Rachel Balkovec: Manager of Tampa Tarpons

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Somewhere in Tampa Bay, driving down the road from Tampa to Clearwater, Fla., Rachel Balkovec asked the two senior Yankees in the back seat if they had ever seen a soft ball.

Antonio Gomez, 20, a Venezuelan businessman, said he did. Jasson Dominguez, 19, one of the highest paid baseball players, said he too – but they were men playing at home in the Dominican Republic. No more women playing college football.

“We’re about to see what female athletes look like,” said Balkovec, 34.

It was at dinner with the players the same week in mid-February, long before the brief season began, Balkovec realized that he probably did not know much about his background.

He knows he’s a unicorn – the first woman to become a professional baseball manager – but he doesn’t know much about softball, a game Balkovec played in college before his trial so far. That’s why Balkovec, the manager of Tampa Tarpons, an ally of the A-lower Yankees team, had an idea: take Dominguez and Gomez to a preseason softball tournament near the Yankees spring training ground.

Balkovec’s recruitment has been a difficult time in men’s baseball-dominated sports. Countless women can relate to the rejection of the jobs she received, which led to her starting her own CV (having a master’s degree in sports management and pursuing a second, biomechanics), her low pay and longevity. a way to run a baseball team.

She has broken the glass roof during her 10 years working in professional baseball: the first woman to have a full-time role as a team coordinator and co-ordinator (by St. Louis Cardinals in 2014); the first woman to become a full-time mentor to beat a big team (with the Yankees in 2019); and now the first female supervisor. Along the way, Balkovec has opened the eyes of the people. Spending four hours Saturday evening taking Dominguez and Gomez to a softball game was a recent example.

“I did not have a career in this sport, but I was a great athlete,” said Balkovec, who plays softball team at Creighton University and New York University. “And in the Dominican Republic, for example, you rarely see women. In fact, almost never. And they don’t find it, so I want to show them.

Balkovec made the remarks while driving to get Dominguez and Gomez to a hotel in the Yankees where they exercise. On a 30 minute walk to St. Pete / Clearwater Elite Invitational, talked about the challenges of softball, its inception in professional baseball in 2012 (working as a receptionist at the Marucci arms company early in the morning and, very early in the morning, as a power and conditioning intern for Cardinals) and the reason of their journey in the first place.

“I’m here because Rachel always has a good attitude,” Gomez said in English – following Balkovec’s command to make the two players speak their second language. (Balkovec, from Nebraska, often responded in Spanish, which he learned from Latin American players over the years.)

All evening, the players learned a lot about Balkovec, who made him the manager on April 8, as well as what he stood for. As he rode the trolley from the parking lot to the football fields, Balkovec explained why he was comfortable talking to his players away from the stadium.

As a young fitness and fitness trainer, he said he would take players to the supermarket to teach them how to eat well, but would not take them out to eat. He called those days “Wild West” because there were no other women in baseball. He also said that people are afraid that there will be a romantic relationship with the players, and that they will not wear treadmill or tank tops around them.

“She’s very thoughtful, and in any case – the coach, the manager, my manager at work – first, if you love someone and trust them, you’re ready to do whatever they want,” Balkovec’s sister Stephanie said in a telephone interview. “For a long time in his early days, I scolded him because he was not allowed to see him as a person.

But, Balkovec said, as he grew up, his friends and players got to know him better and people changed (gradually, more and more women were working in baseball). He did not worry about the appearance of the clothes because the things that were important to him were obvious. He does not see himself as a manager and as a living coach to his players, especially Latin Americans who face special challenges. She not only talks to her players about how to adjust their wheels and bodies, but also becomes strong or compassionate when needed, and tells them stories such as their outward goals and how they should respect women.

“That’s what Rachel is, someone who cares a lot about the boys, and it’s usually not traditional, like, ‘Oh, let’s go to a baseball game to talk about this boy’s slider’ or ‘Let’s see a video. , ‘”Said Kevin Reese, Yankees vice president for player development, in a telephone interview. “This is where you will get the benefit of Rachel because she sees things a little differently in life and has a lot of positives.”

As soon as he got off the race trolley, the enthusiast recognized Balkovec. Gomez and Dominguez laughed to themselves but were impressed.

This went on all night. When the trio skipped between the one-time game of the University of Texas-UCLA and Michigan-Louisiana State, Balkovec was suspended at least six times for making an autograph or photograph, including a young girls’ softball team. This happened to Gomez and Dominguez, a well-known figure who signed with the Yankees for $ 5 million at the age of 16, plus three times.

“Rachel is so popular!” Gomez said.

During the match, Dominguez and Gomez encouraged Balkovec with questions or observations. They pointed to changes they liked. They enjoyed it after the big game. (At one point, Gomez connected with Texas music lovers.) They filmed and filmed the game. They said the world network was broadcasting the game. They were amazed at the jars and wondered if they would hit a soft ball. Dominguez called the game more fun and fast-paced than baseball.

“They’re so good!” Gomez said. Dominguez, who has never seen women’s soccer, added, “I have learned that women are very capable. I never thought in my life to see women do this, throw so hard and play like this. “

After the Texas-UCLA match, Dominguez and Gomez followed Balkovec to say hello to the UCLA coaches they know.

Balkovec introduced his players to Kelly Inouye-Perez, UCLA head coach. Gomez wanted a photo with the UCLA team, and Dominguez, initially shy, soon left. Inouye-Perez told his team about the new Balkovec game.

“The interesting thing is that she is responsible, and it says a lot about the opportunities for us as women and to be a female leader and for the Yankees,” she said. “So what?”

On the other hand, Inouye-Perez explained that his team has been fond of Balkovec for some time. And when Balkovec was promoted, Lisa Fernandez, a UCLA supporter and three-time Olympic gold medalist, sent her a text message, forgetting that Balkovec had her number.

“’Yes, Rachel. This is Lisa Fernandez, the UCLA coach, and I’m so happy for you, ‘”Balkovec recalled. “And I said, ‘Lisa, you don’t have to tell me who you are! I was with your boyfriend when I was a kid.’

Inouye-Perez asked for a photo with Gomez and Dominguez “so when you go to the major leagues, you’ll remember who I am.” As he stood, Inouye-Perez called to Balkovec, “Come in, Coach.”

“Sirs,” Gomez replied with a smile.

On his way back to Tampa, Balkovec had a few thoughts of separating his players.

First, he told Dominguez and Gomez about an animal he expected to see in the coming Tarpons season: players lost their phones in the living room instead of chatting with each other.

Second, he wanted to sow seed. One of the things he dreamed of becoming a general manager one day, he told them, was because he wanted to renovate talent pipes from Latin America. Although MLB teams had training programs, they saw that there was not enough emphasis on making players as human beings. He also saw the potential for sign-ups in international sports. He asked for their opinion.

Then Balkovec told them about his dream that they all went to college. Gomez called it his Plan B.

He said: “If you are a good baseball player, and you make a lot of money, that’s it,” he later added, “You have to do a lot. Go to school. Be different. And the difference in this business and putting value on things other than money, women, going out – is very common. ”

“It’s an easy life,” Gomez said. But then he offered his opinion. He told Balkovec about how he grew up with more opportunities in the United States than he did in Venezuela. He explained how, when he was 12, his father asked him if he wanted to focus on school or baseball, and he made the final decision. “It is a different matter,” she continued. We were not born here. ”

“I know what you are saying, but now you have arrived,” he replied. “You have less money and more security, so you can start thinking about other things than this.” Then he added: “I know you’re young. Nothing. It’s something you have to think about in your life. What are you doing here? Just playing football? What is your purpose in this world? ”

“I don’t know,” Gomez said. “Baseball is still tough.”

The conversation took place when Balkovec became the parking lot of their hotel. After stopping, Gomez and Dominguez said goodbye and added some of what a few baseball managers can hear from their players.

“Rachel, I love you,” Gomez said. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” added Dominguez. “I love you.”

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