New Pittsburgh Pirates coach Caitlyn Callahan focused on her job, not history

PITTSBURGH -- Caitlyn Callahan was standing in a Starbucks in the fall of 2019 when she peered down at her phone and was met with a jolt that changed the course of her life.

A couple of clicks told her the New York Yankees had just made Rachel Balkovec the first woman to be a full-time coach in the minor leagues. Suddenly, a door that Callahan assumed was closed had swung wide open.

"If you've ever been in one of those playoff situations where you're that batter up and there's someone on second [base] and that excitement, that, like, 'Ready to go. I want to be in the box like that,' that was what it felt like," Callahan said. "Just being so excited to see that. It gives me chills a little bit because honestly, [it was] empowering."

And a sign of things to come.

A little more than two years after Balkovec broke down a barrier Callahan feared would stand forever, she broke one of her own, becoming the first female coach in the 135-year history of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The team hired her last month as a development coach, won over by her knowledge, talent and tenacity.

"At a core level, she has the characteristics that we'd be looking for in any coach -- a real passionate curiosity for learning, for learning about the best and most modern coaching practices," Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. "She's certainly literate in all of the forms of technology we would use in player development. Most of all, she wants to help players get better and is passionate about putting the player first."

It's a mindset Callahan, 26, developed as a middle schooler when interest in softball in her southern California neighborhood dried up. Her younger brother's Little League coach suggested she give baseball a shot, and she more than held her own during the brief stint.

Even though she switched back to softball in high school and played collegiately at Boston University at St. Mary's College, there was something about baseball that stuck with her.

Still, Callahan figured if she wanted to be around the game, she'd have to do it in a supporting role, which is the kind of work she found after graduating: two seasons as a major league scout liaison and then an assistant general manager in the Cape Cod League, where her job for the Brewster Whitecaps ranged from making sure players had pants that fit to picking up coffee for the coaches. Then a summer as a baseball operations assistant for the Staten Island Yankees. Then two years as a minor league video and technology intern with the Cincinnati Reds.

"To be completely transparent with you, I didn't think it would be possible for me to be a coach," she said.

That changed last fall when a phone interview with Pirates minor league technology and video coordinator Marc Roche turned into an invitation to fly from Arizona -- where she had an offseason gig working as a server -- to Bradenton, Florida, to participate in a hitting camp with a group of minor leaguers.

It did not take long for Callahan to stand out in ways that had nothing to do with her gender.

During one batting practice session being run by third-base coach Mike Rabelo, Callahan trotted out to the mound, reached into a basket stuffed with baseballs and started throwing BP.

"I was like, 'This is my time. I have to show that I can contribute, I can help,'" Callahan said. "At the end of the day, that's why I'm here: I want to help the team get better every single day, just like Rabs. ... I was like, at that time, 'I've got to prove that I can hold my own. I didn't even think twice about it.'"

The hitters during batting practice wore specially made goggles that flickered in an attempt to help batters develop better pitch recognition. A wayward fastball could end in catastrophe. Callahan needed to be precise.

She was.

And now she's part of the groundbreaking group she looked up to not so long ago, even though, ultimately, she views herself as just another player who went into coaching.

Like every coach, she's there because she understands the game and has a passion for it. Her job is to transfer that passion and knowledge to the men she will help lead.

She's ready for it.

"I think half the battle is just if you show that you're trying your best, you're working hard, you're actively learning every single day, players respect that. Coaches respect that," Callahan said. "That's something that I strive to do every day is learn something new, try my best, and as long as I'm doing that, I'm set."