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Another job, another milestone for Rachel Balkovec

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Women have begun shattering baseball's glass ceiling in the past couple of years. Rachel Balkovec is one of those stars. Back in 2019, she became the first woman to coach at any level in Major League Baseball when she was named hitting instructor for the Tampa Tarpons. It's a minor-league team affiliated with the New York Yankees. And this month, Balkovec has been promoted. She's now the manager of the Tarpons and the first woman, again, to reach that level.

Rachel Balkovec joins me now. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

RACHEL BALKOVEC: Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.

KHALID: So I guess as long as your baseball career keeps going, it seems like making history is kind of like your thing now, right? It's like your new normal at every step.

BALKOVEC: Yeah. I kind of - when I told my family, they were like, oh, yeah, yeah. Like, OK. You do this every couple years, so it's not a big deal. But, I mean, yeah.

KHALID: They're like, those headlines...

BALKOVEC: Yeah.

KHALID: No big deal.

BALKOVEC: Yeah. I mean, previous to being a head coach, I was a strength and conditioning coach, and that was really the dark days where there were no women around. And I was hired full time in 2014 as a strength coach in professional baseball.

And then now it's kind of like there are more women around, and for me, it seems more normal. But of course, the public perception is always a little bit different.

KHALID: I want to step back. I mean, for some of our listeners who may not be super-familiar with you, you played catcher for your college softball team. And as I understand it, you didn't love baseball all that much at first. And if that is true, I am incredibly curious how this career happened.

BALKOVEC: It is true. But also, I still wouldn't even say I'm a baseball fan, and I think that's maybe jarring to a few people's ears. But what really fascinated me is something that I think more people should know about - is the minor league system. And so when I was first getting, you know, going in my career, I was at LSU as a strength and conditioning coach.

KHALID: And this was at LSU, Louisiana State University.

BALKOVEC: Yep. So I was 23, and I was working with six different teams, including baseball and softball. And, you know, a lot of those guys get drafted from LSU. And just hearing the guys that would come back, their stories of the minor league experiences and eating hot dogs before the games and training in YMCAs in random towns in the country - and I just thought, wow. Like, I had no idea, even as a college softball player, the extensive, incredibly long and twisting journey that these athletes go through. I want to really reach these guys at the lower levels, you know, when they're coming up and really struggling with things and trying to figure out not only baseball but who they are as a person.

KHALID: So what has it been like for you to get to this point, to this level? I know that you have said there were times when you changed your name from Rachel to Ray on your resume and then suddenly started getting calls when you weren't getting any callbacks previously. Just what has it been like to get here?

BALKOVEC: It was a twisting, turning, too-long-for-this-conversation-to-explain path to get here. I've many times thought about quitting, you know? But obviously there's moments and obviously, you know, especially now as things have changed so much in regards to opportunities for women but also just celebrating women in sports that I'm glad I didn't quit.

KHALID: You know, the dynamic for women has certainly changed in the last couple of years. I'm thinking of in 2020, Kim Ng was hired as general manager of the Florida Marlins. Last month Sarah Goodrum became director of player development for the Houston Astros. And I certainly don't want to lump you all together because, no doubt, you are doing distinct jobs. But it does feel like collectively, maybe you're part of a movement, whether that's intentional or not.

BALKOVEC: I mean, I'm OK saying that I am. It's not like I got into this career field to create a movement, but it's fine. Like, this is something that I like to be. It's an honor. It's a privilege to be at the front of something, and it was wildly important for me to have visible ideas of what was possible when I was coming up. And so for me to do that for somebody else is an honor, and it's a responsibility that I'm happy to have.

KHALID: Tampa Tarpons manager Rachel Balkovec, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us - really appreciate it.

BALKOVEC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.