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They're Up! Minor League Facility Standards Are Creating New Standards For Women In Baseball

Every journey begins with a single step. For women in baseball, that journey began in earnest in 2015.

That November, the Astros hired Rachel Balkovec to be the organization’s full-time Latin America strength and conditioning coordinator. She had previously served internships with the Cardinals and White Sox organizations, working in the strength and conditioning departments.

In 2020, the Yankees hired Balkovec as a minor league hitting coach. She was the first woman to be hired full-time in that role, too.

This year, Balkovec not only made history. She made national headlines when the Yankees named her manager of their Low-A Tampa affiliate. She won her debut on April 8, when she officially became the first woman to manage an affiliated minor league team.

In the span of seven seasons, baseball went from having zero female coaches to having a woman in the dugout, one entrusted with managing Jasson Dominguez and a host of other Yankees prospects.

While the minor leagues were slow to adapt to the realities of women shattering the glass ceiling, Major League Baseball took note when it assumed governance of the minor leagues in 2021. MLB introduced new provisions aimed at improving working conditions for women at all levels of the minor leagues.

For years, basic needs such as access to a bathroom and locker room had been neglected.

The last time minor league facility standards saw a major overhaul was via the 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and the minors. MLB seized the opportunity to set new facility guidelines when the last PBA expired in December 2020, following a minor league season that was canceled by the pandemic.

Beyond requiring brighter stadium lights and covered batting and pitching tunnels, MLB, which now operates the minor leagues, instituted new facility standards that require minor league teams to provide designated spaces for female staffers.

Since Balkovec’s initial hire in 2015, the number of women in baseball grew steadily until 2019. That’s when the number of females serving in coaching and player development roles jumped from seven to 21, according to a report published by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

The Hiring Wave Of 2019

While there is no one clear reason why the number of women working in coaching and player development roles tripled in 2019, theories abound as to why.

MLB introduced initiatives such as the Diversity and Inclusion Scout Development program, with participants receiving scouting instruction and in-person scouting opportunities at Arizona Fall League games. The program resembles the old “scout school” program put on by the MLB Scouting Bureau before its dissolution.

That program is where M’Lynn Dease got her start in pro ball. At the conclusion of the program, 27 of the 29 participants received job offers to work in baseball.

Even after landing her dream job as a Cubs area scout in the Carolinas, Dease is constantly reminded that she will have to work even harder to prove herself.

Dease, who was formerly a Baseball America intern, recalls a conversation she had during her interview process with the Cubs.

“(I was told:) ‘If we’re going to hire you, I just want you to know that I’m not going to treat you any differently or see you differently,’ ” Dease said.

“I was, like, ‘Well, I appreciate that.’ It’s a good advantage I have as a woman. I feel like I could do things a little differently as far as bringing a different perspective on evaluating players.”

Another avenue of thought is that a shift toward analytics could have played a role in changing hiring practices.

When teams began to remove the prerequisite of hires being former players, the candidate pool opened up. When organizations started seeing success from shifting their hiring practices, it might have caused them to examine standards at other positions.

“When I was in the university setting, there were females everywhere—female athletes, there were other female coaches, nutritionists,” said Vanessa Escanilla, a strength and conditioning coach for the Phillies’ High-A Jersey Shore affiliate.

“So, it was interesting to go to a place where they didn’t. Maybe (baseball executives) were just seeing, ‘Well, other sports have women (and) universities have women in these roles, coming from a science background or an analytical background. What is the difference in baseball?’ ”

Perhaps it is a case of organizations finally listening and changing their hiring practices.

“I think the more of us who enter the circle, the louder we’re getting, and the more that we’re being heard,” said Michelle Kuda, a strength and conditioning coach in the Giants organization. “It’s having a ripple effect, essentially, across organizations.”

New facility 
standards could 
trigger another wave

“(Women) are not going to not be a part of this because of where the bathroom is,” said a female vice president working in baseball operations. “There are bigger, uglier hurdles than that. But the symbolic inclusion of these facilities . . . it’s not nothing.”

Women are still working twice as hard to get interviews for jobs they are overqualified for and being asked to explain how they can do their job given their gender.

“Thinking about if they will have access to a bathroom or not is not at the forefront of their minds,” said Grace Cullen in a half-joking manner. Cullen is a strength and conditioning coach in the Cardinals organization.

But was that actually the holdup? Organizations would say that they couldn’t hire women because they didn’t have a designated space for them. But some think that was a cover story or excuse.

“I would be lying if I said that there weren’t organizations that were leaning on that excuse, unfortunately,” said a female vice president working in baseball operations. “As women who want to be part of this industry, the game, and have a passion and love to be around it, we understand and realize that there’s a certain level of (BS) that we will tolerate.

“We’re not in a male-dominated industry, but it’s male-populated for sure.”

Kuda told a story about when she first started, a male strength and conditioning coach told her that as a woman she shouldn’t be too picky about what jobs she was applying for.

“Looking back, can you imagine if I actually followed that advice,” Kuda asked. “If he had said that to someone else who actually took that advice to heart . . . It’s really discouraging to basically be told that I shouldn’t dream big or go after my job that I really want because I’m a woman.”

That is just an example of what women in baseball deal with—and will continue to deal with—until their presence is normalized.


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Next steps

“If you’re in a field of flowers and there’s one red flower there, everyone’s going to avert their eyes to that flower,” Cullen said. “I think that it’s better being around a bunch of other females, too, because it’s more normalized.”

It seems the easy answer would be to tell organizations to hire more women in these roles. However, just because women are in the building doesn’t mean they have fully been accepted into the boys club that has long existed in MLB front offices.

Escanilla is expecting her first child, making her the first pregnant coach in Phillies history—potentially in all of baseball. When she first found out, her mind immediately went to work.

“Paternity leave in baseball is three days,” Escanilla said. “I’m going to need a little more time than that. Thankfully, the timing of my due date is almost right into the offseason.”

The Phillies organization worked with Escanilla to guarantee more than three days off, but it is something teams will need to think about moving forward. She may be the first, but she certainly will not be the last.

When you are the first, many people have comments or criticism. Heads have turned at the ballpark when Escanilla is on the field and whispers about how she can do this job while pregnant have started.

She’s not alone in experiencing bias based on her gender.

Hateful Twitter messages and comments circulated after Dease’s hiring by the Cubs was announced. The replies showed a common thread.

“I was kind of in shock,” Dease said. “People are mean. There were a lot of comments like, ‘She’s a woman. She can’t do this job.’ ”

These coaches, staff members and scouts are not asking to not face criticism. They are just asking for the basis of the complaints to not be based on gender alone. When people working in and around baseball see this as normal, fans and outsiders will follow suit.

Many organizations have already made hiring women a normal practice. Some are still in the process of hiring women for the first time.

“I am going to bet on the woman,” said a female vice president working in baseball operations. “I’m going to bet on the fact that the skills, the talent and the value-added will be undeniable.

“I don’t want to put all that pressure on (the Giants’) Alyssa (Nakken). I don’t want to put pressure on Rachel (Balkovec), (the Marlins’) Kim (Ng) or anyone. However, I just feel like the strengths, talents and values that a female perspective can offer will be undeniable.”

Nakken and Ng are pioneers in their own right, the former as the first on-field coach in MLB history and the latter as the first female general manager in major North American team sports.

Creating facilities, uniforms made specifically for women and human relations practices are the first steps towards making women currently working in baseball feel more included and accepted.

It is a great first step, but just another step in the journey started by Balkovec and other women in baseball.

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