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Meet the women who help define the Yankees

Three trailblazers who are shaping baseball in the Bronx.

“2009 World Series Film” New York Screening Photo by Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images

Much has been made of “the Yankee way” since George Steinbrenner bought the team, from their facial hair policy to their iconic branding to their ineffable mystique. But a common and often overlooked thread runs through the years of the Steinbrenner family’s reign: the impact women have made — and continue to make — in shaping the team’s culture. Here are three who help define just what it means to be a Yankees fan.

Suzyn Waldman

After more than three decades living and breathing every pitch, Suzyn Waldman has become a Yankees institution.

Waldman’s voice became the first to ever grace the airwaves for WFAN in 1987, then just a fledgling network. Waldman used her overnight time slot there to her advantage, inventing the role of the radio beat reporter and scooping other outlets, whose stories had to wait to be published in the next day’s paper.

She parlayed that into a full-time gig covering the team, which eventually opened the door to the broadcast booth, where she’s become part of the fabric of Yankees fandom for generations of listeners.

Along the way, she also became the first full-time female color commentator in Major League Baseball, earned a nomination for the National Radio Hall of Fame, and saw her old microphone displayed behind glass in Cooperstown.

Prior to her broadcasting career, Waldman worked for many years as an actress and singer in musical theater on Broadway. Later she returned to school to study broadcast journalism, the first step of a career change for the longtime baseball fan.

The rest of her journey to her place in Yankees radio history wasn’t always peachy. Certain players and fellow reporters were openly resentful of her presence in a traditionally male-dominated arena, and some fans were openly hostile. She received hate mail and even death threats, moving George Steinbrenner, an ally Waldman had won with her own toughness, to task Yankees security with her protection.

Whatever injustices she endured, and still endures, listeners wouldn’t know it from her broadcasts. To this day she retains her boundless enthusiasm and her chemistry with play-by-play man John Sterling, with whom she has called games on WFAN since 2005.

As the cherry on top of her achievements in the broadcast booth, Waldman also played a key role in a piece of Yankees lore. In 1999, she orchestrated the meeting between Yogi Berra and George Steinbrenner that helped the iconic catcher forgive Steinbrenner for firing him by proxy just 16 games into the 1985 season. Their reunion ultimately led to Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium, the setting for David Cone’s perfect game that July.

Jean Afterman

When Brian Cashman’s career is evaluated, it will be inseparable from the work done behind the scenes by Jean Afterman, still one of the highest-ranking women in all of baseball.

Hired as the Yankees’ assistant general manager in 2001, Afterman replaced Kim Ng, another trailblazing woman who worked with Cashman. Afterman — a lawyer, and like Waldman a theater performer — impressed both Cashman and George Steinbrenner with her legal work.

Her firm helped players in Japanese baseball navigate the complicated contracts and empowered them to move stateside, working with future Yankees like Hideki Irabu and Alfonso Soriano. And once she’d become part of the team, Afterman was instrumental in recruiting future World Series MVP Hideki Matsui.

She quickly became an indispensable asset in parsing the complexities of every rich Yankees contract. And while some speculate that Afterman, who has also added senior vice president to her title, is perfectly suited to assume a job as a general manager for a different club, she has insisted she’s content with present her role.

Whether she ever lands in another position, Afterman’s legacy seems secure, and not just among the Yankees faithful. In 2019, Baseball America honored Afterman with its first-ever Trailblazer Award for her unique achievements.

Rachel Balkovec

Back in November of 2019, Balkovec became the first woman ever hired as a full-time hitting coach for a MLB team. Along with other recent Yankees hires like Matt Blake, Balkovec represents the data-driven vanguard of baseball’s coaching ranks.

A former catcher on the softball teams at Creighton University and New Mexico, Balkovec had to excise the word “softball” and change her name to “Rae” on her job applications to generate interest from teams. That’s when the Cardinals came calling.

She got her start in coaching in 2012, with a temporary contract with the Johnson City Cardinals, the St. Louis affiliate in the Appalachian League. Though her deal wasn’t permanent, the impression she left was — she won the league’s strength coach of the year award in her time there. The Cardinals offered Balkovec another opportunity in 2014, when she became the first woman to hold a full-time strength and conditioning position at any MLB-affiliated level.

Balkovec moved to Houston in 2016, to be the team’s Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator, having taught herself Spanish to better communicate with players. And by 2018, she’d become the strength and conditioning coach for the Astros’ Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks.

True to form, she didn’t rest on her laurels. Balkovec left Houston in the fall of 2018 to earn a master’s degree in human movement sciences, adding to her first master’s in kinesiology. She then began work at Driveline Baseball, a performance training center in Washington State. That’s when the Yankees swooped in.

Though the early days of her career in pinstripes have been interrupted by coronavirus, she hasn’t stopped working. Recently, Balkovec started fundraising efforts with a GoFundMe page to help those affected by the pandemic.

And while Balkovec can’t match their decades-long involvement with the team, she does share a key trait with Waldman and Afterman: she fits the mold of a true Yankees pioneer — a woman whose talent and determination to succeed can help drive the organization to new heights.