Katie Lortie was drawn to baseball.
She grew up in a big sports family, surrounded by baseball players and diehard fans. And when she went to college for athletic training, she ended up working with baseball teams at every clinical rotation.
The more she learned about the sport, the more she fell in love.
“I call it an underdog sport because everyone thinks it's so easy when it's not,” Lortie said. “The injuries are complex. The skills are complex. It's a lot of training. It's a lot of work. It's very meticulous. And I just felt like it was so interesting to me.”
Now with the Twins’ Double-A Wichita affiliate, Lortie is one of about 50 female athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and physical therapists assigned to a Minor League club. That number that has taken off in recent years.
Theresa Lau, an assistant athletic trainer and physical therapist for the Brewers, flashes back with ease to her first year in 2017, when she served in the same role for the Rookie-level Red Sox.
“I had to change in the manager's office; my locker was in with the other male athletic trainers’,” she recalled. “And when I would go into work every day, I would tell one of the other athletic trainers like ‘Hey, can you grab my polo and my shoes?’ And then they would come and bring it out for me.
“Now we have a female locker that we're already outgrowing, so we’re building another one here at this Brewers complex.”
Lau is one of two women athletic trainers currently in the Majors, alongside Junko Yazawa of the D-backs. But there are more women in the fields of strength and conditioning and physical and massage therapy.
For many years, athletic training college programs have been female-driven, if not an even split, but that hasn’t fully translated to professional positions.
“We bring different perspectives as women to some of those conversations that are had with coaches and with front-office staff,” said Taylor Carpenter, an assistant athletic trainer for Triple-A St. Paul. “And I think overall, it's just an exposure to different points of view and different perceptions of what may be going on with an athlete or what may be going on with some sort of policy or procedure that we may be discussing.”
While Jennifer Bardales was getting her Master’s in athletic training at the University of Houston, most of her class was women. The Single-A Fayetteville strength coach went into the field in part because she grew up a sports fan with her dad and she had an interest in medicine. The Houston native also admired the trainers she worked with as an athlete. Now she gets to do the same for the players she goes through the organization with.
“We build this relationship with every single person that we see, for the most part,” Bardales said. “It's awesome to see them also grow through the system and have a team grow with you as you're moving forward.”
Over time, athletic trainers get promoted to a different level of an affiliate, just like players. Though as Carpenter notes, it’s not linear in the way it is for players, especially given the low turnover rate at the Major League level. The assistant athletic trainer might be one level away from The Show while with the Saints, but she could be moved back to Double-A next year based on staffing needs. But this year, Carpenter's getting a taste of the expectations and demands that come at the Minors’ highest level.
“I had known I wanted to work in athletics,” she said. “Athletic training checked those boxes for me able to work with high-caliber athletes and take care of them when they are sometimes -- some would say -- at their lowest point in their career, injury-wise.”
Along with being able to help people, Lortie really appreciates connecting with players from other cultures, especially when she worked with predominantly Latin American prospects during her time in the Astros' and Twins' Florida complexes.
Every time Lortie walks into a clubhouse or space that has historically been a male-dominated environment, she remembers her dad saying, “respect is earned,” a philosophy she believes all should follow, not just women.
“I never feel like I need to walk into a room, and it's demanded or I should have it already, like no chance,” she said. “I want to make sure that I do everything I can to earn their respect. I do that with how I work and how I do my job and how I carry myself.”
Lortie said she’s never had an issue with players, even going as far to say some prospects seem more comfortable with a woman present. And while she has had issues working with some staff members, she’s seen progress in her two years of pro ball experience. Lau adds that while some players worried about things like cursing in front of her, they eventually got comfortable.
On top of the added obstacles for women, retention rates for all trainers are not the highest, according to Lau, due to demanding schedules, travel and oftentimes yearly relocations. She’s also noticed applications from students decreasing, potentially due to career changes during the pandemic.
Twins ownership wanted to take an extra step to help players with their care, so every Minor League affiliate has two full-time trainers. And this setup has the added benefit of combating fatigue for the trainers as well.
“It helps with the quality of treatment that athletes are receiving, and it helps with that work/life balance; helps prevent burnout,” said Carpenter. “Essentially, it helps to have someone there with you to lean on when you may be struggling, just with the intensity of our job demand. But then also if you're struggling on treatment ideas with an athlete, it's nice to have someone there with you to bounce ideas off of.”
Following years of women in entry-level positions, more women are being hired for leadership roles than ever, both in the Minor League front offices and on the field. For the first time, there are two woman managers in Single-A Tampa’s Rachel Balkovec and High-A Hillsboro’s Ronnie Gajownik.
“It's been a tough journey with obstacles, but it's also been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding parts of my life as well,” Lortie said. “So, I wouldn't trade those obstacles for anything, especially as a female because I think it's part of what has made me who I am today, and how I do my job.
“Minor League life is a grind, but every experience just grows my love for this sport and profession.”
Kelsie Heneghan is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.