Cubs’ Rachel Folden is a real barrier buster

Folden is among the women making their marks as baseball coaches. She is the Cubs’ lead hitting-lab tech and a coach for rookie-level Mesa.

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Coach Rachel Folden was working with the Cubs at spring training before the coronavirus outbreak halted activities.

Coach Rachel Folden was working with the Cubs at spring training before the coronavirus outbreak halted activities.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Rachel Folden figured something out early during her first spring training with the Cubs — long before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out team activities.

None of the players care all that much that one of their coaches is a woman. As for the girls she encounters, they care very much that one of the coaches is a woman.

‘‘I’ve had quite a few people reach out that their daughters are, like, glued to the television watching baseball now,’’ Folden said. ‘‘Or their daughters know that there’s some sort of way that they can get into baseball, they don’t have to pick softball. I’ve heard that from quite a few people, actually.’’

Major League Baseball is pushing the same message. Recognizing the importance of representation when it comes to growing the game, the commissioner’s office continues to look at ways to bring more women and minorities into the sport.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida gave baseball a C for gender hiring in its most recent diversity report, which was issued last April. But MLB is hoping a hiring spree during the winter is a sign its Diversity Pipeline Program is working.

Alyssa Nakken became the first female coach on a major-league staff when she was named an assistant under new Giants manager Gabe Kapler. Folden got a job with the Cubs as their lead hitting-lab tech and a fourth coach for rookie-level Mesa. Rachel Balkovec was hired as a minor-league hitting coach with the Yankees.

Veronica Alvarez worked with the Athletics during spring training for the second consecutive year, and Christina Whitlock was hired as a minor-league coach with the Cardinals.

‘‘I’m here for a reason,’’ Nakken said. ‘‘I’m here to make an impact. People are free to think what they want to think, but it goes back to that sense of responsibility. I’m going to come in and grind and hustle and work extremely hard.’’

Nakken, Folden, Balkovec, Alvarez and Whitlock have connections to Take The Field, a development program at the winter meetings designed to incorporate women into the baseball-operations pipeline.

‘‘At Take The Field, we have the opportunity to really put some of the strongest female candidates who are out there in front of staff from the clubs,’’ said Liz Benn, the senior coordinator of labor relations and player programs for MLB. ‘‘This year we actually had a bunch of staff reach out to us asking if they could participate in Take The Field, and they were really excited to just get in front of the female job candidates and meet them.’’

MLB also is investing more in women’s baseball and softball events and programs, looking to identify and establish contact with women interested in working in the game. MLB’s increasing reliance on technology also is creating more opportunities for women.

‘‘It’s really not as much about your playing background,’’ said Tyrone Brooks, the senior director of MLB’s on-field and managerial diversity pipeline program. ‘‘It’s more about are you having a skill set that can be applied in how a team is going about trying to develop players. Obviously, technology is now playing a bigger and bigger role within player development.’’

Folden, 33, is the founder of Folden Fastpitch, a company in northwest Indiana that provides baseball and softball instruction based on biomechanics, technology and data. Folden, one of six siblings, played several sports while growing up in California, then was a star slugger for Marshall University’s softball team.

Folden also has served as a hitting consultant for Elite Baseball Training, which is run by Justin Stone. While working together on a couple of softball and baseball deals, Folden told Stone she wanted to be involved on the baseball side. So she got an opportunity to be around more baseball people, something she really enjoyed.

Stone then took a position with the Cubs in October.

‘‘When he got hired as the director of hitting, we were driving to Michigan to do a softball consulting deal, and he goes, ‘Hey, I got the job with the Cubs,’ ’’ Folden said. ‘‘I knew he was interviewing for it. He goes, ‘I got the job,’ and he goes, ‘I want you to come work with me.’ ’’

Stone recommended Folden for an interview. Cubs senior director of player development Matt Dorey said the team was impressed.

‘‘We needed to acquire talent that understood a lot of the data-driven initiatives that we were trying to implement, and she was a champion in that field,’’ Dorey said.

Folden said she has been treated like another coach with the Cubs. She spent a lot of time listening early on, looking to learn more about the players and their processes.

‘‘But they do come to me for an opinion every once in a while, and you have to be able to provide that,’’ she said. ‘‘And then if it’s good information, they don’t care, as long as it helps them.’’

Folden also is sharing her experiences with other women around the game. She texts with Balkovec and is in regular contact with ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza after they played against each other in pro softball.

When Balkovec started a fund for COVID-19 relief, Folden contributed and encouraged others to join in the effort.

‘‘A sisterhood, if you will,’’ Folden said. ‘‘That sounds so cheesy, but that’s kind of what it is. . . . It’s like we have this common ground. We can talk to each other as if we already know each other, so it’s been super helpful to just have that interaction with these women, for sure.’’

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