Rachel Balkovec left another imprint on history in November when she was hired by the Yankees as the first female full-time Minor League hitting coach for a professional baseball team. And it's a trend she hopes continues. There was promising news on that front just last week when the Giants hired Alyssa Nakken as a Major League assistant coach.
Balkovec, 32, entered the Minor League landscape in 2012 when she served as an interim strength and conditioning coach in the Cardinals organization for Rookie Advanced Johnson City. Balkovec made an immediate impact, earning the Appalachian League award for strength coach of the year. And in 2014, the Cards promoted her, making her the first woman to be hired as a full-time professional baseball coordinator.
In 2016, the Omaha native accomplished another first as she was hired by the Astros as the organization's Latin America strength and conditioning coordinator. Two years later, she moved stateside to become the strength and conditioning coach for the club's Double-A affiliate in Corpus Christi, Texas.
It was in the Houston system where Balkovec met Dillon Lawson and forged a relationship with the Yankees' current hitting coordinator. Balkovec interviewed with Lawson, Yankees senior director of player development Kevin Reese and director of Dominican Republic baseball operations Andrew Wright for her new job, to which she will report on Feb. 1 in Tampa.
Balkovec was an NCAA Division I catcher on softball teams at Creighton and New Mexico, where she majored in exercise science, before earning a master's degree in kinesiology from LSU in 2012. She moved to the Netherlands in 2018 to study at Vrije Universiteit for her master's in human movement sciences with a focus on biomechanics. While there, she also joined the coaching staffs of the Dutch national baseball and softball teams. As part of the research requirement for her second master's degree, she worked as a baseball and development fellow since August at Driveline Baseball in Kent, Washington.
Balkovec sat down with MiLB.com to discuss her journey, the new post and what it means to her to be a trailblazer.
MiLB.com: Let's start at the beginning. Why baseball?
Balkovec: I don't always tell this story, but I think I've been telling it a lot more now because I think it's important to my background. But, basically, I was playing softball in college and I was dating a baseball player who played at the same college and he ended up getting drafted. So as I was starting my career in strength and conditioning, I was watching him go through the Minor Leagues. And also just, like, understanding this huge onion and I became ultra fascinated with it, especially the Latin American operations part of it. I had no idea, as I assume most people don't, I had no idea about all the layers and complexities of professional baseball, especially the Minor Leagues. So through his career, I started to understand a lot more about what that meant and also what opportunities might be there for me in strength and conditioning as I was getting my career going.
Even things like traveling to the Dominican Republic to watch him play in Winter League and also then working for his winter ball team. You know, those opportunities are kind of funny because it started with a boyfriend, however it just gave me a really interesting lens -- you know, the player's perspective almost -- before I actually got into baseball as an interim strength and conditioning coach with the Cardinals. … So softball background, but I ultimately had no idea about professional baseball until that experience.
MiLB.com: With a start in strength and conditioning, what went into making the transition to a hitting instructor's role?
Balkovec: I view it -- and I think it's starting to be viewed moreso -- as it's just the human body, right? So I've been training the human body to do certain skills and movements for 10 years, and now I'm just training it to swing. So that's still teaching the human body and coaching people how to do a certain movement. More specifically, especially with Dillon Lawson being the Minor League hitting coordinator with the Yankees, he actually turned me on to something really fascinating which they're doing with some eye-tracking stuff and just more visual stuff going on, and I really dove into that. And so I became really interested in that when he was with the Astros. And so he was a mentor of mine with the Astros -- in my ear about hitting all the time -- I started to get that ball rolling and I knew I wanted to get looking into the future a little bit closer to the field, player evaluation, understanding coaching the skill on-field a little bit more.
So that's just a long way to say, basically, I don't think for me personally it's that big of a transition. I've been coaching for 10 years, now I'm just coaching something different. And now it's going to allow me to get closer to that on-field performance and dealing with some mental aspects of the game. You know, guy's in a slump, etc. It's just the next step of challenges for me.
MiLB.com: Any idea what your day-to-day will look like?
Balkovec: Yes. I would imagine it will be similar to things I've experienced in the past in professional baseball where you show up at the field, and there might be some early work with guys in the cages, getting into batting practice or possibly some defense situations, you know, those kinds of things. And then, a game day, which everyone knows pretty well. So, yeah, I believe it will be pretty standard to what I've experienced in the past.
MiLB.com: Any specific affiliates or levels?
Balkovec: I will be with the Gulf Coast League and also roving to the Dominican Republic a bit -- as I have done in the past.
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MiLB.com: I heard that you taught yourself Spanish. How did you go about that and how has it helped you?
Balkovec: Well, I wouldn't say that I taught myself Spanish. I always like to say that the kids taught me Spanish. So, just to be clear, I have no background in Spanish, with the exception of the high school Spanish that everyone forgets. So it really just ended up being as I showed up to the job I realized pretty quickly that -- well, they always say it doesn't matter what you know if you can't communicate it, and in a very literal sense you cannot communicate -- there's a language barrier. And so I just knew that if I wanted to be in professional baseball long-term, and also I just loved the Latin American-operation side of things, that learning Spanish was going to be a must. And also, most importantly in my opinion, it really created off-the-bat, when I was young in my career, a relationship between the Latin players and I because I'm learning Spanish as they're learning English and it created kind of a point of vulnerability where they saw me really try to come to them, which made them even more open to learning and being coached by me. So it was a really great point of creating a relationship with them early on and just, they taught me everything. … The players were my Rosetta stone.
MiLB.com: What was it like to learn that you were hired by the Yankees?
Balkovec: You know, what's great is that Dillon has been such a mentor to me that it was, just like, this peaceful -- I want to make sure I use the right words here -- it was a very, like, this is a great fit. I know he cares deeply about me as a person and I like personal development, and I knew there's going to be a lot of support for me because I am going to make mistakes. There is going to be a learning curve. My coaching experience in hitting to this point has been working in the Netherlands with their national softball and baseball teams, but this is going to be another step up. And so, having him there as a support, and then also with Kevin Reese, Andrew Wright, all these guys that I've been interviewing with and talking to, and just having them as support, honestly, it's just almost like home. It's like, "OK, this is a great opportunity, not just from a job perspective, but from a familiar perspective that I know I'm going to have support and that they're going to be able to be excellent mentors to me as I start out."
MiLB.com: And with it being the Yankees, with their history and popularity, does that make it any more meaningful for you?
Balkovec: It does. I think it just speaks really well of the Yankees that sometimes you might view the Yankees or other organizations that also have really deep histories in baseball to be very traditional. But I think this is just a great of example of how they are really pushing the boundaries. And not just by, oh, hiring a woman, but they're aggressively making some moves in their player development system that it just speaks to what kind of organization they are. So not only do they have this deep tradition and, yes, that means a lot to me to be considered as a candidate, but also like, wow, they're doing some really amazing things with developing their farm system and making progressive changes there.
MiLB.com: What challenge ahead of you are looking forward to tackling most?
Balkovec: Ummm, throwing batting practice?
No, but, what I'd really like -- and again I've already mentioned that I have a deep history of understanding the body -- and I feel like if I'm confident in any area of this job, that would be it. Swing mechanics are right up my alley; this is something I feel very confident in. So what I'm looking forward to is sitting next to the manager and also leaning on the other hitting coaches that will be there for game strategy and approach. Those are things that I just haven't thought about since I was playing softball in college and so there will be a learning curve there, and I'm really looking forward to diving into the mental aspect of approaching the game.
MiLB.com: Anything you're afraid of?
Balkovec: That is a good question.
Afraid? That's a hard word. The dominant emotion I'm feeling right now is excitement, and I think there's some nervousness with that, but I don't know. I don't want to say I'm not afraid of anything, but fear is just not the thing that comes to mind. It's excitement.
MiLB.com: Do you want to be viewed as a trailblazer or just be another hitting coach?
Balkovec: Well, I think that I'm a part of a wave of women that have … look, I am standing on the shoulders of women that have … like, talk about [Yankees senior vice president and assistant general manager] Jean Afterman. Wow. So I really can't say, 'Oh, I'm a trailblazer.' I am benefiting from many other women. Even though this is the first time this is happening, there are many other women who have come before me in sports in general and also in baseball and even more specifically with the Yankees, and so do I want to be viewed as a trailblazer? No. I want to be a part of a bigger celebration of what's already happened in the game to allow me to be here.
And I'm happy, definitely, to be a part of being a visible idea for young women or people that want to get into sports or, more specifically, baseball. So, I'm happy to serve as that; however, a trailblazer might be a little aggressive, especially given the fact that I will be working alongside or be able to be in close quarters with someone like Jean Afterman. That's a trailblazer to me.
So, yeah, those things are definitely on my mind as young women reach out and have reached out throughout my career in baseball, so it's on my mind. I understand the responsibility, but I'm not the trailblazer by any means.
And then the second part of that -- or do I just want to be viewed as a good hitting coach? It's both. Both things are very important. Being a hitting coach, being in baseball, being in sports, I always say, that's the vehicle, that's the outlet that I've had the opportunity to use in my life to do other things. First and foremost, empowering these athletes to grow as young men and not necessarily just hitting a white ball. That's not necessarily my purpose in life, to make someone hit a ball better. It's to help these young men grow personally. And so those are the anecdotes I would add there.
Both of those things you mentioned are in play, but more importantly, it's about being bigger than baseball. It's more than just being in the cage, it's opening up opportunities for young women, it's helping these young men develop into possibly the next wave and making sure that they have a positive experience through sport and that we're affecting a much larger demographic than just, "OK, now we're going to hit this ball and try to be a good baseball player."
Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RobTnova24.