She’s Got Game
Barely 5 feet tall, Bianca Smith didn’t know how to throw properly when she started playing softball at her suburban Dallas high school. (“My parents had me in soccer programs when I was younger,” she says.) But her work ethic and positive attitude jumped off the charts. Years later her coach, Lance Stephens, described Smith’s dedication to learning the fundamentals of the game as “unparalleled.” As a senior, Smith was named co-captain of the team. She broke her thumb at the start of the season and couldn’t play. But she was nimble and fast, she could pinch-run for slower teammates, and she inspired and encouraged her team in the dugout. The Panthers made it to the state’s Class 5A regional quarterfinals.
Even so, Smith figured she wasn’t Division I college softball material. It wasn’t until her junior year that she approached Dartmouth’s varsity softball coach, Rachel Hanson, and asked if she could try to walk on.
“We had a strong team that year,” Hanson says. “But there was something different about Bianca. Her talent was raw. Seeing the kind of clarity and conviction she had about what she wanted to do—that was rare. She wanted to be a part of what we were doing and said she’d do anything to help. She had a team-first mindset. She was in soak-up mode from Day 1.”
“My approach about my role was very honest,” Smith recalls. “I was told I’d be used mostly as a pinch-runner. I said to myself, ‘Okay. I’ll be the best baserunner I can be. I’ll be the runner that the coach will want to use in every game.’ I studied it. I practiced reading the ball off the bat, sliding, whatever I could do to get better.” Smith appeared in 17 games that season and scored eight runs.
When she wasn’t running, she sat on the bench and deciphered the opposing teams’ signs, gleaning rhythms, noting patterns, anticipating strategy. “Sure enough,” says Hanson, “around the third or fourth inning, here would come Bianca with her little notebook. She’d say, ‘Look out for this or pay attention to that….’ She could pick signs better than anyone.”
Smith volunteered to catch in the bullpen. The pitchers grew to trust her. In their off-field workouts, they sent Smith text messages and asked her to catch them, even ahead of the regular catchers.
In the lingua franca of sports teams everywhere, she gained a nickname: “Bianca” became “’ianca,” which became “Yonkers.” Her teammates loved her enthusiasm.
As a senior, when a hip injury kept her off the field, Smith worked with the younger players, helped chart the games, shot video—anything to help.
But the game she’d loved since childhood was baseball, not softball. As a toddler, she watched entire Yankees games on television, sitting on the lap of her mother, Dawn Patterson ’90. She saved her allowance money to buy a Derek Jeter jersey—the Yankees’ star shortstop was her mom’s favorite player. She loved it when her mom cheered. She watched classic baseball movies—The Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield, Rookie of the Year—over and over to the point that her father, Victor Smith ’89, worried she might wear out the DVDs. She learned the language of the game, its heroes, and strategies and nuances.
The opportunities for a girl to play baseball growing up in Grapevine, Texas, were limited to nonexistent. At Dartmouth, Smith became the only woman on the club baseball team. She was the type of thirsty, hyper-curious player whom coaches call a “student of the game,” and though she found a spot on the club team’s roster, she discovered her place at the side of Dartmouth’s veteran varsity baseball coach, Bob Whalen. That’s where the student’s education took off.
She had shown up at his office as a freshman one day, unannounced, introduced herself, and asked if they could talk about baseball. Years later, Whalen still recalls the moment. “It was clear that she just loved baseball,” he says. “Whenever you’re around young people who are passionate about the same thing you’re passionate about, you want to encourage them.” She asked him about his coaching philosophy, how he organized his practices, how indoor drills differed from outdoor, how he approached putting a team together.
“How can I help?” she asked.
As a manager, Smith charted statistics, shot and organized video of the players, tried her hand announcing games. (“That didn’t work,” she says. “I got way too excited.”) She became a regular in the baseball office, talking about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry and the sport’s trend toward more analytics and breaking down the game with Whalen and the team’s assistant coaches. She gave campus tours to recruits and met with prospective players and their families on the team’s “Junior Day,” when high school students came to Hanover to learn more about the program.
Away from the field, she majored in sociology and cofounded a club to help students explore career options in the sports industry and foster networking that could lead to internships and job opportunities.
Smith set her sights on a front office job in Major League Baseball. In terms of women—in particular Black women—there weren’t many role models ahead of her, but the professional game’s makeup was changing. Increasingly, in the tradition-rich, hidebound sport, professional teams looking for a competitive edge were turning to outsiders with unconventional ideas. More and more clubs embraced statistical analysis and innovative technology to leverage and maximize their most valuable assets: the players.
In their 2019 book The MVP Machine, authors Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik surveyed the changing landscape. “There were no outsiders in player development,” they wrote, “and nearly every coaching position was occupied by an ex-player. The general managers are exclusively male and white. [But] baseball had begun to accept one kind of outsider into its front offices: Ivy League grads with STEM degrees.” The authors’ research showed that franchise owners were willing to go outside the fraternity if a fresh mindset could improve a club’s chances of winning. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the percentage of general managers coming out of the Ivy League never passed 3 percent (Sandy Alderson ’69 was GM of the Oakland A’s from 1983 to 1997). Of the GMs hired in the 2010s, nearly 40 percent were Ivy Leaguers, almost none of them former players. Smith saw a path.
She applied to M.B.A./J.D. programs that offered dual degrees in sports business and sports law. Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland was the only school whose baseball coach promised her that she could help out. Smith worked four years as the program’s director of operations, an unpaid position that coach Matt Englander created for her. She arranged the team’s travel, raised money, communicated with players’ families, worked on social media and marketing, and creatively stretched the team’s small budget. She walked a mile each way between her home and the ballfield, in all weather, and was never late.
In an interview with the online sports journal, The Athletic, Englander was effusive about how involved Smith became with his Division III program, even on top of her studies and her part-time compliance job in the school’s athletics office. “I didn’t really care what she looked like,” Englander said. “She’s just a smart, motivated, super-impressive person. She came to every practice, every game. Every second we were there, she was there. She started to get into the analytics and data side of things, trying to find advantages and inefficiencies. She really progressed.”
“She’s just a smart, motivated, super-impressive person. She came to every practice, every game. Every second we were there, she was there.”
Part of Smith’s drive had become personal. Her mother died of cancer in 2013 at the age of 44. Smith recognized how much of her own energy and ambition had come from her mom, a former competitive athlete and marathoner who, in 1985, cofounded Dartmouth’s dance group Ujima (taking its name from the Kwanzaa principle meaning “collective work and responsibility”) and became an attorney in her 30s. Smith couldn’t separate her love of the game from the love she felt for her mother.
Her dual degrees and her work with Englander helped Smith land internships with the Texas Rangers and Major League Baseball in operations roles involving salaries, arbitration, and scouting. In 2018, back home in Texas, she worked as an assistant coach with the University of Dallas, patching together a half-dozen part-time hourly side jobs to make ends meet. In the summer of 2019, she got another front-office internship, this time with the Cincinnati Reds. When she could, she’d show up early at the Great American Ballpark and studiously watch the players take batting and infield practice. Reds assistant hitting coach Donnie Ecker noticed her in the sweltering Ohio heat, scribbling away on a yellow notepad. “Who’s she?” he asked Reds manager David Bell. Bell didn’t know. Ecker asked if they could bring her onto the field. Anyone who was that serious about the game, he reasoned, who was that focused, taking notes that diligently at that time of day—well, she might have something to offer.
Smith was given a uniform and became a regular on the field for the rest of the summer. She talked with Ecker every day about what she noticed. She helped the club figure out a way to throw batting practice from in front of the mound at a height that would accurately mimic the angle of pitches thrown in games. She shared her thoughts about an innovative scoring system she was developing, which measured not the results of players’ swings, but their decisions to swing or not swing at certain pitches.
She made an impression on the Reds’ star first baseman, Joey Votto. “I never spoke with him about his mechanics,” recalls Smith. “The one time he asked me what I saw in his swing, I told him I couldn’t give him an answer. When he asked why, I said because I’d just be pulling something out of my ass if I said anything. He laughed and said, ‘Good answer, because players can tell when you’re BS-ing.’ ” Talking to a sportswriter later, Votto said of Smith, “She showed growth while she was with us, quick growth, so that’s more of an indicator of future success than anything else. I saw someone who was curious and took the curiosity and turned it into action.”
For the first time Smith started thinking about a future in the game that was on the field, not at a desk in a front office. She even let herself imagine becoming a big league manager.
Her background and training had positioned her for a career in baseball at an opportune moment. Major League Baseball had implemented a number of initiatives to address the inequities in its hiring of women and minorities. In 2016, during her last year of grad school, Smith wrote to 26 MLB teams and received applications or encouragement from 25. The percentage of women holding professional staff and senior administrative positions was steadily moving toward 40 percent. One of the rising stars, an executive MLB vice president named Kim Ng, was on track to become the sport’s first female general manager, a glass ceiling-shattering position she eventually reached in 2020 with the Miami Marlins. But only a handful of women held on-field coaching positions across all levels of professional baseball. Among the 30 Major League managers in 2019, not a single one identified as Black. Again, for Smith, there weren’t many role models out ahead of her.
In August 2019, Smith filled an opening at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, as assistant athletic director for compliance and administration and assistant coach and hitting coordinator for the baseball team. Her experience with technology and analytics came together with her passion and her background in sociology. She spent hours getting to know the players on the Carroll team, observing their learning styles, reading their moods and body language, building relationships, and earning trust. “Any good coach knows that you can’t just jump in and start instructing players,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who you are. If players think that you don’t care about them, they’re not going to listen to you, no matter what you say.” At Carroll, the players listened to her. One by one, she helped them get better. “There’s that moment when something clicks,” she says. “I worked with two players on the length of their strides, and I remember the looks on their faces when they tried what I suggested for the first time in the cages. They just looked so excited. I love that.”
Less than a year into her work at Carroll, at the start of the shortened pandemic season of 2020, the number of female coaches in professional baseball had risen to 21. Alyssa Nakken of the San Francisco Giants became the first-ever on-field female coach with a Major League team. More glass shattered.
A few weeks after the season ended, Molly Harris of the Boston Red Sox plucked Smith’s résumé from the stack. Harris, charged with deepening the club’s pool of talented and diverse candidates, saw the Ivy background, the dual degrees, the internships, the coaching experience, the certifications from data-centric training programs such as Driveline and OnBase University. She passed along Smith’s résumé to the team’s vice president in charge of player development, Ben Crockett. In the margin of the paper she had written, “WOW!”
In January 2021, the Boston Red Sox, the final Major League team to integrate its roster—in 1959—in a city with a troubled and complicated history of racism, announced it was hiring Bianca Smith as an on-field coach in its minor league system. She became the first Black female coach in professional baseball history.
Smith’s mom would have hated that Bianca was joining the Yankees’ biggest rival. And she would have been so proud.
Two months later, Smith mixed in with the youngest players in the Red Sox system at the club’s Fenway Park South complex in Fort Myers, Florida. She was wearing a uniform. (Her number, “73,” honored the “17” her father had worn as a Dartmouth football player and the “13” of her mother’s volleyball uniform.) She arrived at the fields ahead of the players, having worked out already in the gym, stretched and ready to throw batting practice. She picked up loose balls in the batting cages, took it slow getting to know the players and the coaches she’d be working with, asked good questions. She was teaching herself Spanish. She made a point to try and speak to the Latin players, even if haltingly, in their native tongue. She knew what it was like to be away from home, to be unsure. She knew that building trust would take time. She sensed, already, that there was no difference except skill level between college players and professional players whose most important goal was to get better at a difficult game. She would pour her heart and everything she knew into that shared effort. She was a 5-foot-tall Black woman, a sociology major from Dartmouth with two advanced degrees.
She was the kind of coach players dream about.
Jim Collins is the author of The Last Best League (2004), which chronicles a season in the Cape Cod Baseball League.