Dominican Republic with a wonderful team there, the Los Tigres Del Licey. With that one, I did some front-office stuff, even some administrative and baseball operations work.
Then I moved to Phoenix and sat out a year. During that year, I did two internships at Arizona State, volunteering there, and also with the Chicago White Sox, getting paid $30 a day to work for their Arizona Fall League team and [do] some offseason stuff. Then the Cardinals hired me full-time as their minor league strength and conditioning coordinator, so that was my first full-time job in professional baseball. I was there for two years, and then I was with the [Houston] Astros for three as a strength coach, two as a Latin American coordinator and one as Double-A strength coach.
I went back to school at that point to get a second master's degree and because I knew I was going to transfer out of strength and conditioning, so it was kind of a strategic move. I knew at that point I probably wanted to be a scout or a hitting coach. I want to be a general manager, so this was all shaping up to becoming a hitting coach.
I did my research at Driveline Baseball in Seattle in eye tracking for hitters and hip movement for pitching. Dillon Lawson is my current boss [and] the director of minor league hitting for the Yankees, and we worked together with the Astros. He knew I went back to school to get out of strength and conditioning, and he knew I was interested in being a hitting coach. He mentored me, if you will, during that year when I was in school and kind of pushed me toward doing my research in eye tracking, so he knew what I was doing the whole time – and he then hired me in 2019.
FOX: Why did you want to make that job change?
RB: I want to be a general manager, so I think it's important in any kind of administrative or executive position that you understand the game from the inside out. I think that the pendulum has swung very far over to analytics, which I am a huge supporter of. I learned with the Astros for three years, a team super far ahead with that stuff [and] got fully immersed in it.
But also, that means there are some weaknesses at the executive level, and I do not want to say it in a rude way, but I've been in baseball now — this is my 10th season — and I just see where we can improve in having the executive level of baseball really understanding player development and maximizing our minor league system from the last player on the team that you sign from the Dominican to Triple-A.
I think right now the executive level is scouting and analytics, and it could be improved by having player development. So that's a long way of saying why I crossed over into hitting specifically. I could have gone the scouting route, but I wanted to make sure I was a really, really, really well-rounded candidate if I do cross over to the front office.
I want to have the strength and conditioning background and a deep understanding of the body. I have a great background in human performance and how to train specifically and everything that goes along with that. But getting more into the skills portion was something I wanted to understand a lot deeper. I mean, I played college softball, and as an athlete, you're not soaking it up like you do as a coach. You're not studying it as closely as you do as a coach. So that's the long way of saying I want to be a GM, and this is the next step.
FOX: What are your day-to-day responsibilities in your current role?
RB: Well, I'm driving to Spring Training right now, and typical Spring Training ... it's a lot of assessment. Like, where are these guys at after a year of being away? And some of them, I'm sure, are going to come back, and they will be better. Some of them may not have done enough training or may have done the wrong kind of training. We will show up to the park, and we will get into the cages right away, and they are doing drills, etc. We are also going to do on-field hitting, and then eventually we'll be doing games every day. And since I'm going to be at the Rookie League level, that will pretty much stay the same throughout the year.
When I get there in the morning, we're doing individualized cage work, and once we have our assessments done, we will know exactly what kind of drills [the players] are going to need to improve – whether that's discipline, whether it's something to do with their actual bat swing and mechanics. We will know that by the first week, but by the end of spring training for sure, so when we move into the season, we will have very specialized programs for each player to understand what they need to improve, and we will work on that throughout the season and hopefully apply it in the game.
FOX: We learned that you changed your name to "Rae" on job applications. What motivated you to do that?
RB: [When I moved to Phoenix,] I applied for a bunch of jobs, and ... I was really naive. I was like, "Oh, I had an internship with the Cardinals. Now everyone will hire me." That wasn't the case.
I applied for eight to 10 jobs and just got crickets. Finally, someone called me during spring training, and they were like, "Hey, one of our guys quit. Are you still local? We're looking for someone really quickly." So we interviewed. I met this guy, interviewed a couple of times. And he said, "You're the person we want to hire. I'll call you tomorrow and get the paperwork started with HR."
But he never called me, and I was like, "That's weird." A few weeks later, he calls me and says, "Hey, I'm really sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we can't hire you, and I want to be honest with you: It's because you're a woman." And I was like, "Wow, that's illegal." But I was so grateful because I was confused. I have this great résumé, six internships at high-level places, baseball all over my résumé, played softball in college. And then he said, "Oh, it gets worse. I contacted other teams because we couldn't hire you, trying to help you out, and they all said the same thing — that they had received your résumé, and they weren't going to do it either."
So I sat that year out, waitressed, worked at Arizona State baseball and softball to continue to build my résumé. I was getting ready to apply for professional baseball jobs again, and I was worried they weren't even looking at my résumé. So my sister was like, "Why don't you change your name and see what kind of response you get?"
I was so desperate that I thought it would work – and it kind of did because I got responses right away. But at the end of the day, once they found out I was a woman, they just wouldn't respond. I got on one phone call with a guy who asked for Rae. And I said, "Oh, this is she." And you could hear the audible shuffling of papers in the background. He was like, "Uh, sorry, I just want to make sure I have the right name." And I'm like, "Yeah, right."
It was pretty short-lived, to be honest, but ... I'm glad that guy told me the truth and didn't just ghost me, that he had the gall and the courage to call me back. And he was like, "I want to hire you, but it's not going to happen, and I just want to be honest with you," and he felt really horrible. I'm glad he told me because then I knew what I was up against.
[The following] January, I accepted an internship in Boston with Eric Cressey, who works for the Yankees now. I was planning on sitting out another whole year. But then the [Johnson City] Cardinals called me and asked if I wanted to interview for the coordinator job because the coordinator moved on, and he recommended me for the position. And I thought, "Wow, I can't even get an internship, and I'm interviewing to oversee the entire minor league [strength and conditioning] operation, which is 200 athletes, 10 male strength coaches and dealing with everything minor league."
FOX: At any point, did you want to give up?
RB: Yeah, of course. But I always say, "If you don't feel like you want to give up, then you're probably not trying hard enough. If you're not questioning yourself, you may not be really stretching yourself as much as you should be to grow." And I mean, there were a couple of things that kept me going. One of them was, [while] I was waitressing, I was just like, "Wow, how many other women have applied and been turned down? And then just moved on to other jobs? And how many other women just don't apply?" Because that's a whole other issue.
So I was like, "I have the résumé, I know I'm capable, I've already worked in Major League Baseball. If I don't do it, then who is going to do it?" I had all kinds of male sports experience, I knew some Spanish, I was a catcher in college. Like, who else is going to do it? So I just felt responsible even at that time for getting it done.
FOX: Speaking of Spanish, you taught yourself the language to better communicate with players?
RB: I would like to make sure it's known that the players taught me Spanish, but yes. I never took any formal classes besides the stuff you take in school and forget. I had basically zero Spanish coming in, and I just knew right away – I was working with mostly Latin players at the younger level, and I still do. I've worked a lot with Latin American players that are very young and don't speak much English. And I just knew right away that I wanted to dive into that culture and go full-on because, obviously, as coaches, as managers, as anyone, if you have all this knowledge and can't communicate it, then you are a bad coach by definition.
Also, it really created a bonding point and showed a vulnerability on my end, being a woman, going in there, and they end up bonding with people who put effort into learning Spanish because they're going through learning English, and it's this collaborative teaching effort, where I'm asking them how to say something in Spanish, and they then they feel comfortable asking me how to say things in English. They are correcting me. They are laughing at me. You know, I said a lot of stupid stuff at first. It just broke down a barrier between us. And sometimes I feel like I can communicate with the Latin players better than the American guys because they trust me in that way.
FOX: What has been the most difficult aspect of your career journey?
RB: I would say probably developing empathy for things that come up with my gender. I'm a really tough-minded person. I've earned it. And it's hard for me to relate to people that don't have the same mindset.
Also, I would get really defensive early in my career and be like, "Oh, that guy hates me." But it's change ... and change is hard for everyone. Now I view it as an opportunity to teach. And even if the person hates me, is incredibly disrespectful, I'm like, "Cool, dude. I'm going to be here tomorrow – we'll figure it out." I put on a Yankees uniform and go to work, and that's weird, and it's weird for me, too. So I kind of just have a more pragmatic, patient approach with that.
FOX: What would you say are your career highlights so far?
RB: First of all, definitely the actual hiring – the interview process. Those times are just pierced in my brain because the gravity of the situation is just so heavy. ... I remember the interviews with the Cardinals, flying to Saint Louis. I remember flying to Tampa to interview with the Yankees, and you know, sitting at the conference table with 10 men around this table and saying my case and showing up and preparing and those things, for sure.
There was a player with the Astros who hated me when I first got there – hated me, couldn't stand me. Young Latin guy. And we battled, and I pushed him, and he pushed back. And eventually, we ended up developing this really tight relationship, and he named his daughter after me. And I think that's, like, the pinnacle as a coach. You know? Like, wow, I made such an impact ... He'll probably tell his daughter where her name came from, and those things are just irreplaceable.
I could say the World Series or whatever, but really, it's just about making changes in these gentlemen's lives.
FOX: What do you see as the next step in your career?
RB: Step No. 1 is getting a year of on-field coaching in after COVID. I think I have plenty to learn as a coach. I have so much to do here. And when I leave coaching, I won't be done. That's not the end for me, so I think it's really just developing my skills of being a hitting coach, and I imagine the next step would be the front office or scouting of some kind.
FOX: What advice would you give women trying to break barriers in sports?
RB: First and foremost, being an underdog is an advantage. And I'm glad I was discriminated against. I know that is very triggering, and it's very hard for people to understand, but I'm glad my path was hard, and I don't envy people with an easy path. I actually tell young women, "Hey, don't go for the diversity internship. Just apply." If you've got to earn it 10 times over, that's an advantage. Because guess what? Then you're 10 times as prepared as your counterpart when you get in. And it feels so much better to know that you truly, thoroughly, 100 percent earned that position.
The second thing I want to mention is if tough situations come up regarding your gender, have a little empathy. These people – it's not that they hate you. It's just different, and unfortunately, you are the change, so their feelings toward change, in general, are then directed at you as a person, which is very difficult. So have a little empathy, and understand that you have the ability to change people's minds, which is an incredibly honorable role to have in society.
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