Women rising the ranks in MLB coaching roles

Written by: Janey Murray

When Alyssa Nakken took to first base for an exhibition game against the Athletics in July 2020, she didn’t immediately think much of it.

The Giants assistant coach was in her first season with the club, and while she had coached first base throughout Summer Camp, the exhibition game marked her first time in the role against another team.

“I kind of took at as, ‘OK, yeah, this is my job – I’m here to coach, and I’ve been taking the reps in the intersquads and in Summer Camp. I’m so ready for this,’” Nakken told the Hall of Fame in November 2020. “I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t questioning if I was ready – I was ready. I went out, and I had a great time being out there.”

When she got a chance to check her phone after the game, Nakken quickly realized the weight it held for fans to see a woman on the field coaching first base – albeit on TV, as no fans were allowed at games in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020.

Nakken was one of the first in a wave of female coaches rising through the ranks of numerous MLB organizations. She was hired to join then-new manager Gabe Kapler’s Giants staff in January 2020, becoming the first woman to hold a coaching position on a big league team. In 2022, at least 11 women will work as on-field coaches across major and minor league clubs.

“I think that there’s going to be so many more women entering, not just coaching roles but also executive roles, in Major League Baseball and for specific teams. It’s going to come fast, in my opinion,” Nakken accurately predicted in 2020. “There are so many rock star women that are in baseball right now. It’s just a matter of time that they start to get put into some elevated positions.”

Nakken’s journey to the Giants began as a young softball player growing up in Woodland, Calif. After playing softball at Sacramento State University, Nakken earned a master’s degree in sport management from the University of San Francisco.

In March 2014, during her master’s program, Nakken started with the Giants as a baseball operations intern. She’s been with the organization ever since.

In her current role, Nakken assists the coaching staff in nearly every aspect of the game, with a focus on baserunning and outfield positioning.

“I’m here to assist the coaches and put them in a position to come to work every day ready to make a difference in these athletes,” Nakken said. “These guys are Major League Baseball players. They know how to play the game, and I learn from them every single day as much as they learn from us as coaches…Coaching isn’t always as much about making the physical adjustments to somebody, but it’s also about understanding each athlete at the human level.”

After she made her major league coaching debut in 2020, Nakken donated the jersey she wore during San Francisco’s season opener to the Hall of Fame, where it is now on display in the Giants locker within the Museum’s Your Team Today exhibit.

Also represented within the Hall of Fame’s collection is Rachel Balkovec, who will break down another barrier in 2022 by becoming the first woman to serve as a full-time manager in affiliated baseball. In January 2022, Balkovec was named manager of the Yankees’ Low-A affiliate, the Tampa Tarpons.

Balkovec, who has been a coach in professional baseball for 10 years, previously served as a hitting coach in the rookie-level Florida Complex League for the Yankees. When she took on that role in 2019, she became the first female full-time hitting coach in an MLB organization. In July 2021, she broke yet another glass ceiling, when she became the first woman to serve as a coach in the MLB Futures Game. She donated her cap from that game to the Hall of Fame.

Balkovec doesn’t take lightly the responsibility she holds as a trailblazer in the game.

“I don’t think you sign your name on the dotted line to do something like this and then say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a role model,’” Balkovec told MLB.com in 2022. “I want to be a visible idea for young women. I want to be a visible idea for dads that have daughters; I want to be out there. I have two jobs, and that’s fine.”

On the same day Balkovec was named to her previous role in 2019, the Cubs took on a groundbreaking new hire of their own, naming Rachel Folden as a lead hitting lab tech and fourth coach for Rookie League Mesa.

Several new faces joined the mix of female coaches in 2021. In January, Bianca Smith was brought on by the Red Sox as a minor league coach, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a coach in professional baseball. Later that same month, the Brewers named Sara Goodrum as their minor league hitting coordinator. Goodrum has since joined the Astros as their director of player development.

“You’re starting to see, in all industries, the importance of diversity of thought and diversity of perspective,” Nakken said. “As females, we bring that to a team, we bring that to an organization, we bring that to a corporation.”

At least seven new female coaches will take the field within MLB organizations in 2022: Veronica Alvarez, a catching instructor in the Athletics’ system; Gretchen Aucoin, a development coach in the Mets’ system; Kayla Baptista, a development coaching apprentice in the Rangers’ system; Caitlyn Callahan, a development coach in the Pirates’ system; Ronnie Gajownik, a coach in the Diamondbacks’ system; Katie Krall, a development coach in the Red Sox system; and Jaime Vieira, a hitting coach in the Blue Jays’ system.

Only time will tell how many more firsts will be accomplished by these female coaches and others in the years to come.

“There’s got to be a first for everything,” Smith told MLB.com in 2022. “It’s not an if, it’s a when. When it happens.”

Janey Murray is the digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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