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Yankees make history after hiring first female manager in the minor leagues

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The New York Yankees made history this week. Yesterday, they introduced Rachel Balkovec as the new manager of their minor league team in Tampa. The 34-year-old will be the first-ever full-time female manager for a major league team or one of its minor league affiliates. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Baseball reporters love history, which Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo noted as he introduced Rachel Balkovec.

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JASON ZILLO: Obviously, that's why we have 112 participants on this Zoom call.

GOLDMAN: Everyone was eager to meet the manager. Baseball's made other historic female hires of late. In 2020, Kim Ng became the first major league general manager, Alyssa Nakken the first full-time major league coach. But Balkovec will be the first on-field boss - setting lineups, strategizing, running the show for the Tampa Tarpons. She knows wins and losses aren't as important in the minors as development.

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RACHEL BALKOVEC: My goal is, really, to know the names of the girlfriends, the dogs, the families of all the players. My goal is to develop them as young men and young people who have an immense amount of pressure on them.

GOLDMAN: Minor leaguers grind far from the fame and fortune of the majors. The Tarpons will find a kindred spirit in their new manager.

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BALKOVEC: Three years ago, on this day, I was sleeping on a mattress that I had pulled out of a dumpster in Amsterdam.

GOLDMAN: That was while she was studying for a second master's degree, this one in the Netherlands. A former college softball catcher, Balkovec has spent 10 years in baseball as a strength and conditioning coach and hitting instructor with several major league organizations, including the Yankees, who hired her in 2019 as a minor league hitting coach. Baseball's also taken her to Australia and the Dominican Republic.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GOLDMAN: Along the way, Balkovec learned Spanish to better communicate with baseball's many Latino players.

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BALKOVEC: I knew right away when I got in 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.

GOLDMAN: Despite her impressive resume, Balkovec discovered baseball wasn't always a meritocracy when it came to females. Years ago, she was in Arizona job-hunting during spring training. She was told she wouldn't be hired because she was a woman. Her sister came up with an idea - apply for the baseball jobs with the name Rae. Balkovec says she got a lot of positive responses until one team called her and realized Rae was Rachel. The team never called back.

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BALKOVEC: At the end of the day, you just have to look yourself in the mirror and be like, well, you know, if they don't want to hire me because I'm a woman, I probably don't want to work for those people. And if this takes years, then it takes years.

GOLDMAN: Balkovec doesn't sugarcoat the experiences of discrimination and loneliness. Her message to young women hoping to succeed in male-dominated worlds - expect it and use it.

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BALKOVEC: This is a little counterintuitive, but I'm glad I was discriminated against. If you're feeling like you're not welcome or it's a difficult path, good. You know, 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.

GOLDMAN: Yankees executive Kevin Reese said before Balkovec got her new job, there wasn't much debate about baseball being ready for a first female manager.

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KEVIN REESE: This is just putting a really good employee into an elevated position and hoping that it's going to go really well, you know, just like it is with every hire.

GOLDMAN: Of course, every hire doesn't get a congratulatory message from women's sports legend Billie Jean King, a message that prompted Balkovec to laughingly say yesterday, I can die now. But really, she can't; she's got a baseball team to run.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE KIDS' "QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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