Why this matters
With the hiring of two women as hitting coaches, MLB is finally following in the footsteps of the NBA and NFL in hiring female coaches who never played in the league, breaking a more-than century long grip on single-gender coaching staff.
The New York Yankees have hired Rachel Balkovec to be what is believed to be the first full-time female hitting coach for a Major League Baseball team.
The Yankees say that Balkovec, who has two master’s degrees in the science of human movement and has experience at the minor league level, was hired based on her qualifications.
“It’s an easy answer why we chose Rachel for this role. She’s a good hitting coach, and a good coach, period,” Yankees hitting coordinator Dillon Lawson told the New York Times.
The hiring of Balkovec is just the latest baseball coaching hire that is shaking up the major leagues. Also last week, the Chicago Cubs hired Rachel Folden to be their lead hitting lab tech and the fourth coach on their Rookie League team in Mesa.
“This is going to be more prominent than people think,” Folden told the Chicago Tribune. “Baseball has moved to a place where you don’t need to have been a successful ex-player to be a coach, which is always how it used to be.”
The first female instructor for an MLB team was Justine Siegal, who was hired by the Oakland A’s in 2015 as a guest instructor for the team’s 2015 instructional league team.
Cheers to the @Yankees who have hired Rachel Balkovec as a full-time hitting coach. She is believed to be the first woman hired by a major league organization to work in this role. #progress https://t.co/P6egFjPqRu
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) November 25, 2019
Women coaches in male-dominated sports, and baseball more specifically, are quickly becoming garnering more thought and consideration. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts agrees that there is a place for women in baseball, but it will take time for those roles to develop.
“We’re hopeful,” Roberts told the LA Times in 2017. “A woman being a field manager? I think that’s a little further out. As a general manager, I think that’s obviously something very realistic. That should happen.”
Little did Roberts know at the time that he wouldn’t be too far off in his statements. In March 2019, the New York Mets hired Jessica Mendoza, ESPN television analyst and 2004 softball Olympic gold medalist, to work in the front office as a baseball operations adviser focusing on player evaluation and roster construction.
It was even rumored in late October that the Mets were then looking into a “bombshell” candidate for their vacant managerial job and that the candidate was Mendoza, but that was never confirmed.
Albeit unorthodox to have a TV analyst also be a special advisor for a team, it continues the trend of women gaining higher status in male-dominated sports.
Another example of females piercing the ranks of their male counterparts in professional sports in recent years, and perhaps the most well known, is Becky Hammon, who became the first full-time assistant coach in the NBA when she was hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.
“It’s a tremendous challenge, and it comes with tremendous responsibility,” Hammon said to the New York Times at the time. “There have been so many other women that are doing really, really great things, and I’m just kind of following in their paths.”
Hammon is trying to open the door for others to join her amongst the ranks of men on NBA coaching staffs, but she is also trying to evolve and climb further up the ladder herself.
Hammon has been promoted to head assistant coach with the Spurs and earlier this month nearly got her shot at being the first female head coach of an NBA game. Spurs longtime head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected in the third quarter of the Nov. 17 game against the Portland Trailblazers, leaving Popovich to elevate one of his assistants to be the head coach for the remainder of the contest.
Instead of going the traditional route and promoting his top assistant, which would have been Hammon, he went with a coach-by-committee approach and allowed his two other assistants, NBA legend Tim Duncan and fourth-year assistant Will Hardy, to help as well.
“I’m not here to make history,” Popovich said after the game.
Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman paved the way as the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team in 2009.
Even the National Football League has gotten in on the trend. In March 2019, former Arizona Cardinals head coach and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians hired two full-time female assistants — Maral Javadifar was hired as an assistant strength and conditioning coach and Lori Locust was hired as an assistant defensive line coach.
"It's time, and I'll be happy when it's not news anymore," Arians told ESPN in March. "That's where it should be heading. They're what we need. The fact that their gender is different, who gives a (care)?"
Katie Sowers completed her first season as the San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant coach in 2018, and she has spent the last three years in the NFL. In 2016, Sowers spent time with Atlanta Falcons’ head coach/wide receivers coach Raheem Morris “organizing, conducting and concluding practice drills.”
In early 2019, Lisa Fallon made history in Ireland as the first female coach of Cork City Football Club. The role culminates Fallon’s 12-year journey working her way up the ranks years in men’s soccer.
“If she were a man, Fallon’s CV, especially at international level where she helped Northern Ireland qualify for Euro 2016, would have earned her a coaching role at many clubs years ago,” Donald Mcrae wrote in The Guardian. “Yet it needed Cork’s open-minded approach to help Fallon break the gender barrier.”
Matt Roy is a masters sports journalism student at Arizona State University.