Sports

Yankees’ Rachel Balkovec on leadership, answers the haters, NFL dream

Rachel Balkovec became the first woman to manage an MLB-affiliated team when the Yankees named her the Single-A Tampa Tarpons’ skipper this past offseason. The barrier-breaking manager takes a swing at some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby:

Q: What is your managerial style with regard to the players?

A: I would say loving and direct in the same breath. So high standards, but also high support.

Q: Managerial style in the dugout?

A: When the game starts, it’s the players’ game. If anything, I’m providing information to them about the other team, but it’s on them, and I want them to do the leading, and I want them to be thinking about what they’re doing and not have me doing a lot of coaching in the moment. And that goes for all of our coaches.

Q: What are the traits of the ideal Rachel Balkovec baseball player?

A: The only traits I really look for are hard work and dedication. Thankfully with the Yankees we have such a good system in place and we have a lot of good support for them that if they put in the work then they’re going to improve. So I just want somebody who’s gonna get down and dirty and do the work.

Q: What is your definition of leadership?

A: Being honest is probably No. 1 on my list. And then leading by example — if I want them to work hard, if I want them to show up on time, if I want them to be a good person, to contribute to the community and the world, then that’s what I have to do. So if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others, so leading by example, but then also just being honest with them and bringing them closer to the truth.

Q: How do you motivate?

A: By loving them. By letting them know that they have a role, they have a position, whether they’re playing every day or they’re not playing at all. And then at the same time, also creating high expectations, and letting them know that those high expectations are because we care about them.

Yankees
Tampa Tarpons Manager Rachel Balkovec.
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Q: What are adjectives you would use to describe yourself?

A: (Laugh) Relentless … fiery … I would also go fun.

Q: Why are you so comfortable in your own skin?

A: Confidence comes from preparation. I know that I prepared myself to be in this role, and even if I’m not prepared, I’m gonna be the hardest worker in the room. Me being good at something is a matter of time. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. I will work until I get good at it. I don’t think I’m good at managing right now — duh. It’s my first week. I’m not afraid to say that. I have a lot of things to learn, I’ve made a lot of mistakes already in seven days, and I’m not afraid of failing.

Q: Have you liked underdogs over the years?

A: Yeah, I am an underdog. You can spot it immediately in players and in people in general. If you gritted it out and you scratched and clawed your way to the top, how can you not love that story? I think that’s part of why I think it’s funny when people hate me or whatever, it’s like … I’m the American dream. Like, how do you not love an underdog story like this?

Q: Why would people hate you?

A: Oh, because they don’t believe women belong in the game.

Q: How prevalent is that now compared to five years ago?

A: It might still be very prevalent, but less people are talking about it online because they’ll just get crushed, because it’s … over. There’s 12 women in uniform in baseball this year. What are we still talking about?

Q: As a young girl, what drove you?

A: When I was in fourth grade, I said I wanted to be the first female kicker in the NFL. I just always think back to that, it’s crazy that I said I wanted to be the first female to do something when I was like 10. I was an avid athlete, avid softball player. What drove me at that time was being successful in sports, I would say, and then over time that obviously transitioned into a professional career.

Q: And what drives you now?

A: Making an impact on the world. Making an impact on the players, like the people around me, and then also the world at large.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle or adversity you had to overcome?

A: My gender’s the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome. The biggest points of adversity would have been getting into professional baseball for sure. The darkest times in my life, for sure, I got the yips in college as a catcher and that ended my career, that was really difficult. And then getting into baseball as a female strength and conditioning coach in like 2012, 2013, that was pretty dark, that was really difficult … gender discrimination. And then lastly, becoming a hitting coach, ’cause it was another humongous barrier where after seven years of being in professional baseball I was getting, “Well, how are you gonna do that? There are no women doing that. Are there any women coaches at all?” So that was another time where I had to overcome a lot of biases and gave up a lot to become a hitting coach at 19.

Q: How were you able to overcome the gender discrimination, and how bad was it?

A: It was pretty bad at the time. [In] 2013, I completely sat out a year of baseball because I could not get an interview, and I had a great résumé. How did I overcome it? I just had the desire to be in that role. The first and foremost thing is I wanted it, so I was willing to literally pass up many paying jobs and just waitress and work more internships to get it, No. 1. But also as soon as I started facing that and hitting that brick wall, that’s when I really felt my purpose. I was like, if a woman with like six baseball internships and a two-year stint at an SEC school, at LSU, can’t even get an interview, when is the next woman gonna come along with that level of résumé? If I can’t do it, I’m not sure who’s going to be the one to do it. I just felt like responsible I guess.

Rachel Balkovec,
Rachel Balkovec, walks out of the dugout.
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Q: How did the yips happen?

A: I’m super intense. When you see someone have the yips, it’s performance anxiety. I was so intense as a player — still intense as a person — and it just tipped over the edge.

Q: Who are baseball managers you admire?

A: [Aaron] Booney’s at the top of that list. He’s reached out a couple of times and just been like a support for me in general. And I would say also Kevin Cash, somebody who’s a little bit I would probably say in the new era but also in the old era.

Q: Coaches in other sports you admire?

A: Anson Dorrance from UNC women’s soccer; Kim Corbin, college baseball [Vanderbilt]; Bill Walsh; Nick Saban.

Q: Why Nick Saban?

A: All the people I just mentioned have created dynasties. They have won over a very long period of time with different players, different situations. No matter who they have with them, they found a way to win.

Q: Why do you aspire one day to be a general manager?

A: In general, I think that I want to be a head coach, and right now I’m obviously in a role where this is a lot of leadership responsibility, but I want all the pressure (laugh). So I want to be a head coach, and I think the GM of most baseball teams is somebody who makes maybe more decisions than the major league manager. I’m also interested in the whole organization and not just one team, so just kind of having the bird’s-eye view I guess.

Q: Will we see a woman MLB manager one day?

A: Well, yeah, of course (laugh). Now it’s just a matter of time. To be honest with you, I hope it’s at least five years from now because even if I guess I’m the first, I don’t necessarily want my path to be fast. I want to learn, I want to be a great manager when I get there, if I get there, or if I choose to continue managing. I want to be great at my job. I don’t want to rush there, and I don’t think anybody else should too. So if anybody else makes it to managing in the big leagues before me, I hope that they have done their due diligence and learning before they get there.

Yankees
Rachel Balkovec, stands for the national anthem.
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Q: Describe the pay equity issue.

A: I feel like I never want to be a victim. Never. My statement is: counteroffer. I think women, as much as obviously we need to be paid equally, but also, we gotta ask for it. I know that in some situations, like U.S. women’s soccer, they are asking for it and they’re being told no, that’s different. But I’m paid really fairly. More than fair. And I’ve asked for what I wanted. I’ve made myself the most qualified person in the room and I’ve asked for the amount of money that I’m worth. I always tell women: “Hey! Counteroffer. I want to make a T-shirt. Counteroffer.” Ask for what you’re worth, and that’s something that especially women struggle with as well.

Q: Whatever comes to mind: Marlins GM Kim Ng?

A: The queen.

Q: Yanks assistant GM Jean Afterman?

A: I call Kim and Jean and [Red Sox assistant GM] Raquel Ferreira “The Three Queens.” But also for Jean, I would just say, badass motherf–ker.

Q: ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza?

A: A great mentor of mine. She’s been definitely someone that I talk to a lot over the past few years just in handling probably non-baseball things, things that come up with media or how to manage your life when you’re in the spotlight in some way. … Just how to manage life, I guess (laugh).

Q: What is your definition of “badass”?

A: (Laugh) Badass is like, you don’t make excuses, you show up early, you leave late, and you put your head down in difficult situations. You become a badass when you’re put into a difficult situation and we see how you act.

Q: Where are you on a 1-10 badass scale?

A: (Laugh) I don’t know. In my own head I feel like I’m probably like a 6 or 7 ’cause I know my own fears and I know what I go through mentally. I guess from the outside looking in, they might give me something closer to a 9.

Q: From your Instagram: “If there isn’t a road build one. Things you’ll need: Lots of equipment, lots of help, fury.” Why fury?

A: I think about this a lot: If you’re gonna do something extraordinary or you’re gonna do something great in your life, there’s no easy path. It’s like you’re going to have to do more than everyone around you. You’re gonna have to be better than everyone around you. You’re gonna have to make sacrifices that nobody else has to make if you want to do something extraordinary. There are no exceptions.

Q: “Find a way or fade away.”

A: (Laugh) The road doesn’t care. The journey that you’re on doesn’t care, so it’s like you’re either gonna keep climbing the mountain, or you’re gonna have to turn back and go down, so it’s like you don’t really like have an option.

Q: “Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.”

A: When I talk to young women, I don’t want to sit there and complain with them on the phone. I just want to say, “Be better.” And in the end, if you’re better than everybody around you, it’s gonna be good for you anyway. So if you have to take a longer path and be smarter, be better, work harder than everybody else, don’t be mad about it. That’s a gift. So if you’re excellent at what you do, nobody’s gonna give a s–t about your gender or your race if you’re the best in the room. Nobody’s gonna care.

Q: “Opportunistic is a lifestyle, risk-taking is a hobby, freedom is a state of mind.”

A: I enjoy taking risks. What I mean by that is I enjoy putting myself out there, and if I fail, at least I failed taking a risk and not sitting at home on my couch. And, when I look at opportunities — whether that’s traveling to a foreign country, or working in a certain role — taking those opportunities is a habit that you have to develop because it’s terrifying. So if you’re not ready for that risk, you don’t take the risk ’cause it is scary, it is difficult, and you have to make a habit of it, you have to stare something in the face that’s scary and still say yes.

Q: “I never lose, I either won or I learn.”

A: It comes back to handling failure. I think one of the determinants of success is how much failure can you stand before you quit? And I just look at whatever mistake I make it’s like, “All right, well I just got better.” And then how fast you can take that perspective is important, too.

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Rachel Balkovec
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Q: “People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

A: Steve Jobs. I’ve watched the movie “Jobs” with Ashton Kutcher in it like five times. Wild, radical innovators — that’s who I really am drawn to. People who have had wild amounts of success at the top level of business or sports. He was an absolute innovator and just did not give a f–k what other people were doing.

Q: “The speed with which you can use a setback as an opportunity determined your success in whatever path you choose.”

A: When you have a failure of some kind — whether that’s you get fired, you have a divorce, you strike out … if you can turn that around in five seconds and go, “This is the best thing to ever happen to me,” then you’re gonna be successful. If it takes you five years to figure out that that failure or that closed door was the opportunity somewhere else, then you’re not gonna be that successful to take you five years to have the right perspective.

Q: Who were your childhood idols?

A: When I was growing up really young, it was probably Serena Williams. And Brandi Chastain comes to mind. And [softball player] Cat Osterman comes to mind. There’s a lot of female athletes.

Q: Why Serena?

A: That was a time when women sports were starting to be more televised. She wasn’t wearing the same clothes, she was an African-American woman … she was just different. Brandi Chastain ripping her shirt off, she was just like, f–k it. She was different, she was aggressive, she was out there, so I think I just gravitated towards those women.

Q: Any other women in sports you want to mention?

A: [Former Dodgers trainer] Sue Falsone, she was the first ever on-field woman of anything with MLB, she was an athletic trainer and physical therapist. She was somebody who was critical for me.

Q: What is your vision of women in sports in 10 years?

A: It actually may not be that different because we’ve seen so much change in the past like three years. People are begging for women to work in baseball now — begging. Literally begging. I get texts from random people all over asking me for résumés of women. It’s like, I’m in “The Twilight Zone.” I had to change my name on my résumé [to Rae] just to get somebody to call me 10 years ago. We’re like hunting them down now.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: My grandfather [Frank] on the Balkovec side for sure; Jackie Robinson; and Branch Rickey.

Q: Favorite movie?

A: “A League Of Their Own.”

Q: Favorite actor?

A: Jim Carrey.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Drew Barrymore.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Pizza.

Q: Where’s the best pizza in New York?

A: (Laugh) I don’t know, I’ve only been in New York City one time.

Q: You visited Ground Zero?

A: It just makes you feel so small and grateful for living in this country. I’ve traveled all over the world a lot, and it makes you a patriot, and appreciate the United States more. … I’m really into our history, and I’m really into learning about how we developed as a country, and just seeing that makes you reflect.

Q: Describe the New York Yankees Way.

A: Using objective information to create an environment for players to develop as fast as possible, and in the best way possible.

Q: Do you want to be viewed as an inspiration?

A: It’s something that I take pride in, yeah. I’ve been like this since I was 12. I’ve always been the kid on the team who was the leader, was the one who held the player-only postgame meeting. I told my coaches not to show up so I could talk to the team. I was the one who was always pushing my friends to get outside of their comfort zone and push themselves, that’s always been who I’ve been. I was raised that way. It’s my personality. Do I want to be viewed as an inspiration? I don’t know if that’s what I wake up thinking about every day, but I take pride in it, and it’s something that I view as my responsibility being in this role.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: I’m most proud of representing my family well, and I’m so glad that my last name is still mine so that my family gets the credit for this ’cause they deserve all of it.

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