Their eyes were burning holes in the back of my head while I confidently coached two of our players through the foundational technique of a front squat.
I often get questioned about the Latin players and how they receive me being a woman in their setting. Not only are they teenaged boys, but they are also heralding from 4-5 countries in which women seldom hold positions of power. They don’t even have college athletics meaning that the concept of female athletes in general is foreign to say the least. While the players that I am working with directly in our organization have grown accustomed to my presence very quickly, players from other organizations often shoot curious looks my way when they first see me. AND THEN, when I open up my mouth only to rattle off Spanish with a solid Dominican accent, they can’t help but gawk. At times I think they might faint.
In a recent trip to our Dominican academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, I experienced this yet again. It’s a common professional courtesy in baseball to let the visiting team use your weight room if they need to get in a workout with their players while on the road. So, when the visiting team strength coach asked for the favor, we obliged. He brought in 5-10 of their players to complete lifts during the game. I also had two of our own players in the weight room during that time to complete an orientation for the next phase of their workouts. I was talking non stop (in Spanish) as most of the movements were new to them.
At one point, I stopped both of them during an exercise because they weren’t quite catching on to the form. It was a pull up. I stopped them and had them watch as I demonstrated 2 reps in the correct fashion. I completed the reps smoothly and spoke through the entire movement with ease as I am usually able to complete sets of 8 and performing 2 reps was not challenging. I dropped to the ground from the pull up bar and turned back to the players to make sure they understood only to find huge grins on their faces. I asked, “Que paso?” (What’s going on?)
I really didn’t need to ask. I could tell what they were grinning at by their gaze that went right past me to the visiting team’s players whom were working out in the background. Those players had not seen me before and were likely gawking at a woman’s ability to do pull ups better than they could dream of. I glanced in the mirror to my right just in time to see the 16-18 year-old boys look away and pretend as if they weren’t staring. I wasn’t offended by their confusion or by their stares. It’s something that happens often while I am there. I turned my attention back to my players who were now smiling wide. One of them said, “It’s like you’re Santa Clause.” Insinuating that I was just a figure of their imagination.
Language can be devastating to communication. But the idea that I am representing to these players doesn’t need translation.
Santo Domingo is only a short, 2-hour flight from Miami, but the difference in cultures from the United States to the Dominican Republic is staggering in many ways. Athletics is no exception. University programs are non-existent. Baseball completely dominates every other sport in the country, but the athletes that will have a career in baseball are signed when they are 16 years old and there are no opportunities to play in college in their country. Similar to the recruiting process today in NCAA athletics, if you haven’t been signed by the time you are 17 to play professional baseball, you most likely never will be. With the absence of college athletics, there is also an absence of female athletes. Beyond the Olympic teams in the Dominican Republic, there are literally zero high level sports programs in which women participate. This then leads to a lack of women coaches, athletic trainers and strength coaches.
On the ride home from the complex to the hotel every day, I often see young women walking on the sidewalk along the streets. Some of them are garnering backpacks and walking with their friends (seemingly coming from school) while others are not. Others are scantily clad and walking aimlessly. They are young. Too young. Possibly age 15. As sad and crude as this may sound, some of them are selling their bodies to make money for their families. Yes, I’m aware that this happens all over the world (and in some areas of the United States). However, it seems to be commonplace there. It saddens me. What does her future look like? Who will her husband be? Has she been abused? Does she have any aspirations to do more? To strive to better herself? Does she have any positive role models? It’s a tough pill to swallow for someone like me. The gender discrimination that I had to face when getting into this career field is nothing when I compare it to her challenges. I had and will continue to have more opportunities in my life than she could even dream of. Literally- she can’t even dream of them because she’s never been exposed to a strong woman as a role model. That is her life and that is what she has accepted.
This has a less than desirable effect on the young men in this environment. That is the type of woman that they see all too often. Women are often viewed as being in existence for only a couple of reasons. To have children and to take care of those children. (Keep in mind that I am not referring to every single citizen of the Dominican Republic. There are most definitely exceptions to this situation.) As a result of the young women that I talked about in the previous paragraph, the young men in the country often do not have a concept of what a woman is capable of doing. Again, there are some women in the Dominican Republic who have escaped this life and even attained positions of power. However, they are few and far between and the population of people that are exposed to them are often only the most educated in the country. Too many of our players do not have that luxury.
Let’s go back to the weight room that I was in on Friday and back to the visiting team’s players who were obviously staring at me while I whisked through the weight room explaining complex concepts to two pitchers and demonstrating difficult exercises. I’ve started to realize that the incredible impact I can have on this particular genre of players transcends just teaching them proper form, improving their squat max or even developing a sense of discipline. The thing that I can do for these players is plant a seed in their head – a seed that particularly pertains to women.
“What is that?” they must be thinking. Not only is she a white woman working in baseball in the Dominican Republic. She is working in the weight room. AND, she is speaking Spanish. AND! She just did 2 pull ups better than I can! (#mindblown) While I am a bit unique in every setting in baseball, most American players can at least fathom that a woman like me would exist. After all, in an age where Ronda Rousey is attracting global attention, Monica Abbott just made history in receiving a million-dollar contract and Serena Williams has been a household name for over a decade, athletic women are no longer a rarity. Furthermore, a sizable percentage of our athletes in professional baseball attended universities in which female athletes were commonplace and female coaches were most definitely present. As much as I am different in the way that there is only one of me in this particular realm, athletic women are commonplace in their minds and they are often shocked to hear that I am the only female strength coach in professional baseball.
The visiting team’s players continued to stare at me as if I were the Easter Bunny right up until we finished the training session and walked out of the gym. I was a mere figure of their imagination and in their minds until that point, I didn’t exist. How on Earth could the players respect me? How could they take direction from me? I have had some of my current Latin players with the Astros tell me that they saw me when I was working with the St. Louis Cardinals (2012-2016) and had wondered how the players could ever work with me. They now understand after working with me directly that I’m about business and I’m there to help them. Just like any other coach.
I’m not bothered by the stares. In fact, I’m hoping that they do stare. As with any other thing in my life, I am not offended, but instead view this as an opportunity to teach and to learn. Have I been harassed? Yep. Have I been told blatantly discriminatory things to my face? Yep. Have I lost out on job opportunities because of my gender? You betcha. Does it bother me? Not any more. I would liken it to a person signing a waver at a gym before beginning to indicate that they understand the risks and the potential harm. It comes with the territory. Unlike the waiver that you sign at the gym, the more women who willingly sign that waiver, the less that waiver will be necessary – and eventually it won’t exist. I’m hoping they get a good look at what a woman can be. I’m hoping they realize that a woman who has education, career aspirations and an authoritative presence is something they desire for themselves in a girlfriend, wife and eventually in a daughter.
Language barriers can be devastating to communication. At times, they can prevent true relationships between coaches and players from forming in our setting. I’ve worked hard to learn their language to prevent this, but some cultural distance will always exist between us. Most of them struggle to pronounce my name, ‘Rachel,’ (*They often refer to me affectionately as ‘Raquelita.’) and virtually none of them can remember my impossibly European last name, ‘Balkovec.’ But while they will all likely forget my name, I hope that none of them will forget the idea that I represent.