Call Me Coach
tWhen I first emailed the Oakland A’s to ask about a coaching job, it didn’t happen.
Or the next year, when I sent a second email.
And the year after that, when, you guessed it, I sent another email.
I had thrown batting practice for the A’s in 2011 and stayed in touch with Billy Beane, dropping him a note when I completed my PhD in sports psychology, just to keep him in the loop. I had developed a good relationship with Billy after throwing batting practice and knew they were the team I wanted to pursue coaching with. I figured getting to the instructional league would be my best bet — coaches are often invited, many from across the world, to learn the game and show what they know.
But this past July, I decided to reach out once again. I’m not sure I can explain why I thought fourth time would be the charm, but I just had this feeling.
One thing I am sure of, though, is that you don’t break barriers without being incredibly, insanely persistent. You put in the work, make yourself qualified and then just keep banging on the door. (Or pressing that send button.)
Although I was turned down those first few times and I could have approached other teams, I knew I wanted to keep pushing with Billy. As a franchise, especially with Billy at the helm, they’re progressive, they’re relationship based, and they’re not afraid to do something different, even if it takes a little nudging.
So I fired off an email to Billy, who had given me some other names to include on the message, including David Forst, the A’s new general manager. And a short time later, I had a message from David and the A’s in my inbox.
They had invited me to come and coach during their fall instructional league in Arizona.
There’s been a lot of talk these past couple of years about the strides women have made in sports, whether in our own leagues, or crossing over into the men’s game, which, of course, are great. But we don’t want to be a headline or a PR move for a team, neither of which the A’s tried to do with me.
Once October rolled around, there was very little media or fanfare, other than helping to promote my own nonprofit, Baseball For All, so I was able to just focus on being coach. And that’s key: whether it’s my story, or Becky Hammon’s, or Nancy Lieberman’s — we don’t want to be “the first” or “the female coach.” We just want to be “coach.” I often get asked about whether my hiring, or that of women before me, is just a feel-good move. To that I say, just look at our resumes. There’s nothing on them that smacks of stunts.
The question we should be asking is: Why do we need PhD’s just to get on the field or on the court?
I don’t want to say I’m over qualified, but there is this long standing thought that because we haven’t had the same playing opportunities as men, we have to overcompensate with other things we can bring to the table. For me, that meant education — as much education as I could possibly get.
Like most people, I grew up playing baseball with kids around town. We lived in a Cleveland suburb, and at our dinner table, there wasn’t a conversation that didn’t include the Indians. My grandfather had season tickets, and would take me and my brother to the ballpark. When we got older, we’d take the Rapid to catch games and hopefully some autographs.
But then baseball got a little more difficult. I faced my first real discrimination at 13, when my new coach said he didn’t want me to play because girls play softball. That’s when I decided that I’d play baseball forever. When I was 16, I told one of my baseball coaches that I wanted to be a college coach. He laughed at me and said, “A man would never listen to a woman on the baseball field.” That one was pretty devastating. But then I thought, who is he? Who is he to say what men would do? Who is he to say that I couldn’t pursue this dream? And that’s when I decided I needed to get that PhD because I wasn’t going to get the same playing opportunities as men. But I could at least out-degree most of them.
I love baseball. I truly do. But a part of me wonders, if I didn’t have to work so hard on the field, whether I would’ve just moved on. The more I was told I couldn’t do it, the more I was sure I was going to. I just refused to quit. So here I am. As much as it isn’t a stunt for the teams, it’s also not a whim for us. I didn’t wake up one day and think, Oh, I’d like to be a coach for Major League Baseball! My resume was built up systematically. I started preparing for it when I was a young girl. I started working in camps, I started reading. It’s not a whim. It’s a lifetime of work.
A lifetime of work that stared right back at me this summer in David’s email.
Three months later, I arrived in Arizona. I sat in front of my very own locker, with my very own A’s uniform, with my new green cleats. My first day, the A’s first-round draft pick, Richie Martin, just a 20-year-old kid, came up to introduce himself. We hadn’t even gotten to the field yet and he was already there, shaking my hand. Another player came up to talk about his hitting with me. The players respect when you’ve been through walls to be there. And when you can show them what you’re doing and that you care about them, they’ll listen.
Now, as a rookie coach, you’re not going to change anybody. But I think players are very comfortable with me. I may not be changing their pitches or hitting too drastically at this point, but I think I’m really good at helping with their mental game, and putting them at ease. And that’s really important. If every coach has the same exact skill, you’re going to have a stale staff. But when you can bring diversity, all of a sudden we flourish.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing throughout instructs. This one afternoon, I didn’t throw batting practice as well as as I thought I should have. I was really upset with myself because in my world, when I do something poorly, it’s a reason why people get rid of me. As a woman trying to become a coach in a men’s league, I live in a world where mistakes aren’t allowed — where I have to sort of be invisible and perfect all at once.
So at the coaches’ meeting in the next morning, I felt I needed to tell them how I felt I did badly, how disappointed I was in myself — basically, that I was really sorry that I didn’t throw a good batting practice the day before. I think it goes back to constantly feeling like I need to justify why I’m here and why I belong in the room, too.
As I was talking to them, I hear one of the coaches say something that I’ve never been told on a baseball field:
“Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.”
I immediately relaxed. Then all these coaches started telling me about their worst batting practices. It was one of the most special moments I’ve had in baseball.
We’ve got your back. I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone to tell me that.
The next step now is coaching at spring training, and maybe, one day, for an entire MLB season. I haven’t gotten asked yet, but with each dream realized, there’s another one right behind it.
I made a deal with myself to just get to instructs. I always thought if I could just prove myself, then who knows what the possibilities would be. Because when you do the impossible all the time, you take it in steps.
Beyond that, do I think we’ll see more women like me in the future — that it will be the norm? Yes. And that’s why I do it. Because there’s some 10-year-old kid who has a plan, who is waiting for her own cleats, waiting for her own locker.
Waiting to be called coach.
For more information on Justine’s work, visit www.baseballforall.com