Young girls are often instilled with the belief that they can do anything they conjure up. That’s how we try to raise them. In an ideal world, this is certainly true, but in reality, it can be a bit more complicated. Big dreams can definitely lead to success, but when it comes to roles traditionally reserved for men, women are routinely challenged and discouraged. Equality in the workplace has a long way to go despite the progress that has been made. Men still out-earn their female counterparts and women are frequently excluded from employment in predominantly male professions. In athletics, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles, despite their increased participation in professional sports. Rachel Balkovec, the recently named manager of the New York Yankees’s Class A Minor League team, the Tampa Tarpons, and the first full-time female manager in the history of affiliated baseball, aims to change all that.
If you haven’t yet heard of Balkovec, her story is one of incredible hard work and laser-focused determination, a master class in what it takes to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal. It all started with a dream of working in professional baseball. She credits her parents for raising her and her two sisters to believe that nothing was impossible. As she explained, “me being naive is a testament to my upbringing. I literally didn’t know that it wasn’t possible [to have a job in men’s sports].” It was this mindset that propelled her on a course with many twists, turns and dead-ends, which shaped who she is today.
Born in 1987, Balkovec grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. A softball, soccer and basketball-playing high school athlete, she attended University of New Mexico where she was catcher for its Division I softball team. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, she earned a master’s degree in kinesiology at Louisiana State University and a second master’s in human movement sciences at Vrje University in the Netherlands. At age 23, she set her sights on baseball after becoming fascinated by the US minor league system and the lengthy process that minor league players, particularly those from Latin America, experience to get to the next level. When googling baseball jobs, she noticed they were all targeted towards men. Without knowing exactly what she was up against, and filled with enthusiasm, Balkovec was determined to find a job in baseball.
In 2012, she secured an internship as a temporary contract strength and conditioning coach for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Johnson City, TN minor league affiliate. When that job ended, she waitressed while trying to parlay her experience and background into a full-time baseball job. . After submitting applications to 8-10 different teams in Phoenix and despite having a phenomenal résumé, including internships as a strength and conditioning coach at ASU, LSU and the Cardinals, she was surprised she didn’t get a single response. Then, in the middle of Spring Training, she was offered a job by a baseball team with an immediate need to hire, but was subsequently ghosted prior to receiving the paperwork. After relentlessly following up, she was told that the team wouldn’t hire her because she was a woman.
At her sister’s suggestion, she changed the name on her résumé from Rachel to Ray and also revised her résumé’s college athletics experience from Division I “softball” catcher to “college” catcher. Finally, some action, but when prospective employers heard her voice on the phone, she was only offered potential jobs in women’s sports.
Fueled by the steam of rejection, Balkovec became even more determined to find a way into baseball. “During that year in 2013, I got 8 different calls from colleges–all for women’s sports– and I thought ‘wait a second.’ At some point it became a thorn in my side because I felt doomed to limited to women’s sports’ which really bothered me–not because it was women’s sports–after all, I was a college softball player and really owe everything to the foundation of being a competitive athlete in a women’s sport–but I just thought ‘ok, if I have this great résumé and I can’t even get hired, what about the next women who come along…with similar résumés, faced with the same lack of options? So it became a purpose, a little chip on my shoulder.” Balkovec’s competitive spirit propelled her to try to overcome the gender discrimination she faced in her job search: “I thought, this is what’s going on in the world and I’ve gotta change it. And I really felt that way even in 2013.”
With only $14 in the bank, she set out for Boston and another unpaid internship, which required her to sleep in her car. Then the St. Louis Cardinals called and offered her a job as a coordinator. This was her big break. “I just reflect on those times and it’s unbelievable that I’m sitting here talking to you right now. I’m just so glad I didn’t give up.”
It’s important to note that while Balkovec’s indomitable persistence eventually got her what she wanted, it was an incredible work ethic that made her successful. In an effort to connect with Spanish-speaking players in the minor leagues, Balkovec determined early on to learn Spanish to better communicate with them. The players responded. “They saw me being vulnerable and they got to make fun of me and they got to coach me…it changes the dynamic where they can help me with something and I’m helping them; it really helps to build a relationship. And really I knew right away when I got into baseball that was one of the first things that I needed to do to connect with them and now 10 years later it’s still serving me.”
Could baseball see a female player in the future? Balkovec acknowledges, through her strength and conditioning background, that there are differences between men and women, but, she says, “if a woman is good enough, if she can throw the ball hard enough or with enough movement…I think we’re at a time where that could be accepted.”
When asked what she wants young girls to take away from her personal story, Balkovec says “It’s gonna be hard…this is a little counterintuitive, but I’m glad I was discriminated against. By the time I was full-time I had done 6-7 internships in multiple different places, I was super prepared and obviously the life experience of going through that changed me forever. I’m glad my path was difficult and it still serves me to this day. And so if you’re feeling like you’re not welcome or it’s a difficult path, good. Try to look at yourself and go ‘this is going to be good for me in the future even if it doesn’t feel good in the moment.’” She believes in never giving up even when things get hard. “I want to say thank you to people who have discriminated against me because it changed me as a person and as difficult as it was, I’m very glad I experienced that.”
There are many lessons to be learned from the way Balkovec got to where she is today. She identified a goal, crafted a plan, put in the hard work, and never gave up even when things got tough. She serves as inspiration to young girls everywhere who will surely be watching and cheering her on from the sidelines and perhaps, someday, even from the field as she navigates her bright career in baseball. For Rachel Balkovec, the field has no limit.
Jennifer is a seasoned marketing and advertising professional who currently works as a senior marketing consultant and freelance writer/blogger for clients in the beauty, fashion, food & beverage, healthcare and financial industries. Her career highlights include her role as Marketing Director at Revlon where she spent 10 years managing and leading some of the most successful cosmetics and fragrance brands in the world. She also led the marketing at MD SolarSciences and worked at top advertising agencies DDB Needham and Publicis. Jennifer loves helping entrepreneurs create comprehensive marketing and content strategies and donates her time to The Acceleration Project, a company that provides professional guidance to underserved small businesses.