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On Rachel Balkovec and women in baseball

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MLB’s desire to push Balkovec’s hiring as a feel-good story is all well and good, and hopefully it lasts.

MiLB: JUL 09 Florida Complex League - Yankees v Tigers Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As has been widely reported, the Yankees organization has hired Rachel Balkovec as the new manager of the Low-A Tampa Tarpons, making her the first woman to manage in the minor leagues. It’s an exciting milestone for the franchise and MLB as a whole, and will hopefully mark the beginning of more women receiving meaningful on-field roles with the various clubs.

As my former colleague Emma Taylor chronicled back in August, Balkovec has earned her high reputation since entering professional baseball in 2012. After starting as a strength and conditioning coach in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, she was hired by the Houston Astros as their Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator, and then became the strength and conditioning coach for their Double-A team. The Spanish that she learned for the role in Latin America is definitely an asset for anyone in baseball, and actively learning the language is a lot more than many other non-Latin managers can say they did. After joining the Yankee organization as a hitting coach for the 2020 season, the San Francisco Giants also tried to hire her.

With all of that being said, I personally view it as unfortunate that Balkovec and the few women working in front offices have to face being the standard bearer for women in the sport of baseball as a whole. If Balkovec is not a successful manager — which is possible, as it is for any hire, despite her lengthy credentials working in the minor leagues — it may very well be attributed solely to her gender not allowing her to properly connect to her players. Such an outcome would leave us wondering how long it may take for next similar opportunity to come along for someone else.

Any snafu or communication mishap she has with a player that the press catches wind of will be put under a microscope, and the average New York Post reader will suddenly declare themselves experts on gender relations in comment sections that I’m guessing will lack a little bit of nuance. Balkovec has a lot on her shoulders right now, more than just developing players. If she remains a feel-good story, that’ll be great, but if she struggles, the discourse around her could get very ugly and fast.

Hopefully that won’t be an issue, and Balkovec will successfully prepare the Tarpons players for their games and contribute to their growth, leading to her continuing to rise the ranks and see her goal of becoming a GM come true. Regardless, I do find MLB and the Yankees’ obvious delight in the positive PR this gets them to be a little tiring, and at worst even condescending — particularly given Rob Manfred and the owners’ likely desperation to save face with positive news, all while they continue to do their best to prolong a lockout.

Manfred’s statement that “Major League Baseball is committed to providing a supportive environment for women and girls” is a nice sentiment, but how exactly have they proven that? I don’t think it behooves anyone who’s been given a crumb to laugh and smile like they’ve been given a feast, and Balkovec’s promotion is just a small part of making baseball even marginally gender-equal.

One woman manager among 120 minor league teams does not a culture shift make. Except in a couple cases, players who commit domestic violence against their girlfriends or wives are welcomed back after a suspension and canned apology; posts on social media on the news about Balkovec are littered with comments about her personal appearance. I hope her promotion to manager is the start of a trend of baseball players, executives, and fans being more welcoming and inclusive to women — but I’ll believe it when I see it.