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Profile: Alyssa Nakken’s Big Steps

By Laura Hilgers

 

Alyssa Nakken coaches first base during the second inning of the Giants’ exhibition game on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. The Giants beat the Oakland Athletics 4-2. (San Francisco Giants)

The pioneering SF Giants coach is just getting started

When Alyssa Nakken called her parents in early January to tell them she’d gotten a new job, she had a request: “Hey, can you guys be on speakerphone?Because I really just want to say this once.” After they put her on speaker, Nakken told them she’d been offered a position as an assistant coach for theSan Francisco Giants. “And then the phone went silent and I [wondered], ‘Did I just lose the connection?’” recalls Nakken. “Finally, my dad said, ‘This is bigger than just another step in your career. This is history.’”

Indeed, it was. At 29, Nakken had become the first full-time female coach in the major leagues.
It was Nakken’s dream job, but one that she never dreamed of getting. “I was seeing female athletic directors at
big colleges, which was so inspiring, and women in baseball operations roles,” says Nakken. “But the coaching
role was never something I thought about because I didn’t know it existed for women.”

Nakken was especially surprised because she was unaware she had interviewed for the position. She had taken several Giants executives to lunch last fall to discuss her interest in switching from the business side, where she oversaw the team’s health and wellness initiatives, to the operations side, where she started as an intern in 2014. She also had many conversations with Gabe Kapler, who took over as manager after Bruce Bochy stepped down at the end of the 2019 season.

Her conversations with “Kap,” however, were initially personal. “I kept seeing him going from interview to interview with the media and out to coffee with season ticket members, and I’m [thinking]: Dang, this guy’s got to be exhausted. He just moved to San Francisco and he had to put a whole coaching staff together, which is great — but everyone needs to take a breath,” she says. “And that’s kind of what our conversations were about. I just asked him, ‘How are you doing?’”

The conversations progressed to talking about the team and the kind of clubhouse culture Kapler wanted to create — one of high performance and collaboration. Kapler mentioned that he might have a spot for Nakken on his staff. It was only when he offered her the job that she learned she’d be a coach.

Like nearly everyone in California, Nakken sheltered in place for several months after Major League Baseball shut down in mid-March. She made the most of her time, attending staff Zoom meetings and playing simulated baseball games online with other coaches. Shortly before life got turned upside down, Nakken was in Scottsdale for spring training, learning her new role. Her days started at 5:30 a.m. and often lasted 14 or 15 hours. She assisted first base coach Antoan Richardson and worked with players on outfielding and baserunning.

Nakken embraced baseball early on, taking up T-ball at 5 and paving a path to a standout playing career in high school and college softball.

Along with Nakken and Richardson, the rest of the coaching staff — except for Ron Wotus — was new, so everyone was getting acquainted and gelling as a team. If the players found it strange having a woman on the field, they didn’t mention it. “She does her job so well that she gets judged by the guys just like the rest
of us do — on merit, on her ability to provide resources to them, set up drills, and equip them with the right
information,” says Giants bench coach Kai Correa. “Because she does those things, it’s a non–talking point. I’ve seen her be really, really well received.”

Still, she’s aware she’s a role model. When she was in Scottsdale, young girls lined up beside the railings, shouting “Alyssa! Alyssa! Alyssa!,” and asking for her autograph. “It’s not something that I take lightly,” Nakken says. “It’s something I’m incredibly humbled by and that is a huge responsibility that I focus on every single day. It also goes to show how much other women have helped pave the way for me.” That would include Justine Siegal, a guest instructor for the Oakland A’s instructional league in 2015, and Rachel Balkovec, hired by the Yankees as a minor league hitting coach last year.

Nakken, who was raised with her two older brothers in Woodland, near Davis, was as good a bet as any to be a
first in the major leagues. Her parents — her dad is an attorney and her mother recently retired from running a nonprofit — were big-time baseball fans and brought her to her first Giants game when she was 3 weeks old.

Nakken started T-ball when she was 5 and played volleyball, basketball and softball at Woodland High. At Sacramento State University, where she played first base on the softball team, she was a .304 hitter, team captain and four-time Academic All-American. Nakken, who went on to earn a master’s degree in sport management from the University of San Francisco, is a natural leader and collaborator. She’s inspiring. She’s kind. She’s humble. She listens. “She is so down to earth that when this [Giants coaching job] happened, I got texts from some of our friends growing up [saying], ‘Are you kidding me? This couldn’t happen to anyone more deserving,’” says Carly Groves, Nakken’s best friend from childhood.

She’s also athletic, competitive and likes to win. In February, Nakken organized a poker tournament as part
of a staff retreat — and won the whole thing. For a while, she played trampoline dodgeball in San Francisco, where she lives. And three years ago, she took up surfing, mostly riding the waves in Pacifica. “Surfing hits every bucket,” she says. “It involves physical, mental and psychological work and it gets you out in nature.”

Since baseball season started in late July, Nakken has been on the field, supporting coaches and preparing players every day to compete. She also hit another major milestone of her own when she walked onto the field to
coach first base during an exhibition game against the Oakland A’s — marking the first time in Major League
Baseball history that a woman held the position of on-field coach.

“I get to work with some of the best coaches I’ve ever met, and they’re true, true experts in their field,” says Nakken. “To be able to support them to take their coaching to the next level is quite an honor, and at this moment, I can’t think of anything greater. … I really like orange and black and I hope  I’m wearing it for a long time.”

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