Baseball arrived at a landmark moment this week when the Yankees introduced Rachel Balkovec as the manager of the Tampa Bay Tarpons, their Low A affiliate. Balkovec — who at one point in her career started listing her first name in job applications as “Rae” because she’d stopped receiving call-backs despite immensely impressive credentials — became the first woman ever appointed as manager of a minor league team.
To Red Sox minor league coach Bianca Smith, the moment brought considerable happiness, less for Balkovec’s status as a trailblazer than simply out of excitement for a friend.
“It was coming. I knew it wouldn’t be too long before she got that position. I’m not surprised at all,” said Smith, who met Balkovec in person for the first time last weekend after a year of conversations and advice. “The significance really doesn’t have to do with the fact that she’s a woman being hired as manager. It’s just because I think she deserves the role.”
Smith, 30, is determined to forge her own managerial path. She made headlines a year ago when, after years coaching in college and after multiple front office internships, she became the first Black woman hired to coach in affiliated baseball.
Hired on a seasonal, six-month contract last year, Smith spent the year in Fort Myers, Fla., working in extended spring training and then coaching for the Red Sox’ Florida Complex League affiliate. Initially, she worked chiefly with hitters and outfielders. Over the season, her role expanded into other areas, including baserunning, coaching first base, and helping with managerial duties.
“It was a great opportunity,” said Smith. “I think I ended up doing a lot more than even I expected to, but it was exactly what I was looking for.
“The fact that the Red Sox were so open to giving me those responsibilities and letting me roll with them, I definitely appreciate it and it’s something that I’m looking forward to building off of.”
For the first time, Smith worked in baseball without holding an additional job in support of that pursuit. That meant long days focused on nothing but baseball and player development, sometimes starting with pre-dawn time in the cage followed by morning meetings with the coaching staff, then a full day of workouts and games.
The long hours proved rewarding, particularly given the varied responsibilities and opportunities for growth.
“This was actually better than I thought it would be,” said Smith. “The lightbulb for me was that I might have been coaching for several years [in college], but every coaching position I had, I always had another job.
“This is the first time I spent my entire day just coaching. I had nothing else to worry about after, nothing else to worry about before. And that was even better for me. It’s cemented that, yes, this is what I want to do. I absolutely loved it.”
Smith, who is being promoted to a full-time coaching role in Fort Myers in 2022, is now part of a different form of history in the Red Sox organization. Katie Krall, who spent 2020 and 2021 working as a baseball operations analyst in the Reds front office after almost two years in the Commissioner’s Office as part of the MLB Diversity Fellowship program, has been hired as a development coach with the Double A Portland Sea Dogs.
Krall will have a hybrid role in which she navigates among the front office, coaching staff, and players, while helping to integrate technology and information into on-field work. With the appointment of Krall to join Smith, the Sox are the first team to have multiple women on coaching staffs in the organization.
“I’m super excited about Katie,” said Smith. “I know her background. I know what she’s done.
“I’m glad I’m able to be a resource to help. I’m excited to work with her. We’ve already talked about how we’ve got to get a picture when we’re together at spring training, because that’s going to be history in itself — that an organization has two women.
“It’s kind of sad that it’s still a big deal, but we’re both really excited about it.”
As Smith noted, it’s a modest milestone but not insignificant. Balkovec, in her introductory press conference, reflected on the “lonely” beginning of her coaching career, when there wasn’t another woman in the coaching ranks to whom she could relate. In 2022, there will be 11 women coaching in affiliated baseball, eight (including Smith and Krall) who have been hired since the start of 2021.
That said, the league’s progress in gender diversity remains modest. The vast interest in Balkovec’s managerial appointment suggests as much.
“I want to be a visible idea for young women,” said Balkovec. “I want to be a visible idea for dads that have daughters. I want to be out there. I take that very seriously.”
For Smith, the promotion of Balkovec represents cause for celebration but not necessarily inspiration. A year ago, as she started her Red Sox coaching career, Smith made clear her goals of becoming a big league manager. Those ambitions remain unaltered.
“I still want to manage in the majors,” said Smith. “If she hadn’t been hired, I have no doubt that I’ll get there. If she makes my job a little bit easier getting there, that’s great. But I think I’m going to make it either way.
“But now I’m happy for her just because that’s what she wants to do. And it’s something that she deserves.”