LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Cheered by many fans who came just to see her make history, Rachel Balkovec debuted with a win Friday night as the first woman to manage the affiliate of a Major League Baseball team.
Balkovec guided the New York Yankees’ Class A Tampa Tarpons over Lakeland 9-6.
“I’ve never heard my name chanted like that,” she said. “It was so much fun. Again, I just see, it’s like I see me sitting in the stands, whatever 15, 20 years ago, and so it’s just really cool.”
In the postgame high-five line, Balkovec hugged each of her players and was given the ball from the final out. She provided some mementoes, too — her jersey and hat were headed to the baseball Hall of Fame.
Before the game, the 34-year-old Balkovec signed some autographs, drew a nice ovation when she was introduced and posed for a picture at home plate.
Then it was time to get to work. She had a game to run.
A lot of those in the crowd, however, felt the moment called for even more recognition.
So as she ran from the dugout to coach first base before the top of the second inning, a chant broke out at Joker Marchant Stadium.
“Let’s go, Rachel!”
It came from a group of girls as the Tarpons played the Flying Tigers in the Florida State League.
The Detroit Tigers Foundation — the Lakeland club is an affiliate — donated tickets to female athletes in the Polk County Schools, and 1,200 were distributed.
“They’re here in this moment and maybe they don’t even fully understand it right now, but I think obviously in the future when they get into their professional careers and maybe hit some brick walls that they’ll reflect on this moment,” Balkovec said.
“Strangely, it’s like I’ve always had a very strong vision, not specifically this maybe, but I’ve always had a strong vision for my life and understood I could make a really huge impact no matter area I’m in,” she said. “I felt that from a very young age.”
Tampa broke a 4-all tie in the seventh inning on a grand slam by Anthony Garcia. The last of Balkovec’s five pitchers for the night closed out the win.
The night ended with a scheduled fireworks show, and Balkovec signed autographs for around 20 minutes afterwards for all the remaining fans who wanted one.
“100%, I’ll never forget this game, never,” Yankees highly rated prospect and Tarpons center fielder Jasson Dominguez said.
Earlier in the day, Balkovec spoke at the Yankees’ complex at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa about her journey. Her parents were in attendance as she talked to reporters.
“It’s been 10 years of just working to this point,” she said. “Things have evolved. I was blatantly discriminated against back then. Some people say not to say that, but it’s just part of what has happened, and I think it’s important to say because it lets you know how much change has happened.”
“So, blatant discrimination, that was 2010-ish, and now here we are 12 years later and I’m sitting here at a press conference as a manager,” she said.
Balkovec and the Tarpons made the 40-mile bus trip and arrived at the stadium around 90 minutes before game time.
Clad in Yankees’ road gray pants and blue Tarpons jersey and hat, Balkovec signed autographs along the right-field line and next to Tampa’s third-base side dugout as planes from the nearby Sun ‘n’ Fun Aerospace Expo buzzed overhead.
She was cheered by the crowd during the on-field pregame introductions, and shook hands with umpires Chris Argueza and Conor McKenna and Flying Tigers manager Andrew Graham during a lengthy lineup card exchange and ground rules review.
After the foursome posed for a group photo, the Flying Tigers took the field and history was made.
Balkovec has broken several barriers on her way to the position. She was the first woman to serve as a full-time minor league strength and conditioning coach, then the first to be a full-time hitting coach in the minors with the Yankees.
The Yankees announced her hiring as a minor league manager in January.
Balkovec, a former softball catcher at Creighton and New Mexico, got her first job in professional baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals as a minor league strength and conditioning coach in 2012.
Balkovec joined the Houston Astros in 2016. She was hired as the Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator and later was the strength and conditioning coach at Double-A Corpus Christi.
She joined the Yankees organization as a minor league hitting coach in 2019.
Balkovec, who missed out on her spring training managerial debut after being hit in the face by a batted ball during a drill March 22, arrived 10 minutes early for Friday’s media session.
“Overall I feel really excited,” Balkovec said. “I feel excited because it’s like, thankfully, I’m in the best-case scenario to accept a role like this because I had a lot of these players last year and I already know them.”
“I’m excited for the night because of what’s going on but also just excited for the season because it’s like, these are my guys,” she said.
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