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Fans cheer as first female manager in the minors, Rachel Balkovec, leads Tarpons to win in debut

Woman talks at a microphone. A monitor with an the logo of an animated tarpon is on the wall behind  her.
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Rachel Balkovec gives her first press conference as skipper of the minor league Tampa Tarpons, Friday, April 8, 2022

The 34-year-old former softball catcher, who is the first woman to manage a minor league baseball team, led the Tampa Tarpons to a 9-6 win in Friday night's season opener against the Lakeland Flying Tigers.

Rachel Balkovec may not be the highest ranking woman in professional baseball, but she has broken new ground as the first woman ever to manage a men's minor league team. Fans turned out in droves to see her historic debut Friday night at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.

"It’s kind of a big deal for a woman to be coaching a baseball team," said Lyla Chauncey, 9, who said she was attending her first baseball game and came specifically to see Balkovec.

"It really shows that if you want to do something, you can really do it. And you can do anything, if you try your hardest," she said.

Fans cheered "Let's go, Rachel," and Balkovec signed autographs before the leading her team, the low Class A Tampa Tarpons, in the season opener against the Lakeland Flying Tigers.

Lyla Chauncey, 9 wears a Slush Puppie T-shirt and her friend Kenzie Reber, 9, wears a red basketball shirt as they pose for a picture at ballpark
Kerry Sheridan/WUSF
Lyla Chauncey, 9 (left) and Kenzie Reber, 9, pose for a picture at the ballpark

At a press conference in Tampa Friday morning before the game, Balkovec recalled some of the obstacles she's faced along the way. That included getting hit in the face by a baseball during batting practice in late March, which caused significant bruising and required some time off to heal.

"I was flipping balls in the cage. And a guy just took a late swing or I put the flip in the wrong place and I took a little trip to the emergency room," she said.

"About seven days of bed rest was not ideal in the middle of spring training, while I'm trying to adjust to a new role," she said. "I'm obviously lucky to be sitting here. I'm lucky that my face looks as good as it does."

The injury came at a crucial time, just as she was getting to know a new team.

But Balkovec said she's been though this before. Her resume includes being hired as a strength and conditioning coach for a St. Louis Cardinals' minor league team in 2012, and then as the first woman to serve as a hitting coach in the minor leagues — for the New York Yankees' system in 2019 — before earning the title of skipper for the Tarpons in January.

"Every time I join an organization, there's a little bit of curiosity. So it's like, the first couple of weeks maybe there's some uncertainty or guys don't know me very well or whatever. And then within two weeks or even probably within 24 hours, they know the deal, right?" she said.

A former catcher in softball, Balkovec learned to speak Spanish in order to better communicate with players. She also has a master’s degree in sports administration and another master’s in biomechanics.

"If I can walk in front of a room, speak confidently know what I'm talking about, oh, and then I can say in Spanish too, it's like, okay, all right, this woman is about business and this is a job, she's a professional," she said. "I really think it doesn't take too long for them to figure out, you know, that I'm just a coach. And eventually, they just kind of forget and be themselves around me."

While Balkovec praised the Yankees' organization for making history again — they hired Kim Ng as assistant general manager years ago and Ng has gone on to become the first female general manager in major league baseball, overseeing the Miami Marlins — she was also frank about the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated sport.

Balkovec said one of her early inspirations was seeing Sue Falsone become the first woman to work as a physical therapist for the Dodgers in 2008.

"That was about the time when I was starting to get into baseball. And it was really impactful for me to know that there was a woman doing anything on the field at that time," Balkovec said.

"I would say the early years, for sure, is when I would say I had almost no support, in some ways, because there were no women. So things have evolved since then, obviously. I was blatantly discriminated against back then. Some people say not to say that, but it's just a part of what has happened. And also just I think it's important to say, because it lets you know how much change has happened."

Three teenage softball players wear black uniforms that say Broncos
Kerry Sheridan/WUSF
Sarah Duenas, 15 (left); Jocelynn Huddleston, 17 (middle); Amanda Bonilla, 15 (right). They play softball at Davenport High School

Plenty of women and girls came to cheer Balkovec on Friday night. Many were athletes themselves, like Sarah Duenas, a 15-year-old at Davenport High School in Polk County.

"As a softball player, I enjoy softball and baseball. And the game to me is just, I love it," said Duenas. Seeing a woman manage a men's team is "a very once in a lifetime experience," she said.

Her teammate, 17-year-old Jocelynn Huddleston, said she looks up to Balkovec.

"I admire her inspiration to young women everywhere, showing that it doesn't matter where you come from, whether you're a man or a woman, that you can do a man's job and do it better than a man. And she's really showed all of us and Florida that we can do that. And it really is inspiring for me," said Huddleston.

Huddleston, Duenas, and teammate 15-year-old Amanda Bonilla all said that kind of inspiration is needed, because there's still a lot of work to do, and many girls their age do not feel they are on equal footing with boys.

"Not even close. She has definitely broken the barrier to where it was only men managing and coaching. And it just shows us that we're not just limited because in our society, we feel very much divided and girls have to be here. And boys have to be there and her doing this. It really breaks that barrier and makes us realize that we are more equal than we realize," said Huddleston.

"It shows us that we're more than what we are," said Bonilla. "We're worthy towards ourselves and we can be independent, too."

Balkovec said she is well aware of her status as a role model to girls and women.

"It's been ongoing throughout the years. Young women reaching out, older women reaching out, girl-dads reaching out, so I'm definitely highly aware of it. And it definitely drives my actions, pretty much every day," Balkovec said at the Friday morning press conference where her mother and father were in attendance.

She praised her parents for how they raised her and her two sisters — all three girls being what Balkovec described as "aggressive athletes."

"They treated us as capable young people and not, 'Oh you're a girl. So you do this. And this is how this goes.' It was just — I really didn't know any different. I just knew I was a really competitive athlete," she said. "And I didn't really think to myself, 'Oh, well, I'm a girl. So I can't be like this.' I just thought, I want to be the best that I can be at everything."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.