Women baseball general managers? The minor leagues are way ahead of the game
Asbury Park Press
Before there was Kim Ng -- the New Jersey native making history this season with the Miami Marlins as the first female Major League Baseball general manager -- there was Courtney Knichel, and Katie Beekman, and Laurie Schlender, and Christine Kavic, and, well you get the point.
While the MLB is beating its chest for its first woman GM this year, minor league baseball broke that glass ceiling years ago with those listed above, who have been running teams from Maryland to Nevada.
And the lower leagues have continued to lead the firsts for women ever since.
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Just this year, the Red Sox hired the first woman of color, Bianca Smith, to serve as a minor league coach, while Sara Goodrum became the first woman to serve as a minor league hitting coordinator when the Milwaukee Brewers appointed her this season.
“When I started it was rare but like everything it is all changing,” said Knichel, who has been the general manager of the Southern Maryland BlueCrabs of the Atlantic League for six years. “It is all about equality so it is more prominent in the industry.”
Knichel is also one of two minor league general managers who are giving birth this season.
Already a mother of two, she had her first child, Kennedy, in April 2017 after two years on the job. Son Cooper was born the same month in 2020, but the pandemic had already begun a slow shutdown.
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This time things are much different, Knichel said. With her next child (a girl already named Colby) due in September, she’s bearing the brunt of her full-time job during each month of her pregnancy.
“This is my first time being pregnant in the summer, that has been tiring,” she said, but stressing she is glad to do it and praises the team for being supportive. “I always say that whether I am a man or a woman if I can do the job, I should be the one who has it. As a woman you only live one life and you want a career and a family and you can do it all.”
Knichel recalls when she first took over in 2015 that there was some pushback, but mostly due to the surprise related to change, not any real sexism.
“When I first became general manager, we would have calls with all of the other GMs and for so long it was ‘c’mon men,’ or ‘hey you guys’,” she said. “It was something everyone had to adapt to.”
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Emily Jaenson, who has been general manager of the Triple-A Reno (Nevada) Aces since May 2018, had her first two children, now ages 4 and 6, prior to getting the job. But she added the third child, daughter Elin, in May.
She also acknowledged a certain surprise among those in the league when they found out the team’s top manager was a woman.
“I have definitely surprised a lot of managers when I go down to the locker room and say hello and introduce myself,” Jaenson said. “That is the interesting part of it. If you have never seen a woman in the role, that’s part of what’s important, this is something that should be this way.”
As for her pregnancy, Jaenson said she worked up until the day before giving birth and plans to be back on the job in mid-August for the Aces, an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“We had to get the Aces re-started for the new season,” Jaenson said about her work schedule prior to delivery day. “It was important for me to be there for the opening homestand, opening with COVID protocols and the endless memos about how to take care of our players.”
She recalled having to hire a team store manager and a new community relations manager just hours before going into the delivery room the next day.
“That was a race to the finish line to find the best person for that position following the pandemic,” Jaenson said. “My doctor supported me and told me to keep doing it unless I didn’t feel good. I had not taken maternity leave with either of my boys, I worked from home with them. For Elin, I really wanted to take the time to be a mom and be with her.”
But don’t think either Knichel or Jaensen are using new motherhood as an excuse to slow down on the job. Both are treating this season like any other and vowing to put in the time needed.
“This is the first time I am physically doing the job like this and right in their faces,” Knichel said about the fans and players who are watching her belly bloom. “I was a little nervous about how the players would treat it and treat me, but they are fine.”
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One thing that helped was the nursing moms lounge for fans and employees that the BlueCrabs instituted the first year of their existence back in 2008, another idea that caught on first at the minor league level and has expanded to some major league teams such as the Washington Nationals.
“I know that more parks are putting them in,” Knichel said. “I would go in there and do my thing, every two hours. I see people in there every game. It has chairs, magazines and air conditioning.”
It is also another marketing source, having been sponsored by a local hospital, the University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center.
“Fans come up to me and ask how I am feeling,” said Knichel. “They ask if I need some water. I am treated very well by everyone.”
The Atlantic League: MLB's testing ground
For the Atlantic League, whose teams are not affiliated with specific Major League clubs but have a recently forged relationship with the big leagues, groundbreaking general manager equality and nursing mother options are just two of the organization’s many firsts.
This season the league continued using a robotic umpire that feeds balls and strikes to the folks in blue on the field, while also enforcing a double-hook rule that requires teams to remove a position player and replace him with a bench player each time a pitching change is made.
“It is trying to force a pitcher to go farther into the game,” Knichel said about the automated ump. “It is calibrated to a computer and the umpire calls what the computer tells them.”
On Aug.t 1, one of the most controversial changes will be made when the pitcher’s mound is moved back 12 inches, something that has been under discussion since 2019.
“I don’t find there will be much of an impact,” Knichel said about the mound move. “I am not out there putting my arm at risk, but I don’t think it will be that much of distance.”
MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword told MLB.com that the league’s experiments were “an important step in the pipeline for potential rule changes at the Major League level and we look forward to seeing them brought to life in a competitive environment.”
Previous Atlantic League experiments include the three-batter minimum (which has since become a Major League rule), as well as restrictions on defensive positioning and larger, 18-inch square bases (MLB and other leagues use 15-inch squares). Both of those have since been adopted by the Double-A and Triple-A teams respectively.
“With the next collective bargaining agreement talks looming, MLB felt it important to utilize 2021 for a variety of rule experiments,” MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince wrote in April. “It is safe to assume, however, that neither of these Atlantic League rules would jump straight from indy ball to the big leagues. If they are deemed worthy of future use, they would be further tested in the Minors first.”
Two years ago, The New York Times called the Atlantic League “an M.L.B. testing ground for ideas that could make the game livelier.”
Other changes that were used in 2019 included requiring pitchers to step off the rubber to make a pickoff attempt, allowing batters to foul off one bunt attempt with two strikes, stolen first-base attempts on any dropped pitch, and no infield shifts.
"We are pleased to play a critical role in Major League Baseball’s tests and evaluation of experimental rules,” Atlantic League President Rick White said in a statement. “The ALPB is a forward-thinking league, and it is satisfying to our teams and players to be leaders determining the future of our sport. We are proud to play our part conducting MLB trials and excited to see the results of the potential changes.”
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