LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Rachel Balkovec signed autographs, got a standing ovation when she was introduced and posed for a photo at home plate.
It was then time to get to work. The manager of a minor league New York Yankees team had a game to play.
But that Friday night, the fact that she became the first woman to lead an affiliate of a Major League Baseball team called for even more recognition.
As she ran from the dugout of the Class A Tampa Tarpons to drive out first base before the start of the second inning, a chant broke out at Joker Marchant Stadium.
“Let’s go Rachel!”
He came from a group of girls while the Tarpons were playing against the Lakeland Flying Tigers in the Florida State League.
The Detroit Tigers Foundation – the Lakeland club is affiliated – donated tickets to female athletes at Polk County schools, and 1,200 were given away.
Earlier in the day, Balkovec, 34, spoke about his journey to the Yankees complex at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Her parents were present as she spoke to reporters.
“I’ve been working for 10 years so far,” she said. “Things have evolved. I was obviously discriminated against at the time. Some people say don’t say it, but that’s just part of what happened, and I think it’s important to say it because it lets you know how much change has happened.
“So blatant discrimination, that was 2010, and now it’s 12 years later and I’m sitting here at a press conference as manager,” she said.
Balkovec and the Tarpons made the 40-mile bus trip and arrived at the stadium about 90 minutes before game time.
Dressed in gray Yankees road pants and a blue Tarpons jersey and hat, Balkovec signed autographs along the right field line and beside Tampa’s third base side dugout as planes from the nearby Sun ‘n’ Fun Aerospace Expo buzzed overhead.
She was cheered on by the crowd during pre-game on-field introductions and shook hands with referees Chris Argueza and Conor McKenna and Flying Tigers manager Andrew Graham during a lengthy exchange of cards and a ground rules review.
After the foursome posed for a group photo, the Flying Tigers took to the field and history was made.
Balkovec broke through several barriers on his way to the post. She was the first woman to be a full-time minor league strength and conditioning coach and then the first to be a full-time minor league hitting coach with the Yankees.
The Yankees announced her hire as minor league manager in January.
Balkovec, a former softball catcher in Creighton and New Mexico, got her first professional baseball job 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 strength and conditioning coordinator in Latin America and later served as a 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 her managerial debut in spring training after being hit in the face by a batted ball during a drill on March 22, arrived 10 minutes early for Friday’s media session.
“Overall, I feel really excited,” Balkovec said. “I’m excited because it feels like, luckily, I’m in the best of times 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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