First and Black: Bianca Smith's path from constructing rosters to coaching them

In spring 2018, the man in charge of growing MLB’s pool of minority job candidates became concerned about one of his star pupils.

He didn't understand why the interviews he arranged for her weren’t resulting in job offers.

To Tyrone Brooks, Bianca Smith epitomized the type of person his program existed to help. In college, Smith set the ambitious goal of one day running a Major League front office. Ever since she had worked tirelessly to break into a sector of the sport long dominated by white men.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 2012, Smith earned a J.D. in sports law and an MBA in sports management from Case Western Reserve University. Smith also persuaded Case Western’s baseball coach to create a position on his staff for her, enabling her to bolster her resume and gain experience running a team.

Between Smith’s academic credentials, knowledge of the game and knack for data analysis, Brooks expected Major League clubs to quickly snatch her up after she applied to the league's Diversity Fellowship Program. He instead came away confused when executives who interviewed Smith questioned her passion and desire.

“I don’t think they saw the enthusiasm they expected,” Brooks told Yahoo Sports. “They sensed that maybe her heart wasn’t quite into this. It was like there was something else she wanted more.”

When Brooks summoned Smith to his New York office, he bluntly asked her to explain the feedback. Tears rolling down her cheeks, Smith admitted to Brooks that her vision for her future in baseball had changed; that she couldn’t imagine wearing a blazer and heels to work every day; that even though she had positioned herself perfectly to pursue a baseball operations career, her ideal office was a dugout, not a desk.

“There were so many expectations of me going into the front office since I was getting my graduate degrees,” Smith told last week. “Everyone expected me to do this specific path and I went along with it, but I just wasn't happy. I couldn't really see myself doing it for a long time.”

In other words, no longer did Smith aspire to construct a World Series-caliber roster anymore.

Now she wanted to help coach it.

How Bianca Smith made baseball history

A little less than three years after her tearful epiphany in Brooks’ office, Smith has taken strides toward making her unlikely dream a reality. Last month, the Boston Red Sox hired the 29-year-old as a Minor League coach, making her the first Black woman to serve as a coach in professional baseball history.

The Red Sox' faith in Smith reflects the changing profile of big-league coaches. The smartest front offices no longer make the mistake of conflating playing skills with the ability to teach. They’re seeking technology-savvy coaches who understand the kinetics of how the body works and who are able to connect with players of all backgrounds and nationalities.

Of the 30 lead hitting coaches in MLB, only Chili Davis, Kevin Seitzer and Damion Easley ever played in an All-Star game. Twenty made fewer than 500 big-league at-bats during their playing careers. Thirteen never reached the majors as a player. Three didn’t even play professional baseball at all.

Even by those standards, Smith’s playing career was unremarkable. It peaked as a high school senior when Smith co-captained the Colleyville Heritage softball team to a 25-13 record and a berth in the Texas 5A regional quarterfinals.

Though Smith walked onto Dartmouth’s softball team midway through her junior year, she seldom did more during games than pinch-run. Her other means of contributing was by decoding the signals opposing players and coaches used to communicate.

Bianca Smith was hired by the Boston Red Sox as a minor league coach. (Boston Red Sox)
Bianca Smith was hired by the Boston Red Sox as a minor league coach. (Boston Red Sox)

“She and another player were maniacal about picking signs,” former Dartmouth softball coach Rachel Hanson said. “Usually by the second or third inning, one of them would come tap on my shoulder and say, ‘This is what we’ve got.’”

Softball was one of a long list of extracurricular activities Smith pursued in college. She was also a Dartmouth cheerleader, club baseball player, campus tour guide, sports business club member, Dartmouth Sports Network employee ... and most importantly, student manager for the Dartmouth baseball team.

Longtime Dartmouth baseball coach Bob Whalen remembers Smith showing up at his office one day, introducing herself and asking to be involved. Recognizing her passion for the sport right away, Whalen obliged, allowing Smith to do everything from giving tours to recruits, to cutting video of practices and hitting sessions, to keeping the scorebook in the press box during games.

Smith recognized Whalen had a sharp baseball mind and didn’t waste her time around him. She would pepper him with questions about organizing and planning practice or about developing a coaching philosophy.

“The more I got to know her, the more I liked her,” Whalen said. “I knew she was very smart and very capable. It was always obvious to me right from when I met her that she was passionate about baseball. Not just as a fan of the game but she wanted to really be in and around the game.”

Indeed, by her junior year, Smith was certain her future lay in baseball — and not at the lower levels either.

“From the first day I met her, she was determined that she would be in the bigs as a general manager, as a coach, as a something," Hanson said. “She was bound and determined to work in Major League Baseball.”

Bianca Smith's path to coaching

In spring 2012, just weeks before she graduated from Dartmouth, Smith sent an email to Case Western Reserve University baseball coach Matt Englander. She told him that she would be coming to the Cleveland school for two years to pursue her MBA and asked permission to work with the baseball team.

When Smith visited campus, she and Englander chatted for the first time in the dugout. At the end of that conversation, Englander told Smith, “You’re going to be our new director of operations!”

“What does that mean?” Smith asked.

Responded Englander, “I don’t know. I’ve never had one before. But you’re it!”

There’s no shortage of things to do for an understaffed Division III baseball program, so the role became what Smith made of it. At first, Smith kept stats, organized fundraisers and managed travel itineraries. Then as she grew more comfortable, she took a more hands-on coaching role during practice and analyzed data to find advantages to exploit on game days.

Spray charts from Case Western’s opponents helped Smith advise Englander on how to position his infield. And apps that provided real-time exit velocity and launch angle data informed Smith’s guidance to hitters on their swing mechanics.

“It became very clear very quickly that she was motivated to pursue a career in baseball and that she would dedicate herself to our group,” Englander said. “She was going to be at every practice, every game. She was going to work very hard. She was very talented, very smart. She just needed experience.”

It didn’t matter to Smith that Englander could not pay her for her work and that she was racking up student loan debt. She stayed at Case Western for four years, adding a law degree to her MBA so that she would have the expertise necessary to review player contracts.

Soon after MLB launched its Diversity Pipeline program in 2016 and tasked Brooks with finding and developing female and minority talent, Smith connected with him. Smith’s story resonated deeply with Brooks, who himself had no high-level playing experience yet parlayed an internship with the Atlanta Braves into a career in baseball operations.

“I said I have to do everything I can to help her, to put her in the best position possible,” Brooks said.

At first, that meant a 2017 internship with the Texas Rangers, where Smith assisted the club’s front office with scouting reports and draft preparation. Then when Smith began to miss the on-field role she had at Case Western, Brooks pledged to try to help her break into coaching.

“It stung a little bit for me personally because she was so well-equipped to come into a front office, but I had to get over it,” Brooks said. “It was like, ‘OK, I’m glad she’s being honest. Now let’s help her go in that direction.’”

Why Smith's hire is a remarkable achievement

Two summers ago, Smith landed another internship, this time with the Cincinnati Reds front office. When she finished her desk or scouting work for the day, Smith would often venture into the stands with a yellow legal pad in hand to take notes on Reds batting practice.

Smith’s presence eventually caught the attention of manager David Bell and his coaches. They invited her to join them on the field for batting practice, to watch video with them of how pitchers attacked Reds hitters, to offer feedback on what tweaks certain players could make.

“With Bianca getting that exposure to that coaching staff and then also being able to assist them at the Reds urban youth academy, it helped her build her confidence,” Brooks said. “Having individuals like David Bell be so receptive to her, I know that was extremely meaningful to her. That let her know, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

In addition to Smith’s eight months with the Reds, Brooks also arranged for her to attend the three-day SABR Analytics Conference. Smith also participated in MLB’s Take the Field, an event designed to provide women interested in careers in coaching, scouting or player development with skills training and networking opportunities.

In an effort to gain more on-field experience, Smith in 2019 took a job as an assistant coach and hitting coordinator at Carroll University in Wisconsin. That’s where she was working when the Red Sox approached her a couple of months ago.

While Smith will start her career in Fort Myers, Florida, rather than Fenway Park, her hire is still a remarkable achievement. In 2018, when Smith deviated career paths, there were few female coaching role models to emulate. Although Kim Ng and Jean Afterman have held influential front-office jobs for years, the Giants’ Alyssa Nakken did not become the first female coach in Major League history until January 2020.

Smith’s ascent has transformed her into a trailblazer of sorts, a role that has come with newfound attention. Last month, she did TV interviews with NBC’s “TODAY,” “CBS This Morning” and “Live with Kelly and Ryan.”

Last week during a panel, Smith admitted she’s grateful that she chose to pursue her dreams in coaching instead of as an executive.

“Once I went to grad school, I actually got to work on the field with the players,” Smith said. “I discovered I loved that so much more than sitting in an office all day, sitting behind a screen. I have to be honest. I'm not a huge fan of wearing business casual either so anything that got me out of that and let me wear a uniform or shorts was better for me.”