Changing the Game

Women in MLB talk about their ambitions for the sport, for the league and for themselves as they impact every level of the business.
Abbey MastraccoContributor IApril 23, 2021

If you Google Rachel Balkovec, one of the first things you'll find is the somewhat infamous story about how she changed the name on her resume to "Rae" and took the word softball off to have it simply read, "Division I catcher."

The New York Yankees hitting coach had a loaded resume that included a master's degree, experience as a strength and conditioning coach at LSU, multiple internships with major league teams and one in the Dominican Republic. She spoke Spanish. 

But still, she was out of baseball at the time, working at Lululemon and waitressing in the Phoenix area at 27. A job offer fell through and she was told it was because she was a woman. 

"I had already worked for the Cardinals as an intern, so that's terrifying, because I already had worked in baseball, and I couldn't get an internship with the team because of my gender, or with several teams," Balkovec told Bleacher Report. "So that's why the next year, I just was so desperate."

Her sister, Stephanie, suggested changing her name on her resume. Sure enough, it worked. She received a call from a team asking for "Rae."

"My jaw dropped," she said. "They said, 'Oh, I'm looking for Rae.' I was like, 'This is she.' And then you can even audibly hear shuffling of the papers in the background. And he was like, 'Oh, sorry, I just wanted to make sure I had the right name.' And I was like, 'Yeah, it's really hard to mess up Rae.'

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"He was just shocked that it was a woman and my resume at the time. You would have never guessed that a female had accumulated that type of resume."

She changed it back soon after. She was afraid word would spread that there was a woman circulating her resume around while posing as a man. 

"I was like, 'Is he making fun of me? Is he on the phone telling his friends?'" Balkovec said. "I don't know. I'm like, 'Is he emailing people and saying, 'Watch out for this girl who's posing as a man?' Is he telling people that I'm lying?'"

Balkovec is one of many women who have experienced an uphill climb as they navigate a career in a  baseball industry where sexism and misogyny are still pervasive. 

When the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as the first woman to run a baseball operations department for a major league team, it was a watershed moment for the sport. Ng had worked in baseball for 30 years before finally earning a general manager job, and it gave hope to a growing group of women in the sport. It prompted the question of which woman could be next.

Kim Ng observes Marlins spring training ahead of her historic first season as General Manager.
Kim Ng observes Marlins spring training ahead of her historic first season as General Manager.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press/Associated Press

The number of women in the sport is growing, and the jobs do exist, which is what all of the women interviewed for this story want others to know. They want everyone to see what baseball could be and how women are already a part of it. 

But sexism and misogyny still create barriers for entry as well. 

Women have always held roles in public relations, community relations and human resources, and they're very visible on the sidelines as reporters. Yet they are underrepresented in front offices, in coaching, scouting and player representation. 

"I think it's hard right now, because we get upset that there aren't enough women working in baseball, but maybe that's also because we don't foster this desire in young girls to work in baseball," said Rachel Luba, an agent and owner of Luba Sports.

"So not a lot of young girls are trying to get these kinds of different jobs in baseball."

Here are the stories of women working in those other areas of baseball and how they got there. They want other women to know that they can get there too—even if it means taking non-traditional paths to roles in a sport steeped in tradition. 

                          

The Women on the Field

The Yankees hired Balkovec as a minor league hitting coach in 2019, making her the first woman to work as a full-time hitting instructor for an affiliated organization. She was hired at the same time the Chicago Cubs hired Rachel Folden, another former softball player, who works as a hitting lab tech and coaches the club's rookie-level team in Arizona. 

The biggest benefit of moving toward a more diverse organization is new voices and ideas. Balkovec has bigger aspirations than coaching and big ideas on how to bring positive change to baseball. 

"I want to be a general manager, I want to make an impact on the game," Balkovec said. "I have much, much broader aspirations as far using baseball as a vehicle for positive change in inner-city communities. I want to build sports academies for young women in the Dominican Republic alongside Major League organizations. 

"I want to basically look at what baseball is, and see what it could be."

Rachel Balkovec became the first full-time female hitting coach when hired by the Yankees in 2019.
Rachel Balkovec became the first full-time female hitting coach when hired by the Yankees in 2019.Gregory Bull/Associated Press/Associated Press

The 33-year-old Balkovec made what she called a "very strategic chess move" in 2018 in order to change her path, going to Amsterdam to pursue a second master's degree, this one in biomechanics. She worked as a hitting coach with the Dutch national baseball and softball programs and studied eye tracking with David Mann, one of the world's leading researchers on the subject. She then did more research on the subject at Driveline Baseball outside of Seattle. 

"I would describe it like brain processing because the literal eyeball is tissue that is connected to the brain," Balkovec said. "It's like if the eyeball is the nail and the brain is the hammer. And so it's actually like teaching your brain what a ball looks like and what a strike looks like so you can make decisions on those things."

These moves sent her down the hitting path, but Balkovec wants to utilize all of her tools to be able to not only work as a general manager someday but change that role as well. In her opinion, the current model for that position isn't very "general."

"General managers typically come from a scouting background, they know scouting and nowadays, they know analytics very well, player acquisition, etc.," she said. "I know that if I went with the scouting route that it would probably be a lot faster for me. But I want to make sure that when I do get an opportunity to work and be in a leadership role that I'm as well rounded as possible, and that I can really relate. Obviously there is strength and conditioning, I have a solid background in that, but that I can also relate to on-field performance."

Balkovec is part of a growing group of women on MLB coaching staffs that includes Milwaukee Brewers hitting coordinator Sara Goodrum, Folden, Bianca Smith, a hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox, and Alyssa Nakken, an assistant coach on the San Francisco Giants' major league staff. Justine Siegal was the first woman hired by a major league team for a coaching position, working as a guest coach for the Oakland A's Instructional League team in Arizona in 2015. 

Last fall, the 27-year-old Goodrum was promoted from the Brewers' sport science department to hitting coordinator, and it's believed that she's the first woman to hold that position in baseball. Goodrum works with hitters at all levels of the Brewers' system, laying an important foundation. 

Sara Goodrum is a hitting coordinator for players at every level of the Brewers system.
Sara Goodrum is a hitting coordinator for players at every level of the Brewers system.Credit: Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers

Goodrum, who played softball at Oregon, says hitting was not her strength in college. She graduated in 2015 and was only starting to see how technologies were being integrated into baseball. However, hitting is something that translates from softball to baseball, so when she started interning in the Brewers' sport science department, she gravitated toward the hitters and the hitting-related projects. 

"If I had known this type of information when I played, I could have been a way better hitter," Goodrum said. 

Goodrum understood the science behind hitting and was fascinated by the technologies that could help hitters. She threw herself into learning about the application of technology and the knowledge of swing mechanics. Goodrum wanted to provide as much knowledge to the Brewers' young hitters as possible. 

"The responses were at first super curious. So not only was it like new technology getting implemented in a place where this hasn't been done before, but then also it's a female doing it."

Goodrum isn't sure what her path is, but she has thought about becoming an executive. 

"I want to continue to just provide value to an organization and help a team win," she said. "But honestly, I've thought about it, and some days I wake up and I'm like, front office for sure. Other days I think maybe I want to go down the coaching route."

                     

The Women in the Front Offices

Kristin Lock, a baseball operations and administration assistant for the Kansas City Royals, saw a tweet in spring training about a few players reporting late due to visa issues. 

"I'm like, 'Oh man, that all falls back on me,'" she said. 

Lock is a little like Goodrum and Balkovec in that she wants to learn about every area of baseball, and she is getting the chance to do so with the Royals. But operations is where she wanted to be in order to get closer to the game, and she made sure she utilized her network to make that happen. 

Now, Lock, a lifelong Royals fan, is doing a little bit of everything. She's helping the Royals with amateur scouting, compiling scouting information and medical reports on eligible players. Lock has worked with player development, the continuing education program and handles various administrative duties, like helping with immigration visas.

"I think the next step would be trying to specialize in one of those areas," Lock said. "But right now, just being able to learn from everybody that I work with and learn how the organization runs as a whole from every different department is something that's been so amazing and is so unique."

Lock isn't the only woman working in Kansas City's baseball ops department. The Royals have Melissa Lambert, a behavioral scientist, and Jenny Segelke, a baseball systems developer.

Segelke works to build and design software to automate the flow of data from several areas. 

"There are many different sources of data now in baseball, so we just make sure that that can be available to whoever needs to look at it," Segelke said. "We work on different tools that our baseball operations staff may need, whether it's for looking into prospects, working on player development, or for the major league staff getting ready for that game that night. 

"We basically just try to make sure that we can provide a tool or information that they may need at that time."

Emily Curtis works as an analyst with the Seattle Mariners. Kiri Oler is a quantitative analyst for the Philadelphia Phillies. The Yankees and the Giants have women working in their analytics departments. 

These are just a few of the jobs in baseball operations, and there are women climbing to some of the highest ranks of these departments, like Eve Rosenbaum, the Baltimore Orioles' director of baseball development, and Raquel Ferreira, an executive vice president and assistant general manager with the Red Sox. 

These aren't front-facing club employees, and these jobs don't typically come with a lot of visibility to begin with, but there are women calculating the win/loss probabilities that are used in game plans nightly. There are women helping to determine which player your favorite team should draft, and there are women writing the code that ties it all together. 

                                  

The Women Making the Deals 

Sylvia Lind at the MLB Futures All-Star Game, which she helped develop
Sylvia Lind at the MLB Futures All-Star Game, which she helped developCredit: Richard Pilling

The only thing Sylvia Lind, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba, wanted to be as a kid was the general manager of the New York Mets. Tom Seaver was the player whom Lind gravitated to the most, and she would calculate Tom Terrific's ERA after his starts in the 1970s. 

Lind never lost sight of that goal of working in baseball. Years later, while working for ABC News Radio, late broadcaster Howard Cosell encouraged her to go to law school. She was working for a law firm that represented players associations and went to Fordham at night. She had her son in the last year of law school. 

Eventually, she rose to become the highest ranking Latina in baseball operations at Major League Baseball, working as the director of baseball initiatives. She walked away after 20 years in the commissioner's office. Now, Lind has her own agency, La Esquina Caliente. 

She sued MLB and her former boss, Hall of Fame former player Frank Robinson, in 2014 for gender discrimination. The details are public: She alleged that she was passed over for promotions throughout her career in the office of the commissioner, which began in 1995 when she worked in the legal department. The case was settled in 2016. 

She didn't do any media at the time, preferring to quietly move on and make her next move while preserving the relationships she had made throughout her time working on Park Avenue. Lind reflects she might have liked to do more to advance the rights of women and Hispanics from that lawsuit, but she's still unsure of what more could have been done.

"What am I going to do? Do the talk show circuit and just talk about it?" she said. "Talk about it until people really feel like the guys that are in power are really doing something and not just saying that they're going to do something?"

While working in the league offices, a former general manager once told Lind he would like to bring her over to his team and build something special. The two had talked about it for years. Then, one of his longtime assistants left the team. Lind called and inquired about the job. The GM said he would get back to her. 

The next day, one of her colleagues at Major League Baseball was flown out for an interview for that same job. The general manager didn't even bother to tell Lind, and she didn't get the job. 

Lind, now in her 50s and calculating the ERAs of the minor leaguers she represents, saw the shift in front offices from a network of career baseball men to a network of Ivy League-educated baseball men with computers. She decided to exit the league executive sphere and start her own agency. 

"You know, agents don't necessarily have the greatest reputation, but because I was coming from a different background I had from the commissioner's office and I knew a lot of club people, and the club people would vouch for me," Lind said. "So I would get calls, and they say, 'Hey, you want to take a look at this kid?' And it's been great in that perspective."

Lonnie Murray, the owner of SMP Sports, and Lind feel they have an advantage as women, as mothers and as people of color. They have motherly instincts; they aren't former ballplayers, but they have decades of experience, knowledge and contacts. 

Lind has never been a coach, but she knows enough to be able to give her clients adjustments to their swings and their deliveries on the mound.

They can be women and give baseball advice. They can deliver the information in a different manner and they should embrace their feminine delivery. 

"I'm guilty of this too—in certain situations you project that you are one of the boys," Murray said. "If you're not, then being a girl is not acceptable. Being feminine is interpreted as so many other things, like soft, that you obviously can't be in sports. But I would argue that being feminine often takes more strength than being masculine."

Murray, who is married to Dave Stewart, a former pitcher and a former Arizona Diamondbacks general manager, doesn't like to call herself an agent; she calls herself a "player advocate with agent responsibilities." If there is one thing she hates, it's excuses. She is sensitive to her players' needs, the needs of their families and their partners. She'll answer the phone when they call late at night after a bad date or a bad game, but she's going to ask them how much they were worth that day. 

And if the answer is not a lot, then she'll challenge them on how to get better. 

"The scale is up to $1,000. So I get messages saying, 'I was only worth $200,' Sometimes I joke, 'You're lying. You were probably $550.' It helps to also take the pressure off of a hard day, because they have to be able to escape that as well."

Then there is the new agent in town—the 28-year-old Luba.

She isn't running her agency like any of the others in baseball. She didn't come from a softball background and doesn't have the professional pedigree like Lind. She was a gymnast at UCLA, where she befriended Los Angeles Dodgers ace Trevor Bauer and other members of the Bruins baseball team—which at the time was one of the top teams in the country. 

She received some advice coming out of college from another agent: Go to law school. She called her parents and said she was going to do exactly that. 

"It's a huge asset for me," said Luba, who received her law degree from Pepperdine in 2016. "It's an advantage you have over players."

She worked with the MLBPA for two years in salary arbitration before deciding to go on her own. 

"I was sick and tired of having doors slammed in my face," she said. "I was sick and tired of trying to convince the middle men like the agents that my gender wasn't a problem, and I thought, 'Why am I wasting so much time trying to convince them when they're not my clients?'"

Luba runs her agency more like a law firm, billing for hours and services rendered. She's a visible presence in baseball through social media and content. She uses social media to show her personality and illustrate her services as well. 

"People always question when I walk into a room," she said. "Everyone thinks I'm a secretary, a wife, or a girlfriend, right? No one thinks I belong there, at least in the beginning. And I always have to prove that I know baseball, I know what I'm talking about. I work in baseball, I belong here. And so this was a way to kind of combat that narrative."

                       

What's Next?

Will there be a woman managing in the dugout? Is another Kim Ng on the way? Balkovec is certainly up for the challenge, and someone like Lock could be someday as well. 

The Selig Rule says MLB teams are required to consider women and minorities for all general manager, assistant general manager, field manager, director of player development and director of scouting positions, but that often means teams bring in those candidates just to check a box. 

"I don't think that women at clubs are yet a significant part of the brain trust," Lind said. "And if they're not now, then it's going to be hard for somebody to justify saying, 'Oh, I'm going to hand them the reins,' because they haven't been in decision-making positions."

Balkovec, Luba and Goodrum all want to see more pipelines that would encourage more women to get into baseball and help them get the necessary experience. It shouldn't be about hiring women just to hire them and claim diversity. 

This is part of a problem that many have pointed out: Baseball tends to be so insular that you can't get in unless you have the experience, but you can't get the experience unless you're let into the door first. 

And it's not easy for some women after years in baseball. Murray said men were still routinely mansplaining things to her until a few years ago, and Lind was once told she can't be "super mom" and "super executive."

Goodrum and Balkovec feel it's a little easier on the coaching side since both of them played themselves. Hitting techniques translate, as does the mutual respect of being a high-level athlete, but both are adamant that knowledge is the biggest key. 

"In order for them to trust you, they need to know that you know your stuff," Goodrum said. "And there was never any sense of pushback where I felt like I was not being welcomed because of my gender; they were very welcoming."

There are generational differences when it comes to what these women want to see and what they expect to see in the future. Yet there are common threads that weave them all together: They took their own paths, using their creativity, their intelligence and their drive. And they really don't like to be told they can't do something because of their gender. 

Keep telling them no. It will only embolden them more.   

"Despite the barriers, we should not lie down," Murray said. "We should not accept it as a barrier."