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Omaha Magazine

Rachel Balkovac: Smashing the Diamond Ceiling

May 27, 2022 03:30PM ● By Joe Mixan
rachel balkovic in dugout

Design by Matt Wieczorek

On Jan. 11, 2022, the New York Yankees announced Rachel Balkovac as the new manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the Yankees’ Low-A team.

The hire of a low-level minor league baseball coach usually doesn’t create much stir, but Balkovac is the first female to manage an affiliate of a professional baseball team—and that team is the famed New York Yankees. Almost 120 reporters signed on to listen to the announcement, made via Zoom, and to hear Balkovac talk about her historic opportunity; she’s been making the headlines and airwaves ever since.

This season in pro baseball there are 11 women in uniform for various teams, which is encouraging to Balkovac. “I do think we’ve made progress in the numbers, obviously, but also just the way people react to me and the way that they talk to me. It’s becoming more normal and it’s just exciting to see how much progress we’ve made. We definitely have a lot more room to grow. But it’s really exciting.”

In late March, her parents, Jim and Bonnie Balkovac of Omaha, had the chance to watch their daughter perform as manager at Yankees Spring Training Complex in Tampa, Florida, for the first time. As they watched her throughout the preseason practices and saw how she interacted with the young players and other coaches, her dad said he felt “proud and in awe” of what he was witnessing from the stands. “As a lifelong Yankees fan, all I could do was shake my head and say wow,” Jim said.

As Balkovac showed them around and introduced them to several people within the Yankees organization, Jim heard firsthand how well-respected she is. “From the guard at the gate to those at the highest level of the team, they all told me they see something special in Rachel and they totally accept and respect her.”

Jasa Talarico, whose husband, Matt, is an assistant Yankees coach, has two young daughters that she’s glad have a chance to be around Balkovac. “My girls love watching Rachel coach. When I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they often say ‘a baseball coach!’ I want them to dream big and work hard to reach their goals. Rachel is a perfect example of those things. Young girls are lucky to have a role model like her.”

Dream big and work hard. These two attributes pretty much define the character of Balkovac from the beginning of her sports playing career. Jim recalled helping coach his daughter’s softball team. They were without a catcher, and it seemed none of the girls wanted the hot, dirty job. “Rachel stepped forward and said, ‘I’ll do it,’ grabbing the face mask and chest protector.” Jim admitted he thought Rachel being a catcher may be a short-lived stint, but she proved him wrong by sticking with it through little league, high school, and college. As she grew and matured as a catcher, she practically became a coach on the field, barking orders and demanding total effort from her teammates. Skutt Catholic Head Coach Keith Englekamp said, “Rachel was always a great leader that was demanding on herself and on all the players on the team.”

After graduating high school from Omaha Skutt in 2005, Balkovac took her softball skills to Creighton University. Things didn’t go as well as expected her freshman year, when she developed arm trouble and could barely throw the ball back to the pitcher. With her identity as a rocket-armed catcher no longer there, things spiraled downward and she found herself full of anxiety that her big dream of becoming a professional softball player was fading fast. 

But then she discovered a new love, a new way she could help her teammates. The weight room became her refuge, her way to lead others by example, knowing that strength and conditioning would make players better. After that freshman-year struggle, Balkovac transferred to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she finished out her playing days but never quite recovered the promising skills. She graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.  She then enrolled at Louisiana State University and earned a master’s degree in kinesiology while working with female and male LSU athletes in strength and conditioning.  Balkovac never was a big baseball fan, preferring the faster pace of softball  

With her academic success and plenty of work experience, Balkovac could have easily found a job in the field of women’s sports. After dating a minor league baseball player, Balkovac became more interested in the game and the multiple levels involved. She spent the next seven years in professional baseball as a strength and conditioning coach in various roles with the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago White Sox, and Houston Astros. During her two years in Houston, she met Dillon Lawson, who became her good friend and mentor. 

Lawson was the minor league hitting coach for the Yankees and he inspired her to grow further in her baseball knowledge, especially the art of hitting a baseball. This search led her to the Netherlands, where she earned a second master’s degree, this time in biomechanics, at Vrije University in Amsterdam. Her research area was in eye tracking for hitters at the Driveline Baseball Training Facility in Kent, Washington.

Photo provided    

In 2019, the Yankees came calling  and hired Balkovac as a minor league hitting coach. She impressed the organization higher-ups during her two years there with her hitting expertise and her ability to lead, especially in coaching many of the young Latin American players and other top prospects. 

That January day this year when Balkovac broke through the diamond ceiling, a statement was released from the top executive, Commissioner Rob Manfred. “On behalf of Major League Baseball, I congratulate Rachel on this historic milestone…As manager of the Tampa Tarpons, she will continue to demonstrate her expertise and leadership in the Yankees’ organization. We wish Rachel well in this new capacity and appreciate her mentorship to the growing network of women in baseball operations and player development roles.”

On April 8, 2022, Balkovac again made history by taking the field as the first woman to manage a professional baseball team. The jersey, pants, and hat she wore in that historic game were packed up and shipped to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Yet she is not finished. 

“I think she’s off to a good start. She’s smart and is working extremely hard,” said Jim Hendry, who is now a special assistant to Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman.

While coaching a high school baseball team in his native Florida in 1981, Hendry set a goal to become a college coach. He got in his car and drove west on the road to Omaha to attend his first College World Series. As the crowd thinned out during the night game, Hendry made his way down to better seats behind home plate. He struck up a conversation with the man seated next to him, who turned out to be Dan Offenburger, then the athletic director at Creighton University. Hendry must’ve impressed the AD with his baseball knowledge and enthusiasm to coach, and in 1983 he was offered an assistant coaching job. Midway through the 1984 season, the then-head coach was replaced by Hendry. 

Seven years later, Hendry led his Creighton Bluejays to the College World Series. It was 1991, and the first time a local team ever made it to the CWS show in Omaha. The city went nuts. Most locals never thought they would see the day a local team made it. It took a young, hardworking coach to dream bigger that anyone had before. Hendry, now 66, was 34 during that magical season, a special CWS memory that Omaha fans will never forget. Hendry left Omaha after the CWS win for the newly created Florida Marlins franchise. Yet he loved the town that loved him. In 2019, he married Omahan Kerry Judge, the widow of Jason Judge, who played baseball on that 1991 Creighton team. The Hendrys have since made Omaha their home plate. The Omaha baseball legend who has devoted his life to the game is seeing another Omaha, and national, first take place.

Balkovac, 34, has embarked on her maiden voyage as a minor league manager, but she, too, has set lofty goals, including dreaming big to one day become a general manager in MLB. “The New York Yankees believe in hiring good people, and this is a big step for her,” Hendry said.  Ultimately, becoming a great coach involves many skills, attention to detail, and effective communication to keep everyone onboard in the organization. 

Balkovac’s opportunities are proving themselves boundless. “She’s got perseverance, she’s strong and determined,” Cashman said. 

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This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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