We don’t yet know whether Gabe Kapler and the San Francisco Giants who knelt during the national anthem will continue their silent, peaceful protest throughout the 2020 baseball season.
Kapler, the Giants manager who along with Jaylin Davis, Mike Yastrzemski and coach Antoan Richardson took a knee during the anthem before an exhibition game Monday in Oakland, noted afterward that he and his ballclub will have 60 chances this season to “make a decision to kneel or not to kneel.”
There was another silent gesture Kapler made Monday that he likely won’t be able to replicate during the regular season, yet also was significant in its amplification.
During the late innings of the team’s game against the A’s, Kapler and staff assigned assistant coach Alyssa Nakken to coach first base, a moment rich in symbolism and emblematic of a growing movement within the game.
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COVID-19 waylaid so many hopes and plans and storylines baked into the 2020 season, including one narrative a long time coming.
This was to be the Year of the Woman in baseball.
For so many reasons – the rise of analytics, the many lanes by which advancement now occurs, perhaps merely the bending of moral justice’s arc – women have become far more prominent in the game.
This spring, four organizations introduced female coaches in myriad roles that garnered attention but shared a simple, overriding purpose: To make their players better.
This is really cool.
The #SFGiants have Alyssa Nakken coaching first base right now. pic.twitter.com/rRlusHDw7c
The New York Yankees hired Rachel Balkovec as a minor-league hitting coach, working with their Gulf Coast League and Dominican affiliates.
The Chicago Cubs tabbed Rachel Folden as a lead hitting lab tech and coach for their rookie-level Mesa, Arizona club, a direct result of her years working with the club’s new director of hitting, Justin Stone.
The St. Louis Cardinals hired Christina Whitlock in a minor league “fourth coach,” a role designed to develop coaching and scouting talent.
And after extended conversations following Kapler’s hire as the Giants’ manager, he elevated Nakken from their player development department to history: First female coach in the major leagues.
All follow in the footsteps of Justine Siegal, who served as a guest instructor in the A’s instructional league in 2015 and as batting practice pitcher for multiple clubs.
“In every organization,” Kapler said upon Nakken’s promotion in January, “environment affects performance, and baseball clubhouses are no different. That’s why in addition to assisting the rest of the coaching staff on the field, Mark (Hallberg) and Alyssa will focus on fostering a clubhouse culture that promotes high performance through, among other attributes, a deep sense of collaboration and team.”
And so Nakken was in uniform this spring, along with the others. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, delayed the major league season four months and killed off the minor league season altogether.
All were out of sight. None were out of mind, as player development continued into summer, albeit in a virtual mode.
And then MLB’s “summer camp” got going and Nakken returned to the Giants. In this era of specialization, she’s among 13 Giants coaches who, in the regular season environment, won’t be among the seven coaches suited up and in the dugout during games.
But Monday’s exhibition offered looser guidelines and a fleeting chance to boost Nakken’s presence in a manner that won’t be available in the regular season.
Kapler and Co. took that opportunity, and in the seventh inning, there was Nakken, offering advice to baserunner Abiatal Avelino through her pandemic-mandated mask.
Alyssa Nakken coaching first base during Monday's game at Oakland Coliseum. (Photo: Neville E. Guard, USA TODAY Sport)
It was a touchstone moment even as women are now heard frequently on public-address mics and radio waves, and have populated front offices and press boxes for decades.
Yet discrimination and harassment are still very much a factor for almost every woman even tangentially sports-adjacent, a stark reminder delivered just last week courtesy the Washington Redskins.
Equally important to Nakken’s late-innings stint was the allyship that followed, as current Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, veteran reliever Jerry Blevins and three-time major league All-Star Curtis Granderson were among those tweeting their appreciations.
Congratulations on making history! https://t.co/lDVapd3DPi
A great moment for her and baseball – congrats!👏🏾
My first ever baseball coach was a female when I was 6 years old in T-Ball.
After retiring, 33 years later, she became my only female coach in the sport. Hopefully, this will be the first of many female coaches in MLB. https://t.co/zEqReFBThz
Had some good convos during Spring Training. Excellent hire by the Giants. https://t.co/FP2hpRdbeN
Eventually, probably, hopefully, there will come a time when these moments are viewed not as big deals but rather good business. Perhaps the best offshoot of baseball’s information age is that it matters less where or from whom a good idea originated.
It is that mentality that prompted Stone to further his professional ties with Folden and eventually bring her to the Cubs organization. Raking is raking, no matter who’s dropping the knowledge on swing planes and bat paths.
It’s telling that Siegal and Nakken’s opportunities came with organizations better known than others for inclusion and innovation. Equally telling is that these franchises reside just north of Silicon Valley, cradle of innovation but also a virtual snake pit for women, with indignities ranging from unequal pay to limited range of opportunity to misogyny to outright harassment.
Location is no guarantee of inclusion, nor a harbinger of systemic change.
Ultimately, actions are. Kapler bringing Nakken into the dugout last spring and onto the field Monday widened a range of opportunity for countless women and served as a form of inclusion many industries would be wise to follow.
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