A pioneer admits she owes it all to her mother

By Juliet Macur

When Bianca Smith landed a job as a minor league coach in the Boston Red Sox organization, becoming the first Black woman to coach professional baseball, she thought about her mother.

Her mom died of cancer in 2013 and would have been proud of her daughter’s achievement. But also furious. Dawn Patterson had particularly strong feelings about the Red Sox.

She despised them.

Patterson was a lifelong New York Yankees fan and hated their rivals so much that when Smith won tickets to Red Sox games while in college at Dartmouth — awarded to students who attended the most varsity sporting events — she would get angry that her daughter would even consider the trip.

“Mom, but these are, like, free baseball tickets,” Smith remembered saying, emphasizing that the offer was too good to pass up.

The steadfast reply: “No!”

It’s a family joke now that Smith, who was hired in January, is making history with the team her mother could not stand.

“If I get a job with the Red Sox, Mom is going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” Smith recalled telling her youngest brother after the team first reached out to her in the fall.

But without her mother’s influence, Smith might not be a baseball pioneer right now, a groundbreaker just months after Kim Ng was named general manager of the Miami Marlins, becoming the first woman in Major League Baseball to hold the title.

Smith, who turns 30 next week, said her mother’s ambition, drive and work ethic as a competitive athlete and lawyer are part of her DNA. If not for her mother, she wouldn’t be pursuing a baseball career, one that has recently gained her national attention; sponsorships from companies like Nike, Oakley and Topps; and an offer to write her autobiography. She even has her own baseball card in the works, said her agent, Lonnie Murray.

Smith’s mother introduced a 3-year-old Bianca to baseball, propping the toddler atop her lap to watch games on TV. Smith remembers cheering for former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, one of Patterson’s favorite players.

“That’s when I really started to understand what baseball was all about,” Smith said. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”

The person at the Red Sox who first identified Smith’s potential was Molly Harris, the team’s senior talent acquisition specialist. Charged with finding talented and diverse candidates, she discovered that Smith’s resume was everything the Red Sox had wanted and more.

An Ivy League education. Two graduate degrees — one in sports business, the other in sports law. Internships with the Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers and one with MLB, during which she helped with the draft. College coaching experience. Certifications on multiple software programs that analyze pitching and hitting.

When interviewing Smith late last year, Harris was so impressed that in the margin of her notes she wrote, “WOW!”

A shared language

In a family of football and soccer fans — her stepbrother, Reggie Cannon, is a fixture on the U.S. national men’s soccer team — Smith and her mother shared their secret language of baseball. They lived in Edison, New Jersey, and later in Grapevine, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, and the mother taught the daughter game strategy.

Smith’s father, Victor Smith, said Bianca took to the game quickly and could watch entire nine-inning games even as a toddler because she had an unusually long attention span and enjoyed watching her mother cheer. She was precocious, her father said, describing a conversation he once had with a manager of her preschool. The woman told him that Bianca had been tying her classmates’ shoes all day. When he asked why, the woman answered, “Because she’s the only one who can.”

As Smith grew up, she would watch games on her own during the day and would stay up late to watch classic baseball movies like “The Sandlot,” “Angels in the Outfield” and “Rookie of the Year,” nearly wearing out those DVDs.

She picked up softball late, when she was about 12 years old, lured to the mental side of playing the game. She was small but nimble, and base-running was her specialty. About that time, she bought her first baseball jersey, Jeter’s No. 2, using the allowance she had earned doing dishes and washing her dog.

The intricacies of the game fascinated her and still do. She had the mind of an analyst, studying how plays unfolded and trying to predict the manager’s next move. When she entered Dartmouth, her parents’ alma mater, her baseball obsession was evident in the family cellphone bill.

“There would be a huge spike in her cellular data, and she’d say, ‘Oh, sorry, but the Yankees are just doing so well, and I just had to watch the games,’” said Bob Patterson, her stepfather. “I always knew when baseball season started.”

Smith’s devotion to the Dartmouth baseball team led to a role as the team’s manager. She also played varsity softball during her final two years and was the only woman on the club baseball team before she graduated in 2012.

One month later, her mother was diagnosed with a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma that was found in her head and neck.

“I always thought that she would get better,” said Smith, who lived with her mother and stepfather throughout the illness.

Her mother was, after all, a whirlwind of a woman who ran marathons, not because she loved running — she hated it — but to conquer the distance. A woman who went to law school in her late 30s. A dancer who co-founded Ujima, a dance group at Dartmouth named after the third of Kwanzaa’s seven principles.

She was a confident mother: When she noticed that only men coached in her other daughter’s softball league, she volunteered to lead a team, sure she could do better.

On April 24, 2013, nine months after learning that she had cancer, Smith’s mother died. She was 44.

“It hit me that I was 22. My mom’s life was halfway done at that point,” Smith said. “It was a wake-up call. My mom always said that you spend most of your life working, so I needed to find the thing that I love to do.”

Four months later, Smith was at Case Western University in Ohio for dual degrees in business and law, with the goal of becoming a general manager in MLB.

She had three of her mother’s childhood stuffed animals in her bedroom and a portrait of her in her living room, reminders of what she had lost. She decided not to wear the WWMD — What Would Mom Do — bracelet her stepfather gave her because, she said, “I don’t like jewelry.” Her grief often came out of nowhere. One day in class she burst into tears, and the professor had to console her.

Her ballast was baseball.

Eight jobs

Fifteen minutes into Smith’s conversation with Case Western’s baseball coach, Matt Englander, he named her the team’s first baseball operations manager.

“She deserved a chance because she was so smart and passionate and probably loves the sport more than I do,” Englander said. “I don’t subscribe to the MLB Network and watch old MLB games. I don’t stay up until 3 a.m. watching the Padres play the Marlins or watch the Indians’ spring training games. But Bianca? She does.”

Smith didn’t miss a practice or game. She pitched to players at batting practice, scheduled team travel and meals, helped coach circuit training, watched videos of hitters and sent Englander her critiques.

Her internship with the Reds in 2019 was a turning point. It’s when she decided that coaching, not front-office work, was her real calling. Finally, she had found the thing she loved to do.

She’d be a manager in the dugout, not a general manager at a desk.

In her downtime in the baseball operations department, Smith stole away to watch practice from the stands and take notes, catching the attention of Donnie Ecker, then an assistant hitting coach. She told him she was interested in coaching and offered to help on the field. He took her up on it. Reds manager David Bell encouraged her to bring her glove to practice.

By internship’s end, Smith wore a Reds jersey with “BIANCA” on the back. She helped at practices by catching throws and warming up the coaches and players, and on game days was in the clubhouse analyzing hitters’ swing decisions. Every day, she made sure to ask coaches at least one meaningful question about baseball, but they were mutually interested in her thoughts.

“It was fun to try to bounce ideas off of her, get her take on things and understand what she was seeing,” Bell said. “I felt like I was learning from her.”

He added: “Could she walk into a major league staff right now and contribute? No doubt. I really believe that she is capable of doing anything in this game.”

Capable and determined.

She could have done anything with her degrees in business and law, but baseball was what she wanted. The challenge was to stay financially afloat while she went after it. Her rent bill and her student debts from three degrees loomed.

For a stretch after graduate school, as she applied for full-time positions in baseball, Smith held eight jobs at once so she could pay her rent: Sorting packages at a UPS warehouse at night. Packing online orders at Target. Working the cash register at Dollar Tree. Driving for Uber Eats. Tour guide and youth academy coach for the Texas Rangers. Ticket taker for FC Dallas. For extra baseball experience, she was a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Dallas.

Sometimes she would have just 30 minutes to get from one of those jobs to another, subsisting on Lunchables and Pop-Tarts.

Harris, the recruiter, could hardly believe it all.

“I remember putting my pen down and saying, ‘We have to hire her in some capacity,’” she said.

Once, Smith said, a college coach told her she would never get hired because she was a woman. Smith was determined to make her resume so impressive that “they couldn’t say no.”

Harris said she has seen that before with so many women. “To me, as a woman, sometimes you overcompensate to show: ‘I am here. I am qualified. I am an equal.’”

For Smith, it took some effort to get people to notice her and consider hiring her.

Before getting the Red Sox job, she said, she reached out to more than 100 Division I college coaches and got responses from 26 of them. Only one offered her a position, she said, and he didn’t offer to pay her enough to justify the move.

She applied to 30 to 40 college baseball operations positions, getting only three interviews and no offers. Circling back to those jobs, she noted that only one went to a woman, and about 95% went to white men.

“I’m perfectly aware that, at least on the college level, I am more qualified than the majority of coaches getting hired,” she said. “As a Black person, I don’t feel like I face the discrimination in sports that I do as a woman.”

Even when she walks out of a dugout wearing a team uniform, she has faced questions like: Which player are you dating? Which one is your son? Are you coaching girls’ baseball?

When Smith got the Red Sox job, Alyssa Nakken, who last year became the first full-time female coach in MLB, invited her to a group chat with other women who work full time in professional baseball. Smith was surprised to find dozens of supporters welcoming her into their small but growing club.

The group chat lit up recently, Smith said, when the New York Mets faced a series of sexual harassment cases, with members applauding the women who reported the abuse.

“I think things will change as more women come into the sport and more feel comfortable about speaking up,” Smith said. “But men are still the majority. They are the ones who still hold the power.”

In the clubhouse, Smith said, the only time she thinks of herself as a woman in baseball is when she is looking for a bathroom or when the coach needs to get her a uniform that fits a 5-foot-tall woman.

“There are going to be players who are uncomfortable with me, and I might not connect with everyone, but as long as they still get the help that they need, that’s fine,” she said. “I’ll just give them space.”

Thanks, mom

Smith didn’t realize she was the first Black female coach in professional baseball until her sister, Rachel, figured it out through an internet search.

Bianca Smith, who in middle school started wearing a headband with Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 on it, said her mother “would have been ecstatic.” Smith was proud to say the Red Sox are on the forefront of history now after being the last MLB team to integrate, which they did in 1959, 12 years after Robinson broke the color barrier.

Her stepfather, Bob Patterson, then startled her with the question, “Have you gotten any death threats yet?” It hadn’t occurred to her that some people might be upset about a Black woman in the sport. But Cannon, her stepbrother, received death threats and racist comments in the summer after he criticized fans who booed players for kneeling during the national anthem at an FC Dallas game. Seeing this, Smith’s stepfather wanted her to be ready for anything.

Smith, though, isn’t about to let anything distract her from reaching her goal to be a major league manager. Her quest never leaves her mind for long.

Example: In 2018 she went to her first baseball game at Yankee Stadium, on Mother’s Day. As a fan, she soaked in the atmosphere. The raucous cheers. The resounding organ music. The smell of hot dogs and beer.

She recalled thinking: “‘Miss you so much, Mom. Thanks for bringing me into the fandom.’”

But when the umpire shouted “Play ball!” her mind snapped back to work.

“I definitely recognized how important the moment was for me,” Smith said. “But then I was focused on the game.”

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