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The first woman to coach in the majors, Alyssa Nakken works to open more of baseball's doors

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 8/7/2020 Marisa Ingemi

Alyssa Nakken’s jersey is in Cooperstown.

But history aside, she just wants to do her job.

“I’m seeing my face a lot more, but in the day-to-day, things are the same,” said Nakken, the first woman to serve on an MLB coaching staff. “We’re in the season now, so it really hasn’t changed that much. I’m here to work and there’s a lot that goes into every single day. When I turn on the computer or my phone there’s a lot more, but I really don’t let it faze me.”

The 83 miles from her hometown of Woodland, California, to Oracle Park, where the San Francisco Giants play, may as well have been a million, but Nakken made it. Her most visible moment came last month, when she became the first woman to coach on the field in a Major League Baseball game, serving as the first-base coach when the Giants faced the Oakland Athletics in an exhibition contest.

That history piles up every day, weeks after her on-field debut, as she forges a path no women have walked in baseball.

“The game of baseball isn’t discriminatory, it’s more the mentality,” said Nakken. “Do you have the strength and talent to be at this level, regardless of gender. I feel pretty strongly that baseball isn’t discriminatory on gender, but a lot of people think girls can’t be coaches or whatever. It’s kind of silly. My insecurities are I’m kind of young and haven’t coached at the major league level before. It’s never because I have a ponytail. I hope that can be an impact. I look forward to the day it’s not a big deal a woman is on the field of a Major League Baseball game.”

a person posing for the camera: (Albert Corona / Yahoo Sports) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports (Albert Corona / Yahoo Sports)

‘She swung like you had to get out of the way’

Nakken swung the bat like she wanted to kill the ball.

That was Sacramento State softball head coach Lori Perez’s main takeaway about the newest Giants coach.

“She’s the kind of person, when she got in the batter’s box, the defense took a step back,” said Perez. “She swung like you had to get out of the way.”

When her college coaches see Nakken on the field now, they see how she effortlessly fits in. Her presence in baseball exists outside the diamond, where she’s made the biggest impact, but she also stands out for the way she carries herself.

It reminds them of her playing days. 

“When I see her on the field with the guys, height wise, she blends right in,” said former Sacramento State softball head coach Kathy Strahan. “She’s so competitive, she loves everything she does. We called her the Pigpen of the team; when we took groundballs before the game started, her uniform was already covered in dirt from head-to-toe.”

Sacramento State’s coaching staff saw something in her from the time she was a freshman. Nakken, now 30, could play all over the field, from shortstop to pitcher to first base.

“A lot of young women came through, but she was one who stood out who was going to do something special,” said Strahan. “You knew she’d do something she was passionate about, you just didn’t know what it would be.”

After her time at Sacramento State, Nakken went to grad school at the University of San Francisco to pursue a master’s in sports management. She moved from an internship at the Sacramento State athletic department to working at Stanford, her sights set on becoming an athletic director.

“I didn’t really know jobs in professional sports existed,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Nakken worked with a variety of sports at Stanford, and when their baseball operations director quit, she picked up more responsibility with the baseball team. She was missing the experience of working with just one team when she saw an internship opening with the Giants.  

A big deal job 

The rest, as they say, is history. Nakken worked her way up and found herself interviewing for a coaching position with new Giants manager Gabe Kapler — chasing the dream she didn’t know she had.

“I never thought it was something I could do,” said Nakken. “So it’s nothing I ever pursued. I wanted to make an impact on the Giants organization. Even during the interview process, I didn’t know I was interviewing for a coaching role. The day I was offered the job, I was like, oh, I could be coaching on the field.”

“She called me and said she had some exciting news,” Strahan said, recalling the day Nakken was promoted to the coaching role. “I thought oh cool, maybe she’s getting married or something. I knew she was with the Giants, but she said, ‘Hey coach, I’m going to be an assistant coach,’ and I was like, ‘Can you say that again?’ I almost fell over, I had goosebumps.”

a baseball player holding a bat on a field: Alyssa Nakken elbow bumps Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski after a walk during the July 21 exhibition game against the A's. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports Alyssa Nakken elbow bumps Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski after a walk during the July 21 exhibition game against the A's. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The more women seen on television every night baseball is on, the more welcoming the landscape becomes for everyone.

“When my hire was announced, it was a big deal, I got a lot of calls,” said Nakken. “My best friend’s 6-year-old daughter said, ‘Why is this such a big deal?’ We had to explain to her this never happened before because so many people think women shouldn’t be in male-dominated industry. But she didn’t really see it, she was like, cool, you got a job you really wanted.”

Nakken’s success as a coach mirrors her mentality as a college player. She made an impression on her coaches from the moment she arrived, settling in as a slugging first baseman with a .303 career average to go along with 19 home runs in 562 career at-bats. 

Perez and Nakken bonded over the Giants during Nakken’s college days, both of them diehard fans of the hometown team. Nakken showed an interest in being in baseball as well as softball, but even as she pursued her goals, no one imagined even just a few years ago there would be room in an MLB organization for a woman, even one with as much promise as Nakken.

“When she was with us we didn’t know, could something like that actually happen?” said Perez. “She always had an interest in baseball. When she made her move to San Francisco, that master’s program helped her get those connections. I was not surprised, I knew she wanted to be involved.”

The changes in progress

Nakken’s fast track to the big leagues follows in the footsteps of women such as Raquel Ferreira, Boston Red Sox executive vice president and assistant general manager, and Rachel Balkovec, a New York Yankees minor league hitting coach.

The recent surge of women working in baseball is still new and relatively small; The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida gave Major League Baseball a C for gender hiring last April. They earned a B+ for racial diversity (there are no numbers on the intersection to indicate how many women of color get opportunities).

a man wearing a hat: Alyssa Nakken looks on, coaching during the Giants' game against the Rangers on Aug. 1. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports Alyssa Nakken looks on, coaching during the Giants' game against the Rangers on Aug. 1. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That was before Nakken and Balkovec, and before Christina Whitlock signed on as a minor league coach with the St. Louis Cardinals or Veronica Alvarez started working with the Oakland A’s.

“When anybody steps into a new job that’s elevated from what they were doing last, there’s a lot to learn,” said Nakken. “You’re building relationships, you make mistakes, and I have a lot of work to do and a huge responsibility. I have a lot of work to do to honor the women before me who helped push this door down.”

In 2019, just 188 women worked in baseball operations roles. No woman, in the 145 years of official major league play, has served as a manager or general manager. That remains true of the other major men’s sports leagues as well, though in the NFL and NBA, more women have already begun to take on coaching roles. Perhaps the top roles are still years away. That it’s a conversation at all speaks to the perseverance of women like Nakken who pursued baseball even when it hasn’t pursued them.

While Nakken feels she’s been welcomed by the Giants organization and the players have treated her like any other coach, she’s already had a hand in changing exclusionary measures that exist in baseball, intentional or not. For instance, she was shocked to learn when she started that women have never — literally or figuratively — had a space of their own in MLB.

“Baseball clubs never really had a place for women to change,” said Nakken. “And there are a lot of women who work with the travel aspect of baseball, nutritionists, trainers, and they’ve never had a place to change or shower. I’ve heard stories of changing in the pantries, just having workout clothes in bags or bins, and they’d change really quickly.”

When she was hired, MLB made a rule that women are to have an area where they can change without searching all around the ballpark for a bit of privacy.

Beyond her work with the team, which Nakken is most focused on, she acknowledges her mere presence has the chance to inspire and influence generations of women and non-cisgender men who want a role — a space of their own — in baseball.

“Her having her jersey in Cooperstown, I texted her when I found out,” said Perez. “Like, are you kidding me right now? I love baseball and watching the Giants play, but knowing she’s out there makes it extra special.”

Her job, her passion and livelihood, Nakken realizes, very well may not have existed if she was just a little bit earlier.

“It’s historic, and so many women had doors shut in their face because of gender and that’s the only reason why,” said Nakken. “That breaks my heart. It makes me want to push forward even though so many people are trying to push back.”

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