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Ex-UNM softball player makes history with the Yankees

New York Yankees minor league hitting coach Rachel Balkovec speaks to reporters during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, in San Diego. Balkovec, who played softball at the University of New Mexico in 2007 and 2008, is believed to be the first woman hired as a full-time hitting coach by a major league organization. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Sometimes statistics are meaningless. Rachel Balkovec is a classic case in point.

Balkovec, who broke barriers when the New York Yankees hired her as a minor league hitting coach in November, credits her time as member of the University of New Mexico softball team as a springboard to her professional baseball career.

The 32-year-old ex-Lobo is currently making a roundabout drive from her Seattle home to Tampa, Florida, where she’ll report for duty on Feb. 1. Balkovec will be a full-time hitting coach for the rookie league Gulf Coast Yankees, the first woman hired by a major league organization to fill such a role.

Since then, the San Francisco Giants made a similarly historic hire. On Jan. 16, they added former Sacramento State softball player Alyssa Nakken to their major league coaching staff. While women have begun serving on coaching staffs in the NFL and NBA, Nakken is believed to be the first woman named to a big league coaching staff.

Nakken, the Giants have said, will be in uniform and work with all the coaches on the technical aspects of the game. Balkovec, meanwhile, will sport the uniform of the Gulf Coast Yankees when the 2020 season begins.

Could anyone have seen this coming back in 2007 and ’08, when Balkovec was sporting a UNM jersey and playing catcher at the school’s south campus?

Not by looking at her stats.

Balkovec appeared in 13 games in 2007, collecting one hit in 13 at-bats. She struck out in her only plate appearance of 2008.

But Balkovec’s numbers don’t begin to tell her story. Mental anxiety severely limited Balkovec’s playing career, a condition often described with another term.

“I had the yips,” Balkovec said during a recent phone interview. “I was a catcher who couldn’t consistently throw the ball back to the pitcher at game time. It was absolutely horrible at the time.”

Frustrating as it was, Balkovec does not consider her UNM softball career a failure. Far from it.

In fact, her on-field struggles pushed Balkovec in other directions that would ultimately lead to coaching and professional baseball.

“I learned so much from my New Mexico experience,” she said, “very positive. You really can’t measure it by my stats.”

Finding strength

Balkovec grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and played softball at Creighton before transferring to UNM. She says relocating to Albuquerque was an easy decision.

“I just love how diverse New Mexico is,” she said. “I didn’t even need to visit before I transferred.”

Softball proved to be a much greater challenge, but Balkovec did not let her anxiety issues force her away from the team.

“I remember her spending a lot of time in the bullpen, working with the pitchers,” said former UNM teammate Samantha Hughes. “Rachel was so positive and encouraging – and she was my idol in the gym. She could lift more than any of us.”

Rachel Balkovec is seen in action as a University of New Mexico softball player in an undated photo. (UNM Athletics photo)

UNM’s weight room became something of a sanctuary for Balkovec and she flourished under the guidance of strength coach Joaquin Chavez. Balkovec began to find working with weights more satisfying than softball.

“Joaquin was old-school, but he really helped me,” Balkovec said. “He was elite in teaching weights and technique, and he always said, ‘If you work, you’ll see results.’ That wasn’t true for me with softball, but it was with weights.”

Chavez, now UNM’s assistant director for athletic performance, remembers putting in extra time with Balkovec.

“She was physically gifted and made progress pretty fast,” Chavez said. “But she was also a person who wanted to push herself and break things down. I taught her weightlifting movements and mechanics and tried to get her out of her comfort zone. She seemed to appreciate that.”

The training impacted more than Balkovec’s physical conditioning.

“I went to UNM wanting to get into psychology,” she said. “Then I decided I wanted to be a strength coach.”

Diamond vision

Balkovec went on to earn two master’s degrees in kinesiology and the science of human movement, but she did not initially see herself working in professional baseball. That, she says, changed during a span where she dated former UNM Lobo and Albuquerque Isotope Brian Cavazos-Galvez.

“I was climbing the ladder in my strength career when he was playing,” Balkovec said. “I really learned pro baseball through Brian and became fascinated.”

In 2012 Balkovec was hired as an intern by the St. Louis Cardinals and worked with their rookie league affiliate in Johnson City, Tennessee. She was named Appalachian League strength coach of the year, but it did not immediately lead to full-time employment.

The following year Balkovec applied for jobs with 15 baseball teams but got no responses until she changed the name on her résumé from Rachel to simply “Rae.” The change brought numerous responses but no baseball job offers, and she spent the year waitressing and selling active wear.

UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham, who got to know Balkovec during her time in Albuquerque, wanted to hire her as a strength coach in 2013. Things did not come together, but Birmingham said he wasn’t surprised when the Cardinals hired Balkovec as a minor league strength and conditioning coordinator.

“Passion and work ethic are how she’s moved up,” Birmingham said. “Even when she was playing softball here, she always worked really, really hard. You knew it would pay off at some point.”

In 2016, Balkovec moved on to the Houston Astros organization, where she became the first female Latin America strength and conditioning coordinator and later took a position as strength coach with the Astros’ Class Double-A affiliate, the Corpus Christi Hooks.

Balkovec admits that getting her foot in the door of a historically male-dominated industry was difficult and, at times, frustrating. She’s glad she persevered.

“I remember in 2013 when I was waitressing, I thought, ‘This is something I want. If I have the capability to do it, I need to follow through for other women or I’m wasting my time.’

“Getting a job in women’s college sports would have been easier, no doubt. But that was not my dream.”

Eye on the ball

Perhaps the most unlikely step in Balkovec’s journey is her latest one – becoming a hitting coach in the Yankees organization. After all, she had just one hit in two seasons at UNM.

But Balkovec is well-qualified to contribute in the ever-expanding area of analytics. She has studied eye tracking for hitters and hip movements of pitchers and uses new technology to help hitters pick up release points faster and track pitches longer.

New York Yankees minor league hitting coach Rachel Balkovec, center, speaks to reporters at the Major League Baseball winter meetings Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

“Swing is important,” Balkovec said, “but it’s only one slice of the pie. Technology allows us to track hitters’ pupils now, and the guys who see the ball and track it best are the most successful. In a nutshell, that’s some of what we work on.”

Balkovec credits Yankees hitting coordinator Dillon Lawson, whom she met while working for the Astros, for mentoring her in the analytical approach to hitting. It was Lawson who hired Balkovec to become part of the Yankees’ team of hitting coaches.

The announcement of Balkovec’s hiring drew more than a few cheers from those who knew her when.

“I’ve followed Rachel’s career,” Hughes said, “and when I saw that post from the Yankees it send chills down my spine. To see her making those huge strides is so encouraging to female athletes, even washed-up former players like me.”

Chavez added, “I’m just so darn proud of her, it’s unbelievable.”

For her part, Balkovec couldn’t help laughing when asked what her UNM softball self might have thought had she been told of her future New York Yankees role.

“That’s hilarious,” Balkovec said. “But honestly, I remember when I was in fourth grade our teacher asked us what we wanted to be as adults. I wanted to be the first female kicker in the NFL. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but I’ve always been like this: have a dream and go after it.”

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