The day starts early at the Cardinals' spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla., when the sun has yet to break the horizon and the outfield is still slick with dew. It'll be a while yet before scrambled eggs are available in the clubhouse and hours before the crack of bats or the snap of leather can be heard. That happens after 8 a.m. ET, when upwards of 80 Cardinals Minor League players show up for a day of extended spring training. Baseball activities are early -- games at noon with weight-room workouts afterwards. But Rachel Balkovec has been on-site since 4:45 a.m. She's already lifted, and now, she toes the left-field line, glances at her watch and sprints into the pre-dawn mist. When the players arrive, Balkovec will be showered and ready to run their stretch, because at this men's club, she is the woman in charge.
Change comes slowly to baseball, but the Cardinals proved they're ahead of the curve when, in February, they hired Balkovec to be their Minor League strength and conditioning coordinator. She is the first and only female to hold a position as a full-time strength coach in Major League affiliated baseball.
"I think a lot of teams worry that hiring a woman can create another issue to deal with that is outside of the game," said Oliver Marmol, manager of the State College Spikes, the Cardinals' Class A short season affiliate. "They're afraid something might happen with a player or staff member, that someone might be out of line and say something or be disrespectful. But when you carry yourself the way Rachel does and you're professional about the way you go about your daily work, it's not a problem and it won't be a problem."
Watch Balkovec, who is 26, in the weight room for just a moment, either lifting on her own or working with her players, and it's obvious she knows her stuff. She can power clean more than most of her players and bang out pull-ups with ease. When 15-plus Cardinals come in for a lift, she floats around like a bumble bee from one to the next, spotting their reps, correcting their form and pushing them with just the right amount of sternness.