NEW YORK CITY (CBS) – Rachel Balkovec’s history-making journey to become the first female full-time hitting coach in a major league organization was not an easy one. She said she faced repeated gender discrimination before being hired by the New York Yankees.
But as she looks ahead to the start of her first season, she said all the obstacles she overcame “fortified” her “soul.”
Balkovec, armed with two Masters degrees in human movement science as well as weight lifting and softball experience, had a competitive resume when she began applying for positions.
“I applied to eight to 10 jobs and it just was, like, crickets,” she told “CBS This Morning: Saturday” co-host Dana Jacobson.
When a team did eventually call, Balkovec said the man who called told her he was sorry, but “we can’t hire you and it’s because you’re a woman.”
“And I was just shocked,” she said. “First of all, that’s illegal. And he said, ‘Well, it gets worse,’ and I was like, how could this possibly get any worse? He said, you know, ‘I also called around to all the other people that I knew had positions open and they also said the same thing.'”
She revealed that it was a Major League organization but refused to name which one. “He tried to help me,” she said.
After that 2013 incident, Balkovec created a gender-neutral resume that included changing her name from “Rachel” to “Rae.” She said the response was immediate.
Balkovec described an incident where she got a phone call from someone asking to speak to Rae. When she told them it was her, she said she could hear a ruffling of papers before the person on the line said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get the name right.”
When asked if she was ever angry at having to make the superficial changes to be considered a good candidate, Balkovec said she did not know.
“I never felt anger. Necessary frustration and not understanding and ‘Give me a chance,’ like those were words that came. But not like, anger,” she said. “That was a lesson of, like, ‘Okay, look, if they’re not gonna hire me because I’m a woman, I don’t wanna work for them anyway.'”
She said that she had originally set her sights on becoming a professional softball player.
“I was physically probably gonna be able to do that, but just mentally I was a mess. So pretty quickly I had thought about being a strength and conditioning coach … somehow this crazy journey has led to me sitting here,” she said.
The “crazy journey” first got her signed to the St. Louis Cardinals as the first full-time female strength coach in Major League-affiliated baseball.
After holding a position as a minor league strength coach for the Houston Astros, the Yankees hired her and she became the first woman to wear the team’s iconic pinstripes.
“I think there’s always a bit of curiosity surrounding it, like, ‘Why is she here? Does she know her stuff?’ But I would venture to say that any player that’s ever worked with me would at least say, ‘She puts in the work. She cares. She’s knowledgeable,'” she explained.
Dillon Lawson, the Yankees hitting coordinator, said he had similar sentiments when he first met Balkovec four years ago.
“I think it’s pretty clear when someone is elite at their job they stand out. She’s over-qualified for almost every job that she’s ever had. She’s just that good,” Dillon said.
He admitted that “selfishly, she makes me, as a coach, better.”
Yankees Assistant General Manager Jean Afterman said, “The door opened for Rachel, not only because she’s extremely qualified, but because she was bringing a new way of training, and a new vision of training that we were hungry for.”
“Despite any kind of struggle that I’ve had, I have no regrets,” Balkovec said. “I look at other people and I’m like, ‘Oh, you haven’t been discriminated against? Oh, I’m sorry,’ cause it just pushed me and it just made me stronger.”