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Balkovec 'highly aware' of impact of her debut

Single-A Tampa skipper becomes first female manager, gets 'W'
April 9, 2022

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rachel Balkovec only made it about 50 steps onto the field at Joker Marchant Stadium on Friday afternoon before a group of fans waved her over to offer congratulations and ask for an autograph. Then she continued up the first-base line toward the visitors’ dugout, where she

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rachel Balkovec only made it about 50 steps onto the field at Joker Marchant Stadium on Friday afternoon before a group of fans waved her over to offer congratulations and ask for an autograph.

Then she continued up the first-base line toward the visitors’ dugout, where she repeated the process for another eager group, this time also posing for several candid shots before breaking away to head back to the clubhouse.

Balkovec’s managerial debut for the Yankees’ Single-A affiliate Tampa Tarpons was still an hour away at that point, but she understood that this, too, was going to be a big part of her job.

And the first full-time female manager in affiliated baseball history was just fine with that.

“I'm definitely aware [of my impact],” Balkovec said Friday morning. “Thankfully, I've had about 10 years to prepare for something like this. So, it's been ongoing throughout the years of all young women reaching out, overwhelmingly reaching out, girl dads reaching out.

“I'm definitely highly aware of it and it definitely drives my action, pretty much every day, honestly.”

More than a decade of hard work and barrier-breaking landed Balkovec in the manager’s seat for the Tarpons, who opened their season with a 9-6 win against the Lakeland Flying Tigers on Friday night. She’s experienced plenty of firsts during her 10-year professional coaching career -- and heard at least twice as many “no's” -- as she rose through the ranks, from strength and conditioning roles to hitting coach gigs to her most recent promotion. The naysayers might have altered her course a time or two, but Balkovec never wavered in her conviction, admitting she’s been told “no” for most of her life.

Girls aren’t supposed to do that. Girls can’t have that role.

Her refusal to accept those answers dates back to her childhood. Balkovec was a tomboy and a “very aggressive athlete,” announcing with conviction in fourth grade that she would be the first female kicker in the NFL.

“I don't know why I said I wanted to be the first female something,” she said, “but I guess I was seeing in the future.”

Fast-forward to Friday night, when Balkovec -- who was also the first woman to be hired as a full-time strength and conditioning coach in affiliated baseball -- joined the ranks of some pretty impressive trailblazers, the most recent of which was Kelsie Whitmore, who on Friday became one of the first women to sign a contract with a team in an MLB Partner League.

“It's pretty special,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Thursday. “She's earned her way over there and she commands a lot of respect and has earned that on the player-development side by her impact on players in a lot of different areas. …

“Those kids so look up to her and respect her. It's something that she certainly earned, is certainly ready for, and I'm excited to see her go lead a team. I know she's really looking forward to it."

It hasn’t always been smooth going, Balkovec conceded. But the standing ovation given to her from the crowd during pregame lineup announcements and the cheers from the 2,893 in attendance Friday night -- many from the nearly 1,200 female student athletes in attendance who received free entry thanks to a donation from the Detroit Tigers Foundation -- was proof that Balkovec’s latest victory served a purpose much bigger than even her own.

"I had to make some really difficult decisions in my career to keep going. If you're asking me why I did that, I ... just like you have to look at yourself and go, 'What is my purpose on this planet? And if I don't do this, who else is going to come behind me and do it?'

"I know that I'm capable of doing this. I know that I'm the right person for it. I know that I'm a woman, I know that I can get respect in any room that I walk into, so [to quit would be] disrespectful to other women who've come behind me and done that for me. So that's why I've kept going."

That can-do attitude inspires her team, which rode a seventh-inning grand slam from Anthony Garcia to victory on Opening Day. More than the big knock though, left fielder Ryder Green said, there was a sense of duty shared among the players to deliver for their leader.

“I think that [tonight] was a moment that we all understood what we needed to do,” he said. “We were going to go out there and do everything we could to get a dub for her.”

It was evident from the beginning that Friday was no ordinary Florida State League season opener. When the second pitch of the game was fouled off into the Flying Tigers’ dugout, it was quickly shuffled down a line that ended with a baseball authenticator, who slapped a sticker on it and recorded its receipt in his book to commemorate the moment.

Any other night, they’d have flipped that ball into the crowd for a souvenir.

But Friday wasn’t any other night. That ball was headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., much like a load of other mementos from her historic night, including her game-worn jersey and hat.

“It was an honor to play in the game,” said Jasson Dominguez, the Yankees’ No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline. “I’ll never forget this day. Never.”

Wrapping up a whirlwind day that began more than 12 hours earlier, Balkovec allowed herself a moment to appreciate the journey.

“I’ve never heard my name chanted like that,” she said with a smile. “It’s like, I see me sitting in the stands, 15 or 20 years ago, and so it’s just really cool. Especially for all those young female athletes that came out; it was just very cool that they’re here in this moment.

“And maybe they don’t even fully understand it right now, but I think in the future when they get into their professional careers and maybe hit some brick walls that they’ll hopefully reflect on this moment.”

Dawn Klemish_ is a reporter/editor for based in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @Sportsgal25.