FORT MYERS, Fla. — When Bianca Smith joined the Red Sox’ minor league coaching staff last year at spring training — the first woman ever hired by the franchise in an on-field coaching role — the team made sure she had a place to get ready by giving her a locker room previously reserved for umpires.
Looking back, maybe the piece of paper taped over the sign on the door felt like a quick fix to a temporary need, but when Smith returned this season to a full-time coaching position, she learned very quickly how serious the Red Sox were about her place.
First, she found a permanent sign affixed to the door of what is now officially the women’s locker room.
Then, even better, she found someone else inside.
For the first time in the history of Major League Baseball, a team has two women coaches in uniform. Last January’s hiring of Katie Krall as a development coach with Double A Portland marked another step in the changing face of baseball. And when Krall made her way to JetBlue Park and first walked through that locker room door, she had company.
“I’ve had women text me when they’re visiting, saying, ‘Oh my God, your locker room is crowded,’ ” Krall said. “Which is, like, awesome, right? And it’s really a great space. It’s really nice.”
Anyone who has played sports knows a locker room is more than just a place to get dressed. It’s the room where it happens — where the conversations start, where the bowls of gum get raided, where notes are compared and camaraderie is built.
“It matters, because it shows that the Red Sox are truly trying to make sure that we’re welcome and we feel like we belong here,” Smith said. “Because they could have easily just kept the umpires locker room sign on there and said, ‘We’ll figure out something,’ and throw you anywhere. But this says, ‘This is your locker room.’ ”
It was about midway through this lockout-shortened spring when I had the chance to meet Smith and Krall, whose divergent skill sets mean they don’t often cross paths during the workday, but who agreed to sit down for a few minutes to talk some baseball.
Smith, 30, is an inside-the-lines teacher with an eye on managing a major league team someday, whereas Krall, 25, is more on a track toward a front office (or the commissioner’s office), her role with the Sox leveraging technology and analytical information into the on-field product.
They are in the baseball trenches in ways I could not have imagined when starting my own career a few decades ago, back when there were no women to be seen inside the ropes, no Kim Ng as a general manager in Miami, no Rachel Balkovec as a minor league manager with the Yankees. These women are the change, taking their turn in pushing our beautiful national pastime into a more inclusive future.
“I notice it, but I’ll be honest, sometimes I don’t feel part of it, not that I don’t recognize what we’re doing, but I get so focused on the coaching,” Smith said. “I don’t even think of myself as a woman in baseball until the offseason, when people start asking me about it. During the season, I don’t do interviews. I just coach. Here, nobody really treats me any differently.”
‘I don’t even think of myself as a woman in baseball until the offseason, when people start asking me about it. During the season, I don’t do interviews. I just coach. Here, nobody really treats me any differently.’
“I definitely think that the game is changing and I think we’re beneficiaries of that,” Krall said. “Have we reached racial or gender equality? Absolutely not. But I think it’s important that we recognize the advancements that have been made but also that the game isn’t over.
“Bianca and I have had great conversations about this — yes, these are our core responsibilities, but also little girls are going to come to us and cite us as ‘someday, that can be me.’
“We were talking about this in the car the other day, how we hope someone says, ‘I went into baseball to coach because of Bianca Smith’ or ‘I want to be in a front office because of Katie Krall.’ I think that would be incredibly gratifying to think we were a symbol and were somehow a part of somebody else’s journey.”
For the moment, they enjoy being part of each other’s worlds before Krall departs for a season in Maine, before Smith heads back to full-time work with the players. Smith practically lives at the cages, where her skills as a batting practice pitcher are as appreciated as the work she does with hitters in helping them lean into their personal strengths. Logic learned through an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and two graduate degrees in business and law is well-used in baseball.
“One thing that always fascinated me about the game is that you didn’t have to be the best athlete, didn’t have to be the fastest, the strongest, but if you knew your strengths and knew the game well, you could still be one of the better players,” Smith said.
“That’s what I loved about it, too. This is a game that anybody could play. It’s not going to be easy, but if you knew your strength, you could succeed.
“I was not a home run hitter. I was line drive, contact, but I didn’t strike out and I stole bases. As a coach, try telling a guy he’s not going to be a home run hitter [laughing] if he has speed and can use that.
“I remember how I finally got through to one player when I asked him, ‘What’s the difference between one guy hitting a double and you hitting a single and stealing second?’ And he goes, ‘Nothing, they’re both doubles.’ That’s what your strength is, not trying to elevate the ball, line-drive singles, steal second, better base running.
“For me it’s gratifying, because finding a guy’s strength means they get to play longer, they get to find value, if they provide value to the team. That’s what it is to me. I don’t care if you’re going to hit a home run or hit a single because of something I told you, as long as you find something that works for you and you can continue playing, that’s what’s gratifying for me. I helped them figure out what works for them, how they can best accomplish that.”
As Smith talks, Krall is nodding, as she too loves the way baseball can work like a puzzle, fitting pieces together in ways that not only benefit each individual player but also build an overall roster. This is her world, where spring conversations are spent in deep detail as the other coaches build their scouting reports, what information is most valued, how she can best use the work she’s done from her start in the major league office to a few years with the Reds to a short stint at Google and mash that all together to benefit the Red Sox.
“I learned this at Google: Good culture, it’s built, it doesn’t just manifest organically; bad culture can,” Krall said.
The Sox are serious about a culture built on many points of view, a tone set by manager Alex Cora.
“The two women we have here, we were able to spend time with them, everybody enjoys talking baseball with them,” Cora said. “I’ve made it clear how I feel. If you’re capable, you’re capable. It doesn’t matter if you’re Asian, Puerto Rican, American, Venezuelan, it doesn’t matter, your race or the language you speak. If you’re capable of doing a job, you should get an interview. And we’re getting to the point where we are seeing it, people are opening up.
“It’s refreshing, but the fact that we have to talk about it, I’m kind of like, ‘What are we doing?’ They’re just good. They’re good coaches and they’re helping us out to be a better organization. The less we talk about it, the more progress we’ve made, but that’s the reality, and this is where we’re at.”
As Christian Arroyo put it: “At the end of the day, if you’re female, male, it doesn’t matter. If somebody can help me in my career and knows baseball, I will always respect them.”
‘If somebody can help me in my career and knows baseball, I will always respect them.’
Christian Arroyo on working with Sox coaches Bianca Smith and Katie Krall
The changing face of baseball is here in living color. From a morning that begins in a locker room (their own) to an evening drive home (Smith has been giving Krall a lift), these women fit in — in uniform, in the mix.
“I love that Bianca is here, because she has been a phenomenal resource for me,” Krall said. “Even though this is my fourth year full-time in baseball, this is definitely a new environment, and I’m learning to navigate the dynamics, not only daily, but where I fit in the bigger picture.
“Being able to pick Bianca’s brain and to have those insights, I’m really fortunate that I have someone in-house to do that. No other team in baseball has that.”
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