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Sport New Yankee coach Rachel Balkovec talks breaking barriers, hitting philosophy at Winter Meetings

20:26  11 december  2019
20:26  11 december  2019 Source:   nydailynews.com

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SAN DIEGO — If being a trailblazer was easy, the trail would already be blazed. However, Rachel Balkovec — the first woman to hold a hitting coach job on any level in baseball and the latest Yankees coaching hire — embraces the inherent obstacles of being the first in her position as a blessing, not a burden.

Rachel Balkovec smiling for the camera© Gregory Bull

“I had to do probably much more than maybe a male counterpart,” said Balkovec, who will work with hitters on the Single-A Gulf Coast League Yankees. “But, I like that. I’m, like, so much more prepared for the challenges that I might encounter.”

Balkovec is, unsurprisingly, a student of the game, blending modern analytical trends with her biomedical expertise. The 32-year-old holds two master’s degrees, one in kinesiology, another in biomechanics and statistics. She is a Driveline Baseball alum, the data-driven player development company that counts Trevor Bauer among its successful clients and disciples. Her resume has everything short of experience as an MLB player, yet her formal education extends well beyond the average player-turned-coach.

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“My background is largely in strength and conditioning, or like teaching the body,” said Balkovec during a sitdown with reporters at the MLB Winter Meetings on Tuesday. She previously worked in that role within the Astros and Cardinals organizations. Her understanding of the body helps her identify best practices for swing mechanics. It’s a nerdier version of what the Bombers big league hitting coach Marcus Thames calls “putting your A swing” on the ball every time at the plate.

Balkovec also helps hitters develop the sound strategies for picking up a ball, for recognizing a pitch and hitting it very far, something she worked on extensively at Driveline. Like Thames with his sluggers, Balkovec absolutely preaches hitting it high and far, so long as it’s done the right way.

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“It’s interesting to think about, you know, in this steroid era, it was an exciting game,” said Balkovec. “Was it a proper game? Maybe not, but we did learn a few things that’s something that fans might like. Everyone enjoys a home run.”

And Balkovec’s answer to dingers without drugs? Simple, “Elevate the ball.”

When asked about inequality within the game — the sort of barriers that prevent capable women like herself from joining the coaching ranks — she certainly acknowledged its existence but nonetheless described it as a “two-way street” for women hoping to follow in her footsteps.

“Women need more opportunities and we need to have an open door,” said Balkovec. But, she adds, “we have to be standing at the door when it's open. And so that takes, you know, maybe it takes a little longer.”

Balkovec knows it’s not fair that she and other women have to work longer and wait longer and be better than male peers. But she positioned the systemic barriers within her industry as secondary to the importance of hard work.

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“My mom always says life’s not fair,” Balkovec said. “So, is it fair? No. Does it matter? No. You have to keep standing at that door banging on it.”

What has mattered for Balkovec, besides her hustle and knowledge, were the men who’ve been banging alongside her.

“I’ve been fortunate to have had the door open for me many times by many amazing male mentors,” Balkovic said naming colleagues like minor league hitting coordinator Dillon Lawson, manager of staff development Andrew Wright and senior player development director Kevin Reese as some who have touted her abilities to transition from strength and conditioning into a hitting coach role.

And even then, Balkovec stresses that she is “a product of many women that have come before me,” including her new colleague Jean Afterman. The current assistant GM is the second woman to reach that level in the Yankees organization.

Balkovec remembered the unbridled joy of knowing who she would work with. “I signed my contract and I thought, ‘I’m gonna get to talk to Jean Afterman!'”

She’ll be doing much more than talking, soon. The door is open.

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